In this essay I will be looking at the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler seeing how their work has influence queerness. I will start the essay by looking at the man, Michel Foucault, followed by studying his work on sexuality and homosexuality. I will then look at Judith Butler and her work on gender performances. I will also be giving contemporary examples of homosexuals in the modern day by looking at three different homosexual television presenters to show how the construction of homosexual figures has taken place in recent years. I will also be looking at how gender performances take place in these examples of homosexuals.
Michel Foucault – The Background
Michel Foucault was born in France in 1926. He was known as a philosopher, sociologist and a historian. In all three of these areas he was very influential, pioneering many different concepts that helped revolutionise their certain fields. Foucault continues to be one of the most important figures in critical theory.
Foucault is best known for his critical studies on social institutions such as the prison system, medicine, the human sciences and for his work on the history of human sexuality which I will be discussing later.
His theories have been largely concerned with the concepts of power and the relationship among power, knowledge and discourse, and “his influence is clear in a great deal of post-structuralism, post-modernist, feminist, post-Marxist and post-colonial theorising” (Mills 2003).
Foucault suffered from depression and attempted suicide on many different occasions. This could be as Mills says due to the great difficulty at the time about being openly homosexual, but it does suggest that “his pronounced interest in psychology stemmed from elements in his own life” (Eribon 1991: 27).
All though Foucault died of AIDS in 1984, his ideas have and still cause much debate. His ideas have never been simply accommodated by theorists around the world. This is due to the ‘iconoclastic and challenging nature of Foucault’s theoretical work’ (Mills 2003).
Michel Foucault – The History of Sexuality
During Foucault’s life, he wrote three volumes of The History of Sexuality. In this essay I will be focusing on his ideas on sexuality and society.
The first Volume of Michel Foucault’s book History of Sexuality was published in 1978, which was written near the end of a period of time called the ‘sexual revolution’ in the western culture (Spargo 1999). The sexual revolution was a time where people’s thoughts and opinions shifted in regards to how they viewed sexuality throughout the western world.
The book presents a powerful counter narrative to the established story about “Victorian sexual repression giving way to progressive liberation and enlightenment in the 20th century” (Spargo 1999).
For example, Foucault describes how in the 17th century onwards sexuality was hidden from view. People were subjected to a power of repression. But as Spargo describes, this all changed in the 20th century.
“Sexuality was still there, simmering under the prim surface of 19th century bourgeois respectability, but it was stifled by prohibitions and repressions. Until, that is, it, and we, were liberated in the age of the mini-skirt and the analyst, revealing our legs and our innermost desires, bringing it all out into the open” (Spargo 1999).
This was easier for some but not quite as easy for others. Some struggled with the free expression they were able to give to their sexual desires. People turned to therapists and counsellors to help gain freedom for the years of prohibitions. Did this mean that sexuality was always waiting for us to free it?
In Foucault’s opinion no. His view was that sexuality wasn’t waiting to be freed or repressed but rather sexuality was and is produced in culture and society.
“Foucault rejected this repression hypothesis and claimed evidence pointed not to a prohibition on speaking about sexuality but to a remarkable proliferation of discourses about sexuality” (Spargo 1999). He didn’t want people to assume that the repression from the 17th-19th century was effective. He believed that the repression increased the desire of people to express and discuss their sexuality in ways which were seen as violating the taboos of society.
“If sex is repressed, that is condemned to prohibition, non-existence and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language upsets established law and he/she somehow anticipates the coming freedom” (Foucault 1986).
He didn’t believe that sexuality was natural or a normal aspect of life but rather a construction of experiences which has historical, social and cultural beginnings.
As I have already discussed Foucault described how the process of restriction had created an increased excitement about sexuality, but he believed that the effect of the repressive discourse seemingly encouraged perverse forms of sexuality and made them more attractive types of behaviour.
The construction of homosexuality was one of Foucault’s most thought provoking assertions. He believed that the category of homosexuality was created out of a particular context in the 1870’s and that it should be viewed as a form of knowledge rather than a discovered identity. Foucault wasn’t saying that same sex practises weren’t accruing before the 19th century but, during this time it was seen as shameful rather than in the 19th century where people embraced same sex relationships and the term ‘homosexual’.
Foucault said, “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was seen as being totally suffused with sexuality” (Foucault 1978).
Since the construction of homosexuality in the 19th century, there has been an explosion of homosexual figures in the 20th century. The media have seemed to of caught the homosexual vibe with television in particular employing homosexuals to present different programmes. These programmes which are hosted by homosexuals are often quite particular programme genres. For example, you would often see a homosexual presenter on entertainment, pop culture and lifestyle programmes rather than documentaries, political shows, or on the news.
This shows us that homosexuals are possibly seen as a joke, people who make us laugh by there actions, stories or vulgarity and possibly lack the intelligence or the seriousness to host programmes that require composure and a serious minded attitude towards the subject at hand.
Here are three contemporary examples of homosexual TV presenters.
The first is guy a called Alan Carr. He has worked on some of the biggest television programmes in the 20th century such as, ‘Friday Night Project’, ‘Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong’ and ‘Alan Carr Chatty Man’. Carr is famous for being camp, over the top and having a very unusual laugh that can’t help but make you laugh. Despite being openly gay he doesn’t consider his sexuality to be a focal part of his act. “What am I meant to do? Do I go down the Julian Clary route and talk about fisting and poppers? I don’t talk about being gay and I think what better equality for gays than that?” (Observer online 2008).
Unlike many performers, Carr shies away from unnecessary cruelty, instead relying on his own authenticity to win over his audience. His on-stage persona is simply an extension of his own and therein lies the source of both his charm and his talent.
Philosopher, Judith Butler who I will be speaking about later believes that we all put on gender performances and that gender, like sexuality, isn’t a vital truth that has come from the body’s materiality but rather a regulatory fiction.
The second man is called Dale Winton. Winton has been on television since 1987 and has feature in many different types of television programmes. He is most famous for a programme called ‘Supermarket Sweep’ which ran from 1993-2001. He was seen as the typical homosexual television presenter, very camp and over the top which is very much a trend in homosexual television hosts. During his time he was iconic for being overtly camp, tanned and often touchy feely with his guests, but he was never as he says a ‘banner waving gay’.
“I’m not a banner-waving gay guy, because I actually don’t believe it’s important. People never say ‘vehement heterosexual Michael Parkinson’, but it will say ‘camp gay entertainer Graham Norton’, or ‘Dale Winton’ since I’ve officially come out.” (Times online 2008)
The third and final television presenter I will be looking at is Graham Norton. He is arguably one of the most well known television presenters in recent years. Again he has many of the homosexual traits and he describes himself on the channel 4 website as a ‘shiny Irish proof’.
It does not take long to work out that his sexuality has played a large part in his appeal and success. His exceedingly camp style gives him the licence to be exceedingly rude without being offensive, and his quick wit, put-downs and one-liners have made him a homosexual icon.
‘He has been criticised for being too camp and taking the gay stereotype to an extreme. Some gay men have said he is reinforcing the idea that a gay TV star has to be over-the-top and in the mould of like Kenneth Williams or Frankie Howerd’. (BBC website, 2001)
All three of these television presenters are examples of the 20th century homosexual. They all share similar traits such as the in your face campness, being over the top and also being ‘drama queens’. The ‘homosexual’ has grown and changed over time since its creation in the 19th century and will continue to change as time goes on.
Foucault work on the analysis of sexuality has helped in challenging the preconceived ideas of sexual characteristics.
He argues that his study wasn’t designed to be a history of sexual behaviours nor a history of representation, but a history of sexuality.
The theorist most prominently associated with queerness and queer theory is American post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler.
Butler followed the work of Michel Foucault and used his work so she could investigate models of gender and heterosexuality.
Butler argues that gender, like sexuality, isn’t a vital truth that has come from the body’s materiality but rather a regulatory fiction.
“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990, p. 33)
Butler argues that the sex you are i.e. Male or female is seen to cause a gender type i.e. masculine or feminine which is then seen to create a desire towards the other gender. This is seen as a continuous series that is constantly reproducing itself.
Inspired by Foucault, Butlers approach is to destroy the links between that series so desire and gender are allowed to be flexible and not made to be steady factors.
Butler argues that we all put on gender performances, and she says it’s not a question of whether this will take place, but in what form will this performance take. She believes that by choosing to be different, we might be able to change gender norms and the understanding of masculinity and femininity.
Butler says: ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.’ (Butler 1990, p.25).
In other words, gender is a performance; it’s what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.
This approach of gender is very similar to that of sexuality. Butler, Foucault and Queer theory all believe that your identity is not fixed but constructed at certain times or in certain situations. Foucault argued that sexuality was produced which overlaps on what Butler says about gender being performed/produced.
This idea of identity as free floating and not connected to a real meaning but rather a performance, is one of the key ideas in the creation of queer theory
Modern day examples of Butler’s theory regarding gender performances are clear to see. The three examples of homosexual figures in television are examples of what Butler calls gender performances.
All three of the television presenters that I have mention Alan Carr, Dale Winton and Graham Norton have created a performance of their gender at particular times. All three man perform their gender in different ways with Alan Carr using his over the top campness as a way of engaging with the audience, Dale Winton using his touchy feely sensual approach to his audience and Graham Norton using his homosexuality as a way of making jokes and putting others down without any consequences. The way in which all three act is a performance of some kind to either feel accepted or to gain a reaction from their audiences.
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In this essay I have looked at the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, both of who have influenced the work of queerness in different ways. I have looked at Foucault’s work on the repression in the Victorian age and his work on homosexuality. I also looked at the modern day explosion of homosexuals on TV using the examples of three different TV presenters.
I then went on to study Judith Butler’s work which was influenced by Foucault on gender performances. I discussed how Butler believed that we all go through gender performances but that it isn’t who we are, rather a time to time experience. On the back of this I took the example of the three homosexual television presenters and linked their characters to gender performances.
Both these theorists have looked at themes in sexuality, gender and society, with some of there ideas overlapping, with both Foucault and Butler looking at sexuality and gender as constructed and performed by individuals. Foucault also looked at the construction of the homosexual figure and I have taken his work on further by looking at the characteristics of the homosexual figure as exemplified by modern day TV presenters.
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