All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America
Suzanna Danuta Walters
Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
$30.00, 344 pages, ISBN 0226872319.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Suzanna Danuta Walters is associate professor of sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Georgetown University. In 1995, she gave us the splendid Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory. The cover features a picture of Marlene Dietrich in her “signature costume of top hat and tails”, as Marjorie Garber has it. Garber continues, in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992): “The costume that signifies cross-dressing not only for her, in her own subsequent films and performances, but also for the legions of female impersonators who have since ‘done Dietrich’ in drag, made its first appearance in a film called Morocco.” Obviously the choice of that Dietrich illustration, along with the eight pages where the icon is discussed, signifies a great deal. We know before we even open the book what kind of feminism Walters endorses: if not exactly the “drag queen feminism” of Camille Paglia, then at least something equally open-minded and in tune with the politics of cross-dressing and lesbian semiotics. It is the feminism that finds some embodiment in the priceless first cabaret scene of Morocco. The title of the book itself speaks volumes. Any academic who takes the name of a Madonna song, adds an S to it and decides to make it the title of her scholarly book can come to my place for coffee any day. That choice means Walters is no Dworkin or MacKinnon; she’s no Faludi either. That choice means she identifies (with) the feminist politics of Madonna, and knows a feminist text in pop when she sees one, as she proves with her various chapters: “On outlaw women and single mothers”, “From images of women to woman as image”, visual pressures: on gender and looking”, “Positioning Women: gender, narrative, genre”, “You looking at me? Seeing beyond the gaze”, “Postfeminism and popular culture: a case study of the backlash”, and “Material Girls; toward a feminist cultural theory”. The playful allusions to Mulvey are equally significant. Walters, like any Cultural Studies scholar, constantly deals with clichés and stereotypes. But unlike some, she knows when to question accepted methods:

The widely divergent opinions of Madonna among feminists, who alternately condemn her as a negative and sexualized role model for young girls and celebrate her as a powerful and self-directed symbol of active female desire, should point to the limitations of an analysis that rigidly defines images by a previously constructed code of stereotypes (p. 46).

In 1992, Walters had published the important, though less entertaining Lives Together / Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture. Now she is in the news again with All the Rage. Hers is a perfectly coherent research path. Already in Material Girls she was addressing lesbian and gay culture, as well as lesbian and gay politics, in more ways than one. The title is a bit misleading, as there isn’t that much rage in the book, either on Walters’s part or on the part of the lesbian and gay militants she quotes. The subtitle, The Story of Gay Visibility in America, is on the other hand very appropriate: Walters describes “the explosion of gay visibility”, as opposed to detailing, say, the invisibility of lesbians and gays before 1969 and Stonewall. I suppose the only problem with this subtitle is that nowadays, in these (sometimes hysterically) politically correct times, “gay” tends not to refer to female and male homosexuals any more, but rather to male homosexuals only. Walters is occasionally compelled to indulge in such “archaisms” just so as to avoid clumsy sentences. Of course, the most risk-free phrase is “LGBT”, which Walters uses now and again.

Walters is perfectly aware, as an out lesbian, of the vast divergences of opinion that establish distinct sub-groups within the gay community (naturally, “gay community” is in itself a highly debatable notion). Some lesbians and gays want “health and happiness, a good job, a loving spouse, and more and more to be moms and dads, raising kids, going to the Little League games and the PTA” (p. 76). Others are more radical, and just want to say f*** to the heteronormative dominant culture. Walters sums it up: “In many ways, the splits are ones that are familiar to anyone involved in social movements; assimilationism vs. separatism, accommodation vs. confrontation, gradualism and reformism vs. revolution and radicalism.” (p. 54) However, and it is to be regretted, at times she throws caution to the wind, and forgets that there is no such thing as a single gay and / or lesbian identity. Indeed she slips severely when, for instance, discussing a much publicized episode of the sitcom Roseanne, she writes: “We are gladdened by the airing of the Roseanne episode, but saddened too as it brings home to us, once again, our own marginalization within American society.” (p. 71) So who’s “we”? Who’s “us”? It is not the academic “we”, as Walters uses the first person singular. I am quite certain a great many lesbians and gays were not particularly “gladdened” by the Roseanne show. Indeed, there might even be half a dozen of them on American soil who did not watch it and do not even know who Roseanne is.

I am being malicious, as I know Walters is right to start with the premise that popular culture is particularly enjoyed and monitored by LGBT people. There are all sorts of historical / sociological / political reasons for that. I subscribe to every word she writes about Dynasty, a soap she has closely studied. I myself would have made more of the Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter character (Joan Collins), though.

If the Reagan years were harsh for gays, Dynasty’s camp send-ups of ostentatious wealth and the outrageousness of bitch-extraordinaire Alexis made the series a staple of gay iconography, even as the actually gay character was hardly a role model of self-acceptance and pride.

In the same way, Walters looks at Melrose Place, The Simpsons, Will & Grace, etc. She is never naïve, neither too optimistic not too pessimistic. “Like the white suburban kids who buy rap CDs aren’t necessarily anti-racist, the heterosexuals who laugh at Will & Grace may dig the aesthetic but avoid the implications”. She devotes an entire chapter to Ellen, which was to be expected, considering the earthquake Ellen’s coming-out triggered in the States. But she does not only look at TV fiction, she also examines other TV programs, films, the way lesbian and gay employees are treated by big corporations (benefits for partners, etc.). She addresses gay and lesbian marriages, gay and lesbian parenting, the evolution of federal and local legislation, and so forth. Besides, she tackles the highly suspicious notion of “pink dollars”, looking at “consuming queers” or “gay entrepreneurship. Her conclusion, entitled “Beyond visibility (welcome to our rainbow world)”, does not only provide a highly appropriate I-just-can’t-get-enough allusion to Dorothy’s Oz, it rightly states that vigilance is in order: what is going to happen now? “Ending this book seems almost impossible, because every day brings new news, new headlines, new movies, new images, new controversies.”