Harvey Weinstein and The End of Queer Theory
Though we have no reason to believe Harvey Weinstein ever directed his lust toward other males, he was the epitome of queerness. In all his luxurious depravity, Harvey Weinstein did exactly what queer theory expected queerness to do.
When the idea of queer theory emerged in the early 1990s, articulated by luminaries like Michael Warner,Judith Butler, and Lisa Duggan, it was a pagan uprising that crowned RuPaul and Madonna as its festival king and queen. Both were seen as transgressors in the best possible ways. On the one hand we had RuPaul’s “appropriation” (back then, a good word) of white supermodel culture in the spirit of black “contestation” of the white male patriarchy. On the other hand we had Madonna’s “deconstruction” of gender hierarchies, a thrilling new defiance of sexual limits that combined the profits to be earned by prurient boys and the plaudits of feminist, proto-feminist, and post-feminist writers ranging from Camille Paglia to the emerging women in the hot new field of the post-Frankfurt Birmingham School’s Cultural Studies.
I was there. I was completely part of queer theory, drifting from the Ivy League into the catacombs of New York City with my flimsy BA in Political Science. Nursed on Foucault but taught to apply his culturally archaeological approaches with ironic detachment, we were primed to view anything naughty as inherently revolutionary. In an increasingly dumbed-down translation of high French theory to American pop culture, we emerged from the 1990s assuming that the more behavior scandalized or disconcerted people, the better it was. Our a priori was an encrusted and sterile world stuck in a rut, needing to be jolted into a more dynamic set of possibilities by a brave erotic Kulturkampf.
“Queer” was the alternative to “gay.” “Queer” was against institutional power, against assimilation, against the dull conformities of soon-to-debut Will and Grace. Queerness shunned anything as dreadfully bourgeois and banal as gay marriage (which many in the early queer movement vehemently opposed). Queer men rose to assume the lead in the sexual revolution at this point, because they could challenge every boundary and trample any decorum without oppressing women. (Or so we thought at the time—this was before gay male couples started looking at their female friends as ovens in which to bake their babies through surrogacy contracts).
Before I got cancer in 1998, I was an embarrassingly naïve devotee of queer theory and queer culture. I thought promiscuity liberated the democratic spirit. To me it was an act of countercultural defiance to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Caribbean by attending a homosexual orgy with a mock auction of naked Puerto Rican and Dominican slaves. Madonna’s book Sex had just come out, eroticizing sadomasochism and bestializing sex in ways that would likely get her banned from many college campuses today.
Subscribing to a hermeneutical “endless deferral of meaning,” we deconstructed everything from Christianity to capitalism. We aspiring intellectuals/writers of the early 1990s claimed that queerness would redefine all of these “paradigms.” As queers we surely embodied the highest ideal of any value system by engaging in wanton lewdness, infecting each other with ghastly venereal diseases, and ritually humiliating each other for money in underground sex dungeons. I remember once musing with a gay roommate in New York City that pubic lice were only a nuisance if you allowed the dominant heuristic of the body to denaturalize the porous boundaries between us and the world around us. We quoted Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands so that would make sense.
The wasteland of the 1990s was the quintessential “swamp” we hear so much about now, a nihilism posing as idealism and corruption sold as healthy catharsis. Bill Clinton was president and Harvey Weinstein’s films were at their acme. Miramax’s Crying Game (1992) stands as a pivotal film for rendering transgenderism chic and somehow racially subversive. But two years later came a huge Weinstein watershed.
Starring a rebranded and recycled John Travolta, Pulp Fiction cast 1994 as a golden age of whatever era queer theory was seeking to represent. For two years I worked in Nickelodeon, the richest of the three properties of MTV Networks, far outpacing MTV and VH-1 in revenue back then. We were swimming in endless money because we were selling racy cartoons like Angry Beavers and Rugrats to middle-class homes across America. In those homes the future college fascists were still toddlers. Their parents had no idea how utterly depraved the faceless staffers were, behind their cutely branded shows about “kids” being “empowered” and “connecting to their world.” The heartland sent us their revenue and we had “upfront” events full of pansexual decadence; media buyers flew into town and the gay boys of the company were all expected to do our part to show them a good time. We were “deterritorializing” stereotypical sex roles in some Deleuzian style by letting our employers treat us like airheaded women.
Mrs. Doubtfire, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, and Birdcage were slowly normalizing cross-dressing and setting the stage for trans to become the ascendant letter in the LGBT acronym. When I developed a tumor in late 1997, I believe God showed His ultimate mercy on me. I was on a sales trip to São Paulo, selling this madness to Brazilian affiliates, when I noticed a hardened lump and knew something was wrong. God called me out of that civilized wilderness. For on the surgical table, on January 2, 1998, when the anesthesia was miscalculated in a Bronx ambulatory clinic, I suddenly experienced pure physical pain. They were cutting something out of my body and I had no drugs, distractions, or postmodern delusions to deny what was happening to me. Something about that experience gave me a terrifying clarity about the world in which I lived. I was 27. Not soon after, I had to face the scary truth that I was not gay and wanted, more than anything else, to live the rest of my life in a chaste relationship with a woman I’d fallen in love with.
I’ve written reams of fiction about that time period. Perhaps one day it will be published. When I tried to get some of it out into the public domain, it felt necessary to take it off the market quickly. The dawn of queer theory was a time period that seemed to exist in its own nauseating bubble. It was such an ugly period that to narrate it now would be to violate the humanity of anyone who might read the extent of it. It is not as if the LGBT community wants to tell the truth about the 1990s as a key part of gay history. The gay movement itself went corporate and turned into a Washington lobby full of lawyers and paid consultants; new drugs came out and people forgot that AIDS was even a fatal disease. Once Barack Obama had gay activists from the Human Rights Campaign on speed dial and he opted to go to Palm Springs after leaving office, it became impossible to argue that queer culture was poised against the state. It was the state.
Surrounded by people for whom the 1990s was a dimly understood biographical influence, poor Harvey Weinstein did not get the memo. Perhaps because he was not gay, he did not understand that people were not trying to be queer anymore. He still conducted business in a bathrobe, masturbated in front of women he just met, and treated sexual abandon like membership dues in a bygone revolutionary cult. He stayed queer in a culture that had tried sexual bulimia but had decided to switch to sexual anorexia. In a world full of unsexed waifs he was the perverted heavy-breathing fat guy.
Queer theory is dead. Whatever it was trying to do, it failed to do. Though I will anger many by saying this, I stand by it: Harvey Weinstein was queer theory’s last ritual sacrifice. He was a scapegoat for a sexual revolution that had as its solitary goal the creation of Harvey Weinstein or something exactly like him with a different name. Of course he was at the top of a deformed Chain of Being, a small god in a Canaanite world of Asherah poles and male prostitutes and child sacrifice. There was a time when queer theory was defensible, even reasonable. And Harvey Weinstein followed every instruction queer theory handed down to him. He engaged in a Kulturkampf. He deconstructed everything and detached symbols and meaning from acts and the physically real. He defied every sexual limit in the hope of achieving an escape from the confines of a repressive, late-capitalist patriarchy.
And he was utterly repulsive. With a few exceptions, he made predictable mass-marketed popular art. He hurt people, though I would refrain from taking every accusation against Harvey Weinstein at face value. As someone who was briefly immersed in the 1990s world of entertainment, I find good reason to doubt that all these women who cry foul now were completely ignorant of, and unwillingly recruited into, the dangerous games Harvey Weinstein played. I knew the rules of the game when I worked in TV, and I was a clueless twentysomething from Buffalo.
If all goes well, America will understand that he came from a deconstructed culture and was a deconstructed being. You see, he was not a man but a Foucauldian “author-function” at once illustrating and implementing the cultural transformations concocted by a host of French philosophers who have now passed away. Those specters known as Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and Deleuze broke down this world into meaningless word games. But now they live in an eternal world where we all face God’s unchanging Word, for once and for all.
As for Harvey Weinstein, he was queer too late but was lucky not to die yet. Many of the people seduced into the postmodern abyss of the 1990s did not get the chance Weinstein has—the opportunity to awaken from his bad dream (as I did, when I got cancer). And if he can see what he did wrong, pay his dues to the society he harmed, and change, he may yet be a transformative figure.
I wish we would take this window of opportunity and boycott Hollywood. All of Hollywood. I think every conservative who’s horrified by Harvey Weinstein should plan ways to start a center of entertainment production in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We talk about “taking back the culture” but we never seem to do it. Let’s stop sending our money to the decrepit and unsalvageable cultural nadirs in Los Angeles and New York City, and launch something wholesome and new.
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