David on Coon, 'Turning the Page: Storytelling as Activism in Queer Film and Media'

Author: 
David R. Coon
Reviewer: 
Bryan David

David R. Coon. Turning the Page: Storytelling as Activism in Queer Film and Media. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 224 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-9369-2.

Reviewed by Bryan David (University of Nevada- Reno) Published on Jhistory (April, 2020) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52933 

David R. Coon’s Turning the Page explores the recent histories of American queer film and television. He argues that, considering the proliferation of film and television within the past few decades, it is important to understand the power of representation in visual media. He outlines a brief history of the various negative depictions of queerness in film and television in order to position the subjects of his text as activists writing back against damaging stereotypes. Coon also situates these contemporary visual media makers within the broader history of queer activism in the mid- and late twentieth century to underscore the ongoing and ever-evolving nature of their work. Doing so illustrates how activists have had to adapt to changes in both public and professional opinions of queerness and to the spaces of those debates. Tracing these histories of queer media activism and LGBTQ activism more broadly also unveils how both have been and continue to be rife with tensions between various groups with often diverging goals and methods.

Coon relies on a vast array of secondary sources throughout his text. He brings together scholarship from numerous fields—namely history and media studies—and creates a clear and concise work of synthesis. Each chapter focuses on a particular space within the television and film media landscape. His chapter on the television program In the Life (1992-2012), for example, discusses the public television network and the internet archive as spaces for inserting LGBTQ voices and perspectives into public discourses on sexuality. By synthesizing secondary scholarship from the likes of Stella Bruzzi and Bill Nichols, Coon provides readers with a number of theoretical and methodological frameworks for analyzing the documentary genre and these media spaces as sites of knowledge production. By including interviews with members of In the Life Media, he demonstrates how they navigated some of the constraints and challenges of producing LGBTQ content for public television like PBS and for cataloguing it in the digital world. His brief summaries of episode content similarly reveal how In the Life exposed viewers to a diverse range of queer perspectives, although he is quick to highlight the relative lack of transgender individuals or “depictions of radical sexuality” throughout the show’s duration (p. 61).

Coon’s fourth chapter is a stand-out, and it demonstrates his command over scholarly debates about film screening and festival locations as fruitful sites of study for LGBTQ advocacy and activism. In his previous chapters, he discusses media spectatorship as a practice that develops a primarily imagined community, borrowing from Benedict Anderson’s work on print culture and national identity. In other words, Coon argues that as they combated damaging stereotypes of queer sexualities, queer film and television allowed viewers to imagine themselves as part of a broader queer world and community without necessitating that they meet or know any other queer individuals in person. His fourth chapter illustrates how film festivals like TWIST and Translations create physical meeting spaces for LGBTQ individuals to convene and form community that is slightly more concrete than the imagined community. As with previous chapters, Coon analyzes these queer film festivals using a synthesis of frameworks and methods from other scholars, demonstrating how, unlike more well-known festivals like Cannes and Sundance, queer film festivals are “audience festivals” that foreground queer voices, perspectives, aesthetics, and sensibilities (p. 117). He complicates this division between the queer “audience festival” and the larger “business festivals” by drawing on the work of Ger Zielinski and Skadi Loist, which argues that queer films are becoming more palatable and marketable, and less subversive and radical (p. 119).

Such an emphasis on synthesis is not without its drawbacks, however, as throughout the text, Coon leaves some arguments and aspects of his chapters underdeveloped. In chapter 1, he summarizes a few decades' worth of queer and social movements history in under twenty pages. The resulting history is a well-worn one at this point, charting the growth of the homophile movement from the mid-century until Stonewall, which begets the gay liberation movement, which is followed by the AIDS crisis and the ensuing re-emphasis on an agenda of integrationist liberal politics during the 1990s. Coon also states that there lies a tension central to “the entire history of LGBTQ organizing” between liberationist and assimilationist methods and strategies—a tension which he follows through to the organizations in his study (p. 24). Unfortunately, Coon’s condensed version of LGBTQ social movements affects his later arguments about whether groups or studios like Killer Films or POWER UP are more radical or liberal. By grounding his assessments of more contemporary organizations in an abridged version of social movement methods and history, some of his conclusions are inevitably more compelling and convincing than others. It must be stated, though, that Coon is forthcoming about providing readers with a somewhat truncated version of queer movement history. Likewise, the resulting history, while necessarily simple, is a serviceable one, and Coon’s bibliography is helpful for pointing interested readers toward other scholarship with more extensive LGBTQ movement histories.    

As mentioned above, Coon includes accounts and perspectives from various members of the organizations under study. His notes include references to interviews with people like In the Life series producer Jacqueline Gares and Three Dollar Bill Cinema executive director Jason Plourde, but it seems as though Coon only conducted one interview per person for his research (p. 198n1). And thus there are moments throughout the text where his use of these interviews as primary sources results in little more than a few surface-level comments about the goals and aspirations of those involved with the various projects. Coon explains that his method of incorporating interviews with textual analyses and other secondary sources “provides a more complete picture of the relationship between queer storytelling and LGBTQ social justice efforts” (p. 3) by highlighting the collaborative nature of queer storytelling and authorship, but Coon misses an opportunity to explore the lives of individuals in further detail. Most contemporary works on oral history methodology recommend that scholars conduct multiple interviews with their contributors in order to develop a more organic and collaborative account or narrative, but, as stated in the previous paragraph, Coon opts for a broader synthesis of primary and secondary sources over a deep dive into a particular body of primary sources.

Taken together, Coon’s Turning the Page offers readers a concise exploration of film and television as sites for LGBTQ advocacy and activism. He exposes them to a wide array of theoretical debates and methodological frameworks in the fields of queer history and media studies. He demonstrates how they are increasingly formative to the queer experience as sites of community building and knowledge production. Turning the Page includes an appendix of LGBTQ film festivals and archives, which, alongside Coon’s bibliography of secondary sources, serves as a useful point of reference for readers interested in film and television studies or LGBTQ history and queer studies. Above all, Coon compels readers to consider the radical, democratizing potentialities of film, television, and other forms of visual media in representing queer experiences and perspectives.

Citation: Bryan David. Review of Coon, David R., Turning the Page: Storytelling as Activism in Queer Film and Media. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52933

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