9, No. 2, May 2008
Gay Identities, and the Commodification of Knowledgable
by Michael J. Yaksich
Portrayals of gay men as pioneers of fashion illustrate the
role of consumer capitalism in the shaping of social identities
(Hennessy, 1994; Valocchi, 1999; Chasin, 2000; Gross, 2001; Walters,
2001; Sender, 2004; Gamson, 2005). As a gay man, it is difficult
to escape from being associated with ‘knowing how’ to
shop. Answering questions ranging from correct wood finishings
for kitchen cabinets, to ‘the perfect’ outfit to
wear to a party have somehow become a regular part of my everyday
interactions with friends. So when did I, or any other gay male,
transform into a shopping expert? The assumption that my subjectivity
as a gay individual is tied not only to consumption, but knowing
how to properly consume, raises questions around the relationship
between consumer capitalism and homosexuality. Why
are contemporary gay identities associated with consumption?
What has contributed to the formation and maintenance of this
relationship? To explore these questions, I briefly examine several
ways gay have utilized goods in commercial and political life
to address the structuring role of consumer capitalism in the
production of modern, stylized gay identities.
I argue that the collective social, cultural, and political
practices of gays in the United States are dialectically linked
to the creation of a consumer archetype utilized by marketing
and mass media to encourage spending. In doing so, I build upon
theoretical conceptions of the consumer by addressing how contemporary
consumer experiences are becoming increasingly commodified and
marketed as ‘knowledgeable’.
Although there are a number of approaches that view consumption critically (Frank,
1999; Schor 1999; Ritzer, 2004; 2008) many scholars view consumption as a positive
force that allows individuals to actively engage and shape social life (Lipovetsky,
1987; Miller, 2001; Kates, 2001; 2002; Campbell, 2005). This view of consumption
allows for an analysis of various processes and meanings that consumers give
to their everyday experiences. Taking a critical orientation to theorizing the
individual some scholars reject the notion that consumers are sovereign self-motivated
actors. Instead, consumers are “not rational calculators of self-defined
desires but rather the object of rational calculation by other forces, the target
of a marking drive or advertising campaign” (Slater, 1997; p.55). What
emerges from this critical perspective is an understanding of the operation of
consumer capitalism as a structuring force within the social world.
For Gabriel and Lang (1995), consumers can be conceptualized
in various ways including the victim, citizen, rebel, activist,
identity seeker or chooser. This perspective not only demonstrates
the multiplicity of consumers in the market but also how consumption
is a social practice which, linked to economic exchange, influences
social relations. While this definition takes into account diversity
among consumers, a historical analysis of any particular group
of consumers must also take into account “the endless mutating meanings of ‘the consumer’” (Gabriel & Lang,
1995; p.6). Here consumers cannot be understood as only one variation or type,
but as socially situated individuals who take on multiple identities. Conceptualizing
the gay subject as a consumer is important because the modern standardization
of gay identities remains bound to the historical practices of gays as consumers.
My decision to focus on male homosexuality is an effort to critique the processes
that keep differences within the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT)
Drawing from sociological theories of consumption, I theorize
the gay subject as a connoisseur of consumption. I use this term to characterize
an individual who has both actual or perceived expertise in various modes of
fashionable consumption, and an image that (in)directly encourages others
to consume in a similar fashion. Fashionable consumption should not be thought
of as limited to privileged groups or classes, but as exclusive to any particular
social, cultural, or economic demographic. As a connoisseur of consumption, the
gay subject is a product of various historical processes in consumer capitalism.
Its commoditized identity is the result of an increasing stylistic homogenization
and rational standardization that is bound to consumption in an attempt to produce
an authentic form of gayness, or any other social identity, when none exists.
As an object of consumption the connoisseur of consumption is not only consumed,
but also guides consumers on issues pertaining to proper spending. For example,
characters and personalities from various contemporary TV programs including Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy, What Not to Wear, and How to Look
Good Naked serve as experts of fashion and style whose
spectacular images strengthen historical links between gays
and consumption while serving as a reference for consumers
to extract knowledge about proper home décor, cooking, fashion,
and forms of entertainment.
While a full analysis of the ways gays have historically used
consumer goods is beyond the scope of this essay, I briefly highlight
several historical examples to show how the internal use of consumer
goods by gays for identification grew to include an outward cultural
expression that coincided with the use of consumption as a tool
for political change. I use the term ‘gay’ in reference
to male homosexuals in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. This definition
should not suggest that homosexuality did not exist prior to its ‘naming’,
but that modern gay identities, like many others, are contextually bound to specific
social and historical moments.
Situating the Gay Subject
Locating the development of gay identities with the rise of capitalism,
historian John D’Emilio argues that while there have
always been same-sex sexual practices, modern gay identities
and communities were made possible by material conditions that
allowed for self expression (D’Emilio, 1983; 1992). Stemming
from economic changes during the end of the nineteenth century,
homosexual desire coalesced into a personal identity mainly
due to changes in labor that allowed workers to live independently
outside of the family unit (D’Emilio, 1998). With this
change, migration to large cities such as New York, Chicago,
and San Francisco allowed for the development of stable centers
of gay life where acceptable forms of cultural expression could
develop. By this reasoning, capitalism in the United States
made possible both gay identity and the beginning of a community
whose engagement in commercial life served as a means of identification,
cultural expression, and political activity.
In the early twentieth century, the use of consumer goods as
a form of identification by homosexuals became central to the
advancement of the subculture. While other minorities are easily
distinguishable due to physical characteristics, the increasing
homosexual minority developed methods of identification utilizing
fashion as a means of remaining unnoticeable to outsiders. Thomas
Painer, a gay male from the 1930s, described how a complex system
of “Green suits, tight-cuffed trousers, flowered bathing
trunks, and half-length flaring top-coats” were cultural
signifiers (Chauncey, 1994; p. 51) that allowed homosexuals in
the United States to identify and communicate with one another
in various public areas such as in parks and on the street.
Similarly, many gay GIs during WW II utilized consumer goods
in variety shows that headlined them as female impersonators
to cope with constant suspicion around their sexuality. Robert
Fleischer of the 473rd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion noted, “there
wasn’t a woman in the show…we made all our own costumes” complete
with dresses, make-up, wigs, and sheer stockings (Bérubé,
1990; p.67). Drag and the use of what became later known as ‘camp’,
or exaggerated form of fashion and effeminate coded language,
provided a refuge for many gay soldiers whose kept their identities
concealed for fear of being discharged from the military. In
contrast to the use of red-ties during the 1930s to attract sexual
partners, the transformation of fashion and language by gays
in the military allowed for forms of identification that centered
upon community and relationships. Thus, consumer goods were not
only used as a means of communication, but also as a cultural
code to evade hostile political, legal and religious social forces
that restricted the public declaration of homosexuality.
Turing to how gays utilize consumer goods a form of cultural
expression, the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which came as a result
of police raids on gay bars, spawned what many scholars deem
the start of the modern gay civil rights movement. Paralleling
this shift, gays began to use consumer goods and consumption
as a form of outward public expression through protest, resistance,
and visibility. Using fashion as form of cultural expression,
drag functioned as a type of political protest to gender and
sexual norms. Chanting slogans like “Gay Power” and “Save
our Sisters” at demonstrations, gays cultivated empowerment
through political displays that drew from earlier eras’ use
of commodities as forms of expression and identification. For
example, ‘Out and Proud’ gay political rhetoric was
often paired with various commodities ranging from homemade ‘freedom
rings’, tattoo art, and a wide range of goods. In practice
gays created and transformed commodities, and the meanings associated
with them, into palatable forms of cultural and political expression,
resistance, and visibility.
Paying particular attention to the growing homosexual minority
as consumers, advertisers also began to imagine many as fashionable,
young, educated, childless, and affluent men (Badgett, 1998). In
the absence of any other information, “the tension between
the stereotypes of the trendsetting, free-spending gay man and
the immature, flaming homosexual became quickly entrenched in
marketing discourses” (Chasin, 2004; p. 29). While these
discourses began to focus on effeminate and flamboyant characteristics
to depict gay consumers, gay liberation during this time also
produced an identity that for some men could only be characterized
as hypermasculine. ‘Gay clones’ in their self-presentations
and behavioral patterns, transformed the image of the effeminate
homosexual by unhinging gender style from sexuality through the
consumption (Levine, 1998). Masculine forms of dress, physique,
and recreational activities adopted by many gay males demonstrated
how a wide-range use of consumer goods, fashion, and consumption
by various members of the gay community provided a broad basis
for their eventual representation as connoisseurs of consumption.
During the late 1980s and 1990s many homosexuals embraced an
assimilation formula, adopting conformity in return for participation
in privileges of class and sex (Adam, 1977: p. 296-97). Much
of this shift from politics of liberation to a politics of assimilation
stemmed from the rise of the Religious Right and HIV/AIDS in
the late 1980s. As a result, new national gay rights organizations,
such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation), adopted policies of assimilation
advocating ‘sameness’ and engagement in the marketplace
through ‘spending power’ with the goal of obtaining
greater civil rights and freedoms.
Serving as an exemplar of the contemporary consumption-based
tactics of large GLBT non-profit organizations, the HRC publication ‘Buying
for Equality’ provided consumers with an index ranking
various major US corporations by gay friendly policies. Based
upon a color-coated rating system (i.e. green -favorable, yellow – somewhat
favorable, red –unfavorable), the HRC publication urges
consumers to “support products from companies that support
equality” and receive green ratings (Buying for Equality,
2008). For gay rights organizations the publication is not only
a method to galvanize support for companies that have gay friendly
policies, but also expand financial support from corporations
focused on increasing profits. This move represents a shift in
the nature of gay identities away from a solely political category
that requires activism to a consumer category that demands spending.
Thus, gays are drawn into the consumption-based tactics of empowerment
that rely heavily upon simultaneously (re)producing representations
of themselves as connoisseurs of consumption.
In addition to an increase in the presence of gay characters
on television and the influence of the ‘gay dollar’,
the creation of metrosexuality by the American marketing industry
in 2003 constituted the ultimate expansion of the gay male as
a connoisseur of consumption. Drawing from cultural representations
of gay men, British writer Mark Simpson generally described metrosexuals
as men whose lifestyle, spending, habits and concern for personal
appearance make them “decidedly single, definitely urban,
dreadfully uncertain of their identity (hence the emphasis on
pride and the susceptibility to the latest label) and socially
emasculated” (Simpson, 2003). Unlike Simpson, whose aim
in creating the term was to offer a slightly satirical critique
on the effects of consumerism on masculinity and sexuality, marketers
redefined it to fit a heterosexual audience with the goal of
creating a new niche market segment. What metrosexuality provided
was a heterosexual version of the all-consuming gay male that
relies on social and historical connections between gay identities,
politics, and consumption. Thus, the modern spectacle of the
gay male was not only central to entertaining and instructing
others on proper spending, as in the case of popular media representations,
but also the recent exportation of a preferred, corporate-approved
identity to other segments of the population.
While consumption provided for forms of cultural expression,
identification, and political tactic throughout the twentieth
century, it appears that at the beginning of the twenty-first
consumption-based definitions of gayness serve as an exemplar
of the ever-expanding influence of consumer capitalism in everyday
Commodification, Subjectivity, and Social Change
The formation of the connoisseur of consumption in popular culture
demonstrates how social and historical links between consumption
and social identities are utilized by the modern culture industry
to create palatable practices, lifestyles, and forms of cultural
knowledge to encourage spending. While the effect of standardized
gay identities is multifaceted, it is clear that the historical
and cultural development of the community around various forms
of consumption has impacted politics, forms of visibility,
and subjectivity. While scholars have often described gay consumers
as active agents who seek to influence change through political
tactics and cultural expression (e.g. Kates, 1997, 2001, 2002),
analysis of the historical and structural influences of consumer
capitalism on gays demonstrates how they also remain bound
to structural forces that appear to encourage specific forms
Through an examination of the relationship between consumer capitalism
and the practices of gays, this article proposes that social
scientists should explicitly recognize the production of a new consumer
archetype used to encourage knowledgeable spending – the
connoisseur of consumption. While I locate this consumer type
within the context of the gay community, it is reasonable to
think that corporate entities aim to mold all consumers into
connoisseurs. So how do we escape from becoming a part of this
phenomenon? Should communities continue to embrace consumption
as a form of cultural identification, expression, or political
tactic? Overall these questions and numerous others must be raised
to assess the various consequences that arise from the commodification
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