Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Over the years, an increasing number of scholars have argued that a "coming out imperative" characterizes Western society, urging those who harbor hidden identities to make those identities visible for the greater good. A number of sources repeatedly remind queer-identified individuals, for example, that coming out of the closet results in crucial visibility that, among other things, can help lead to political advances for the GLBTQ community. Yet, the call to make the invisible visible also valorizes the gender and sexual binary system that queer theory seeks to dismantle. How might we view the closet--a location that we find ourselves in repeatedly over time, regardless of any and all coming out events--in queer terms? How might we queer common conceptualizations of its construction and its utility? While he does not technically identify as gay, the popular culture stalwart known as Superman provides a useful exemplar for engaging in such a task. Since his first appearance in the pages of comic books more than seventy years ago, consumers and critics have continually inscribed Superman with meanings other than those presumably intended by his authors, thus attesting to the figure's polysemy. These subtextual layers enable consumers to recognize aspects of his texts that they find especially salient, including cues that speak to queer experiences. For example, because Superman's identity is in constant flux, with Superman always masking Clark Kent and vice versa, queer audiences may view Superman as especially relatable given their own experiences with a sexual- and gender-based closet. Superman does not adhere to the "coming out imperative," though, since he constantly relies on his closet in order to perform his super-job efficiently and effectively. His narrative, by its very nature, valorizes some measure of invisibility as a viable approach to managing a life with difference, however super or terrestrial that difference may be. This project analyzes four Superman texts--the television series Smallville, the motion picture Superman Returns, and the animated films Superman: Brainiac Attacks! and Superman: Doomsday--to ponder a closet that may offer opportunity rather than blanket oppression. Through his own identity negotiation, Superman struggles with his difference in ways that are similar to his queer human counterparts, and his eventual embrace of that identity, costume and all, suggests that he achieves some measure of pride in that difference. Yet, his closet remains intact. He may not always appreciate its limitations, but he understands the opportunities it bestows, and I believe we can learn from him. In other words, rampant heteronormativity and heterosexist presumption ensure that we must live with our queer closets everyday. This project seeks to reclaim that space for its practical and critical utility.
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