18. September 2018 Stefanie Leinfellner
Richard Dyer lehrte im Sommer 2018 als Marie-Jahoda-Gastprofessor für internationale Gender Studies an der Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Der britische Film- und Kulturwissenschaftler gilt mit seinen Büchern zu den Themen Unterhaltung, Stars und Repräsentation als Pionier in der Befassung mit dem Lesbian und Gay Cinema, dem populären europäischen Kino und dem Forschungsschwerpunkt Critical Whiteness. Im Interview mit Stefanie Leinfellner, der Koordinatorin der Marie-Jahoda-Gastprofessur, erzählt Richard Dyer über seinen wissenschaftlichen Weg zwischen gesellschaftlichen Herausforderungen und fachlicher Ausdifferenzierung.
What have you been doing as a Marie Jahoda Visiting Professor? And was there something that surprised or challenged you?
I gave an inaugural lecture about my work on the film La Dolce Vita. I did a workshop on La Dolce Vita as a documentary and I am going to finish a course on melodrama. I have also been giving talks on different topics: One was about the idea of lesbian and gay studies, one was about the idea of white masculinity in relation to “Serial Killing”, which is a very obvious gender studies question, and the other one was about queer celebrity. I’m really enjoying my stay and I’m very glad I have been invited. On one hand, I was not surprised being invited as it came through my colleague, Prof. Eva Warth, and I know her work. On the other hand, I have never quite thought of myself as being in gender studies. I have always thought that what I do is being informed by the issue of gender. But I have never thought of myself as being a gender studies person in quite that way. It is very interesting to be thinking things in that context.
You suppose that your work is about gender, almost without necessarily having thought of this being about gender?
I suppose being interested in lesbian and gay issues is always necessarily an issue about gender. And I have always shared the view that you cannot do lesbian and gay studies without gender. It is about the sense of self. And the sense of self is very bound up with object choice and so once again gender comes into that. So one way or another, it is gender studies even if I got into it more through lesbian and gay studies.
When we talk about Richard Dyer, we also talk about pioneered work in the field of whiteness, film and sexuality studies. How did you become a media scientist and moreover concerned with gay, lesbian and sexuality studies?
I originally studied French, but then moved from French to cultural studies, which was almost nonexistent. I mean, I went to the Birmingham Center of Cultural Studies, which was a new organisation at Birmingham University. It was at its third or fourth year of its existence and that is where I did my PhD. So I moved into cultural studies first and was actually looking at ideas of entertainment and show business. Although it is called cultural studies, I actually looked at films, and obviously film is part of media studies in that sense. And in relation to gender studies and me becoming concerned with the issue of gender, it was especially the impact of feminism within the cultural studies. Within the cultural studies department, I would say that when feminism arrived, it was very disturbing to a lot of the people, especially to a lot of men at that time. Feminism resisted and was maybe seen as a distraction. But I suppose, I felt an immediate affinity for it and an immediate feeling of its importance. At the same time, I had always felt it was not for me as a man to start doing work on feminism or to say that I am a feminist.
What was or is the consequence of feminism for you and your studies?
From the impact of feminism on cultural studies I took two concerns: Thinking what you have to think about masculinity – because gender studies comes later. And I have also always thought: Everything I do must be informed by the issues raised by feminism. The next move was that lots of people were doing work on the representation of women and the representation of people of color. All that was very much part of what we did in the cultural studies. And then I thought as I was involved in the gay movement, I should also look at the representation of lesbians and gay men. Partly because gender studies has often been a good home for work on lesbians and gay men and for queer studies, and partly because even the idea of being lesbian or gay is a gendered notion. It is a notion about male and female identity in relation to sexual object choice.
But which was also an influence of feminism, in some sort of way, is that I was very committed to an idea of lesbian and gay. I did not think: I will just do gay. And I certainly do not think the situation of lesbians and gay men is exactly the same. But nonetheless, I have always felt, it is politically a coalition, if you like. So I always wanted to do work that did embrace lesbians as well as gay men. I would say the trajectory into gender studies was: moving into cultural studies and into media studies, then the impact of feminism and then the idea of working on lesbian and gay studies.
You then got interested in queer and whiteness studies? How and why? And where do you situate yourself in relation to gender, queer and whiteness today?
I have also always thought I never got into queer. It depends on what you think what queer is. But I feel I have remained at lesbian and gay. Queer is often associated with what I would call high theory. It is a kind of style and I just do not like that style. I feel it is an obscure thing. It is intimidating. I mean it alienates more students than it does excite students. That is my opinion! I think one should try to be as clear and straight forward as possible. And queer was also wanting to move beyond the issue of same sex desire and identities based on same sex desire, which is a perfectly thing to do. But I particularly did not want to move, I wanted to stay with those identities and with those desires. And I have always felt that I did not quite recognize myself within all these developments in queer theory. One other reason is that, you know, I was brought up being told that I was a queer, which was a kind of very negative, homophobic word. And there was that idea that you could somehow cleanse the idea of queer. Only one time, I have used the term “queer” in my writing. It was in a book I wrote that is sometimes said to be about queer culture. But it is deliberately not called “Queer Culture”, it is very deliberately called “The Culture of Queers”. And it is about the culture that was produced in the period in which gay men were called queers in a very negative way. It is a book that is very specifically about gay men, but in a way it is not about gay men because it is about queers as men who were brought up as queers. That was what same sex male identity was in that period. So that is how I situate myself in relation to queer.
And your focus on whiteness?
Well, I think that is the next logical conclusion. Partly, it was obviously the impact of work on black studies and on colonial and postcolonial thought. It was the call from people like Stuart Hall – who had been my supervisor – to say: White people should not spend all that time writing about black people, about being liberal and nice about black people. They have to think about themselves first! And I thought, well, I should also think about myself, I should think about myself as white and think about that category of whiteness as a whole. And from there, you cannot really think about whiteness without thinking about gender. The image of whiteness and of any racial group is also different according to white men and white women, black men and black women. You cannot not think about it and you also cannot not think about it in relation to sexuality. And I do not mean people talking about sexuality in a sense of desire.
How did your perspectives and foci change throughout the years?
I just moved into doing the same thing in different areas. I suppose that three in one is that I became increased in Italian things. I have always been very European in my orientation for a British person. I had the period of being an American cinema person, but that was maybe the first ten years. I moved back into being interested in European cinema issues, specifically the Italian cinema. And one example is "La Dolce Vita". Though I would not call it a gender studies book, I am talking about the way men and women are represented in the film. In a lot of Fellini’s films women are seen as the only good thing in the world, it is a kind of patronizing. They are often seen as more innocent and uncorrupted by the world. It is one of those compliments that is not such a great compliment when you think about it. Again: It is the idea that everything has to be informed by gender issues.
In the end – also when analyzing "La Dolce Vita" as a very buoyant and delightful film – I have always wanted to combine politics and the aesthetics, though it is very hard to do both equally together. One always tends to be stronger than the other. In the "Nino Rota" book I wrote, there is stuff about representation and stuff about his sexuality, but it is quite secondary about the aesthetics. The "Culture of Queers" is more political and my book on “whiteness” is very much focusing the question of what is the exact construction of the images of whiteness. It does try to be political and aesthetic at the same time.
Last but not least: What do you think is currently transforming concerning “gender”? Or what would you like to be transformed in the future?
In an ‘ideal’ world gender would be a much softer set of distinction. I do not imagine a world that does not make a distinction between men and women. I think we all enjoy the gender difference too much just to abandon it. But I would like a world in which gender is less hysterical and less rigid. There might be a transitory moment: There is a developing interest in non-binaries and in various kinds of identity, which I hope will also mean a kind of reembrace upon identities that were pioneered mainly by lesbians and gay men. I mean it would be good if those were not confined to lesbians and gay men. People would feel much easier to work out a huge range of things that do not deny the gender difference, but nor insist upon it being so rigidly separate. I think that would be great to explore. It is not the end of gender but the softening of gender!
Ein ausführlicheres Interview mit Richard Dyer erscheint im Journal 43 des Netzwerks Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung NRW.