Eve Ng

Mainstreaming Gays: Critical Convergences of Queer Media, Fan Cultures, and Commercial Television

Rutgers University Press, 2023

224 pages


Reviewed by Ana Equihua Ramirez

Eve Ng’s Mainstreaming Gays charts the increasing depiction and inclusion of LGBTQ media in television throughout the 2000s and 2010s, tracing how this media went from niche to mainstream. Ng identifies two networks, Bravo and Logo, as central to the mainstreaming of LGBTQ media due to their intentional curation of LGBTQ content and recruitment of LGBTQ producers through their acquisition of various digital platforms. Ng’s writing, while accessible, is packed with information. She takes an ethnographic approach through interviews with executives and producers from these networks, as well as many of the digital platforms they acquired, and attendance at media events hosted by these networks. Additionally, she dives into archives from these networks and platforms to analyze both published content and notes from behind the scenes. She seeks to answer the question “What does it mean for LGBTQ media to go mainstream both as it happened at Bravo and Logo, and for the current and future conditions of a mainstream arena more complexly layered than ever in terms of producers, platforms, and distribution?” Ng arrives at two connected answers, as her investigation first reveals the extent to which technological, economic, and sociopolitical factors were intertwined in the mainstreaming of LGBTQ media throughout the 2000s and 2010s, showing that these registers cannot be separated within mainstream media. Secondly, Ng finds that the mainstreaming of LGBTQ media was a complex process that afforded agency to some LGBTQ producers, as well as progress in the representation of LGBTQ people, while curtailing other aspects of LGBTQ media production. In short, Ng argues that the movement of LGBTQ media from niche to mainstream is indicative of purposeful efforts to maximize its reach, and in turn profits, which allowed for more representation of LGBTQ people. While some of this representation included diverse and nuanced portrayals of LGBTQ people, some of these depictions reinforced assimilationist narratives and foregrounded normative ideas of LGBTQ identity.

The main theories framing Mainstreaming Gays are Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production and Henry Jenkins’s theory of convergence culture. Ng draws from Bourdieu’s model of the field of cultural production to situate LGBTQ media within 2000s media culture. Her discussion of network acquisition of LGBTQ digital platforms is informed by Jenkins’s convergence culture, which explains how corporations consolidate across mediums and modes of production.

The first two inner chapters of Mainstreaming Gays focus on the digital platforms that Bravo and Logo obtained. Jenkins’s theory of convergence culture frames Chapter One, as Ng explores Bravo’s and Logo’s acquisition of prominent websites with LGBTQ content like AfterEllen, AfterElton, OutZoneTV, and Television Without Pity, among others. Bravo and Logo used these websites to promote channel content, working with creators on these websites to integrate them into the channels’ output. This opened short-lived pathways for website creators, many of whom were LGBTQ, to join the networks, moving into positions of authority within cultural production. The entrance of LGBTQ producers into these spaces further increased these networks’ focus on LGBTQ media.

In Chapter Two, Ng delves into the culture of the websites Bravo and Logo obtained, as they served as spaces for both fans and LGBTQ people before and after the networks’ acquisition. While many of the websites the networks acquired were focused on LGBTQ content, like AfterEllen and AfterElton, others simply featured content from LGBTQ creators, like Television Without Pity. The evolution of many of these websites from one individual’s blog to a collaborative site with social media-like features like comments, chats, and profiles allowed LGBTQ users to create community. Taking AfterEllen as a case study, Ng explores the website’s creator’s incorporation of media focused on lesbian and bisexual women alongside discussions of women in media more broadly, as the niche nature of LGBTQ media meant there were few depictions of this community to cover. Because of this, LGBTQ fans of visual media often leaned into homoerotic subtext in their conversations. Despite the tight-knit communities users built through these sites, however, the rise of social media led to the dispersal of fan conversations to other platforms, threatening the networks’ financial support of niche sites. As Logo and Bravo withdrew funding, LGBTQ websites not only stopped growing, but disappeared and their users scattered to other online spaces.

Ng details the methods Bravo and Logo used to intentionally move LGBTQ media from niche to mainstream in Chapter Three. Bravo executives employed dualcasting to appeal simultaneously to gay men and straight women, consolidating them into one consumer target and leading to the rise of reality television. At Logo, executives created categories and subcategories of media they termed “gaystream” to curate content that would appeal to the greatest number of viewers, moving away from the niche LGBTQ content that characterized the channel’s early days. While both channels did consider diversity in their lineups, these approaches reveal a movement to a more consolidated audience by foregrounding gay men on their channels, particularly white gay men. While these networks distinguished themselves in their focus on LGBTQ content early on, their approaches to mainstreaming diverted this attention and generalized their offerings in search of a larger audience.

Chapter Four updates Bourdieu’s model of the field of cultural production to account for the mainstreaming of previously niche content, like LGBTQ media. Ng expands the field of mainstream media to reflect the emergence of reality television as a prominent cultural field with low economic capital, which was previously only associated with media with small audiences. Gay is now not just in, but mass produced and occupying both low and high culture beyond Bravo and Logo.

To conclude Mainstreaming Gays, Ng considers the current LGBTQ media landscape, noting the proliferation of series focused on LGBTQ people on large networks and streaming platforms. However, she notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a rise in television viewing, LGBTQ shows were negatively impacted by production delays, leading to the cancellation of many of these shows. As quarantine measures decreased, so did the availability of new LGBTQ streaming media. Ng also foregrounds the sociopolitical landscape that emerged with COVID-19, as social justice activism increased in the face of legislation hostile to women and LGBTQ people, as well as violence against people of color. Ng argues that the decrease of diverse content like LGBTQ media reveals the precarity of marginalized groups, despite inclusion into the mainstream.

Ng’s Mainstreaming Gays is a compelling chronicle of the movement of LGBTQ media from niche to mainstream, highlighting the work of LGBTQ producers and creators in the 2000s and 2010s to broaden depictions of LGBTQ narratives. Alongside these progress narratives, however, Ng also holds space for the tensions this movement generated, as people of color, trans people, and women became marginalized within LGBTQ platforms and spaces when networks shifted their focus to draw in straight viewers through LGBTQ content. This rich ethnography of LGBTQ media production engages the complexity of the mainstreaming process to remind us that shifts in the representation of LGBTQ people are nuanced and rarely indicate simple forward movements. Rather, these shifts are tied to the sociopolitical, economic, and technological contexts that produce them and affect future LGBTQ media production.