Review: The Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner

by | November 21, 2014
filed under Books, LGBT, Pop Culture

tomlinwagnerJennifer Reed’s The Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, released by Palgrave Macmillan in December 2013, will be of interest to an array of readers, particularly to Tomlin fans and those with an interest in queer theory and gender studies.

As a fan and as someone with interests in both disciplines, I delightedly delved into the book last weekend. Despite being spot-on for its academic genre, it poses a couple of challenges for me as a reviewer. Unsurprisingly, it is a queer book that defies some readerly expectations.

I imagine that some Tomlin fans might purchase the book, being familiar with popular uses of the word “queer,” expecting less or knowing little about queer theory. Those readers might be a little caught off guard. Because it is an academic book about pop-culture figures, it crosses genre lines in a transgressive way that can either be beneficial to readers or hard on the dissemination of the work. I would like to hear what readers from a variety of backgrounds think about this book, but the price alone is a major deterrent to its accessibility.

Given that it is promoted as an academic book, “The Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner” will predominantly end up in the hands and minds of a fairly narrow body of readers that consist of those who are both familiar with queer, women’s, and gender studies and who are interested in the work produced by Tomlin and Wagner. The book possesses a tremendous potential to influence queer theory and popular conceptions of queer alike, so I hope that public, university and women’s center libraries will not only house this book but will also put it on display and promote it.

I love Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner as if they were my own mothers. If that’s queer, it’s because I have learned much of what I know about being queer and from the second wave feminist movement, in which Tomlin and Wagner were key players and instrumental educators, nurturing us away from the binary with their loving talents, commitment to inclusion, and collective genius.

There is much to be said about this book. Having encountered queer theory in literary, critical, and strictly theoretical contexts, I came away from this book feeling as though I had taken a follow-up graduate course in queer theory to one I took two years ago. What I liked about this “course” (book) is (a) that Jane and Lily, through Reed, were teaching it and (b) that the queer theory was presented with a feminist bent.

It was a crash course, of course, but an expansive one. Now that I’ve read this book, I can’t think of a better way to take an introductory graduate course in queer theory or gender studies than to do so using the work of Wagner and Tomlin. This was a brilliant move on Reed’s part, as Tomlin and Wagner bring out the best, I believe, in what queer theory has to offer by making it accessible and taking us out of its pretenses and into the great beyond of its potentialities.

I, thanks to Reed, have sincere aspirations, or fantasies, of someday using her book as a foundational text for an academic composition course on making intelligible queer meaning and collaborative creative projects.

Though it’s a lot to digest in one or two sittings, Reed’s project explains some of the core tenets of queer theory in a way that will be understandable to many it might have escaped in other contexts, an accomplishment build on a combination of the Tomlin-Wagner entertainment factor and Reed’s sensitive intuition as a writer.

It is incredible: the way in which queer theory explains so poignantly the cultural phenomenon of Wagner and Tomlin’s art.

Reed addresses several dimensions of what makes their relationship and their work queer and of queer import. She also uses theory to explore the queerness of humor, as well.

Their work, she argues, doesn’t resist or promote difference; it never positions itself on polarity and, instead, gestures toward something else. Reed indicates that it functions and provides a model for functioning outside of dualism altogether, making it a queer space of performative and multitudinal mobility. She articulates the complex operation of their partnership of genius, urging us to think of them, not as liberal humanists, but as radical humanists.

What readers will likely find most accessible about and helpful in Reed’s work is her constant return to her subject: the persona and work of Tomlin and Wagner. Her paraphrases of Tomlin’s performances and incorporation of direct quotes from interviews, the material itself, and reviews of the material is what keeps the book moving.

The spirit of admiration made Reed inclined to showcase their work at all times, not just as evidence, but in a celebratory way, and it serves as a gentle and necessary tool in making the book more accessible. It breaks up the theory and lightens the feeling of the intellectual load of it and, at the same time, places the reader directly into what it’s purporting so that the theory becomes more evident and actualized. The success of this approach is a combination of the bursting intelligence of the subject and of Reed’s expert and insistent delivery of her argument.

Much can be said about Reed’s analysis of the scope and ramifications of Wagner and Tomlin’s collaboration on identity, identification, and, I would add, language. As creators of a new language and inhabitants and practitioners of what Reed calls “multivalent subjectivities,” their work presents gender and sexual identity, in particular, in a way that reveals the impossibility of living up to the nuclear family model. When the work was first produced, it shook the foundations of heteronormative white womanhood in a timely way, and it’s still relevant today.

Reed says something particularly striking about Tomlin and Wagner’s treatment of the construct of “white womanhood” and the way in which it reveals gently and lovingly to people across the board that white womanhood hurts white women, too, and that it is a trap in which all of us, regardless of gender or ethnicity, suffer. This is an example of their radical humanism.

Reed anticipates that some of her readers may be new to these and other terms and concepts that are part of the theoretical curriculum of queer feminism. She addresses this by providing helpful definitions throughout. Reed is carefully ambiguous at times about how she applies the word “queer” to their work, though, revealing that her manner of presentation has been shaped by a deep understanding of queer theory’s ambivalence. She remarks in the latter half of the book that their “public presence overall signals what we now call a queer sensibility.”

The magic of the book, to me, happens in Reed’s in-depth analysis of the period of Wagner and Tomlin’s work that could be considered its “golden age”: the 1970s and 80s.

It’s no surprise that this section is especially engaging, as she draws on material from their endlessly entertaining two-decade-long period of obscene productivity to build her argument. A one-liner from Edith Ann can really do wonders for a raging brain full of queer theory terms.

Although I was ecstatic to discover “The Queer Cultural Work of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner,” one of the concerns I had when beginning to read it was that I would not be able to sustain an engagement of it because I, admittedly, have very limited experience with Tomlin and Wagner’s work. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In most situations involving an in-depth, academic exploration of a subject, I would have been right. I have attended many academic conference presentations in which I had a small interest in or knowledge of the scholars’ subjects and ended up drowsily day dreaming my way through the read-aloud papers. But I have just learned that when the conference paper –or book– deals with the work of Tomlin and Wagner, it’s different.

They, as a critical subject, are an exception to the rule. They are not discipline specific. They are not simply interdisciplinary; they are otherdisciplinary, as well as accessible, and inviting subjects. You can have no experience with them and still jump into their material, at any point, with absolute pleasure. They are that good and that universally engaging.

Reed’s book is still a challenge, but those with even a vague knowledge of Tomlin and an interest in women’s, gender, or sexuality studies will find it to be an exciting one.

“Complicating notions of identity” to create new “positions of subjectivity” is what Reed credits Wagner and Tomlin as having achieved, and I agree. Their play with gender and sexuality markers and categories, she argues, is embedded in their exploration and loving critique of the relationship between commercialism and art. I modify critique with “loving” because I think that’s precisely the reason it’s different; it functions outside of the binary, and it works.

Wagner and Tomlin posses the exceptional gift of a loving intellect. They are headmistresses, high teachers, and chief practitioners of the fine and too-little-known queer art of emotional intelligence. They take us out of the pitfalls of our identities and realities in order to connect us with one another.

Their brand of humor is a high art because it is one that teaches us higher forms of love and belongingness by allowing us to experience a simultaneous recognition of ourselves, our vulnerabilities, and the sometimes-isolating absurdities of the identities we inhabit and roles we play— the ones that, when we believe in them as essentialist differences that we cannot overcome, divide us.

Wagner and Tomlin’s work is not about division; it is about moving toward that glimpse of what they in warm and earnest jest dub “signs of intelligent life in the universe.” The queer plane of intelligence on which they operate is the plane of intelligence I want to witness and nurture in my life, which brings me to a striking and poignant phrase that Reed presents at the end of her book, when she refers to Wagner and Tomlin as “our queer mothers.”

I hope for my sake, my daughters’ sakes, and the world’s sake that they accept the position. They have taught us and loved us. They have shifted the trajectory and have gone beyond mastering the art of queer mothering. That said, to imagine oneself as a lovechild of Wagner and Tomlin and a recipient of their alternative rearing is a radically transformative and healing revelation for anyone.

Reed has done what none before her have: she named it, articulated it, and celebrated it.


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