Friday, March 10, 2006

If It Ain't Brokeback, Don't Fix It

So much media ink has been spilled over gay men in the past month that I am starting to feel like a sack of trade goods. I mean, not literally me, but the me as a gay man. We are the current hot commodity, and this leaves me both pleased and annoyed. The media has been debating the “authentic” gay men’s experience in the light of marriage and adoption laws. Why are they so interested in us? Why have gay men become the central subjects of news-magazines, feature films, and academic texts?

Don’t get me wrong. After generations of neglect and/or scorn, it’s not altogether a horror to finally have some attention. What makes me nervous, though, is that actual living, breathing gay men don’t usually get attention. It’s not a celebration of gay men’s accomplishments or contributions to history. Rather, we have become one of the central icons of the cultural and political divides that plague the U.S.

We have become an exotic and commercially precious commodity. The Right Wing depends on a hatred of us to get votes. They believe zealous Christians prefer to burn us at the stake rather than have decent healthcare or education for their children. Guess what? It works for the Right Wing too.

The Left looks to us as a means to prove their own liberalness. With a sympathetic wink, they claim to understand our oppression. Everybody seems to want a memento from us. In the traffic jam of domestic politics, gay men live in fear of being run over.

Nowhere did this tension become more apparent than the endless discussions of Brokeback Mountain and the Oscars. Many others have already spent time dissecting the conflicting images within the film, so I won’t dwell on the actual film. Rather, I am interested in the response and discussion of the film.

Brokeback Mountain appealed to many people (queer or not), because it condemned U.S. homophobia. I am not surprised, therefore, that many queer folk are quick to defend the film. Likewise, their disappointment at its loss makes sense. For many straight folk, Brokeback Mountain generated the shock of realization that not all men who have sex with men hook up in bars or pride parades.

The problem being that, despite all of its hoopla, Brokeback Mountain was not a product of gay men. The original story, the screenplay, the direction, and the acting all came from self-identified heterosexuals. Brokeback Mountain demanded our approval without actually bothering to include any of us in its creation. What, if anything, does it mean that the most salient images of gay men did not develop out of our community? How do we respond to heterosexual imagery of gay oppression? Gay men have been left with the precarious problem that their fiction has become our reality.

I don’t claim to have anything particular insightful to say about the above questions. I am trying to work out my own ambivalence and, perhaps animosity, over the ways that the mainstream media seems poised to appropriate our hard fought battles for recognition. It’s not that I think that heterosexual folk don’t have important things to say about queer sexuality. Nor do I claim that there is an essential “gay identity” that can only be authentically produced by particular queer individuals.

Still, I am concerned that we queer folk are being pushed out of the discussion of our own lives. We didn’t need Brokeback Mountain to discover that being gay in the U.S. isn’t a pleasure cruise. Even the sex in Brokeback seemed dubious to me. It smacked of what heterosexuals imagine gay sex to be like.

The narrative arc of Brokeback Mountain hardly appears unique to those who have read any gay short-fiction or gay history. Let’s consider the life story of an actual man who had sex with men in the past.

In 1901 a man who adopted the pseudonym Claude Hartland published a memoir of his sexual and romantic relationships with other men in the rural U.S. (for more context on Hartland, see Jonathan Ned Katz's Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality). With surprising candor, Hartland gave his readers a glimpse into the sexual escapades of a youthful queer boy in turn-of-the-century America. One such passage included his first sexual experience. A young male visitor spent the night at his parent’s farm home somewhere around 1886:

    I could hear my heart beating and it seemed that the blood would burst from my face. He then unfastened my clothing and his own and brought his organs and body in close contact with mine. I was simply wild with passion. All that pent-up desire of years burst forth at that moment. I threw my arms around him, kissed his lips, face and neck, and would have annihilated him if I could. The intense animal heat and friction between our organs soon produced a simultaneous ejaculation, which overstepped my wildest dream of sexual pleasure.

In a similar passage, Hartland recounted his night with a “handsome” minister who also stayed at his parent’s home:

    I was convinced by his poor attempt at snoring that he was not asleep, I gently placed my arm around his great manly form. This was enough. He turned toward me, placed his arms around my neck, pressed his lips against my own and – forgot to snore. For once I had met my match. We slept but little more, and the next morning when my brother asked him how he had rested, he glanced at me and said “I never spent a more pleasant night.”

Yet, these lively and seemingly celebratory visions of sex with other men did not mean that Hartland escaped the homophobia of his era. Rather, Hartland claimed to write his book as a warning. He offered it to medical experts so they could check “the progress of the malady” and “relieve such sufferers as myself, and preventing the existence of others yet unborn.” As one of those sufferers who was as yet unborn, I am glad that his text failed.

Here, though, is an actual historical text that suggests the realities of homophobia in turn-of-the-century U.S. Unlike Brokeback Mountain, this text developed from actual experiences of a real-life queer man. His life and loves, though, has never made it onto the silver screen.

As queer folk we need to be more attentive about claiming our actual past and understanding how historical oppression informs our current lives. If Brokeback's goal was to inform a straight audience about the perils of being queer in the U.S., we need to be certain that actual queer folk's experiences get documented next time around. Hartland’s mixed feelings of erotic satisfaction and self-doubt proves a more important story for us than why Jack can’t quit Ennis.


jeremy said...

I feel you, man. Brokeback is definitely not a queer film and does little to inform our collective history--aside from marking a time when heterosexuals began to take notice.
However, I am grateful that my mother saw it and that it allowed us a much overdue dialogue.
As far as your question about the "salient imagery" not coming from our community--When you think about queer film, do you think of Brokeback? I know I don't. I think of Querelle and Poison and The Living End. I'm fine with having my own set of images that aren't easy for mainstream America to read. I'm fine with the mainstream glomming onto whatever images they need to acknowledge my existence, and I think that I secretly enjoy the fact that I have my own picturebook of queer images that most str8s will never see. I'm not so naive that I believe that anyone outside of our community would take the time to personalize/mythologize any image which is not directly related to them. I have a hard enough time trying to convince people to watch Battlestar Galactica.

Conor Karrel said...

Well, I hate to disagree, but then again, we wouldn't be individuals if we didn't occasionally.

Granted, I loved Brokeback Mountain, I thought it was an incredibally well made film for one thing, despite its subject matter. (And it was ROBBED!!)

But to neglect to call it a queer film, just because it wasn't made by queer people for queer people, is, I think, a mistake.

While you're right, we didn't need Brokeback to tell us just how hard it is for gay people in America.
I really believe America needed Brokeback to tell them how hard it can be to be gay in America.

I feel that it's an important film because it was made by straight people for gays and straights alike! That's a huge step forward for us as a community.

The fact that a straight woman, a pullitzer prize winner at that, would take the time to right a story with a beautiful queer sentimentality and that a talented director like Ang Lee would make the film and two hot (both literal and figurative) actors would star in the film and give it national attention and everyone would be saying, "what's the big deal, it's just a love story" speaks a lot more to mainstream America, at this time!, than a queer film made by queers for queers.

Did "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" prove any less effective or important film because it wasn't made by black people?

This film paves the way for real gay characters to emerge, in gay or straight made movies, and for the Just Jack's to start to fade away into obscurity like the Steppin Fetchits of their day.

At least, that is my hope.

Dorian said...

Another excellent post that echoes thoughts I've had in a much more eloquent way. I've also been troubled by the, for lack of a better word, "heterosexualness" of Brokeback Mountain. It's an excellent film, but much of it often feels like what straight people imagine gay men are like. And it's not really a movie for a gay audience. From a gay perspective, two men who can't be together, fight their desires, and meet a tragic end, is a well-worn and worn-out story. I think for the most part gay film-makers and writers have moved past the whole "it's a tragedy to be gay" type of thinking.

I actually keep finding myself comparing it to Philadelphia, another movie "about" gay people, but largely made by and for straight people. And while I'm glad that both films got straight people thinking about gay issues, thinking isn't enough. Not when, as you say, we've got Jack to immediately step in and paint us all as jesters (and I never, ever need to see another "gay best friend" character in a romantic comedy--I'm sick to death of gay characters who only exist to make the lives of the straight characters easier).

It's very frustrating, at times, because it all goes back to your inital point. The entire discussion of gay rights in this country is heavily dominated by straight people, who aren't arguing from posistions of sincerity, but rather of political expediency. And that trickles down into the entertainment culture as images of gay men that largely reinforce the roles that straight people are comfortable having us in.

BlackGold said...

I'm angry that people like Chris Matthews can make homophobic jokes and get away with it. I'm angry that the Washington Post can run homophobic cartoons and get away with it. I'm angry that theater owners can make homophobic decisions to refuse to run the movie and get away with it. I'm angry that conservatives can make homophobic critiques of "Brokeback Mountain" without seeing it and get away with it. Above all else, I'm angry that our society continues to treat honest, law-abiding, tax-paying Americans as second-class citizens.

Mark said...

Amen...I'm going to look for Hartland's memoires and more. As for Annie Prouxl and Ang Lee, well I've been recalling Keat's "negative capacity" for an explanation of how and why an artist can portray lives he or she could never have lived...and I'm not bothered that several straight women and men have profited from telling stories about gay men lately. Relatedly, it can be explained as the natural result of empathy. Great story tellers are often the most empathetic people, and our lives are of course the most fabulous! :) But to your point, I gotcha, and you make me feel Mighty Real! (cue the music) TGIF Chicago. Have a great weekend professor!

Anonymous said...

Holy Homosexism! Gayprof, no! Nooooo! I fear that Wonder Woman would call you out on this one.

I disagree that Brokeback Mountain wasn't a queer film because most of the major players involved in it weren't gay. I would argue that it was a gay film but not just a gay film -- it had a broader appeal, which any well-done film should. It was a good (and successful) movie because it tapped into universal themes that aren't limited to either the mainstream heterosexual culture or the gay subculture. Themes of love and the fear to live honestly are unbounded by sexuality.

I thought the representation of these two guys' loves and lives was credible, which is not to say that I thought it captured the totality of the gay experience. It did capture their humanity and a broad range of experiences, actions, flaws, and successes, which is a great accomplishment for a mainstream movie.

The tragic gay love story certainly isn't new, and I would agree that we need to see a shift to popular cinematic models where gay folks live and thrive together, but that will come in time. Even though this movie didn't tell the happy gay love story, I think the story it did tell was authentic, poignant, and heartwarming/breaking.

All it takes to tell any human story is a human being.

[Wow, I was attracted to your blog solely because you're always posting classic Wonder Woman covers, but now I get to stay for the fun and interesting content and discussions. Nicely done -- that's good blog.]

jeremy said...

Can we just quickly define gay and queer so that everyone is on the same page. Here's where I'm coming from--

Gay art/film can be authored by a homosexual or merely contain homosexual content. Gay film has a minoritarian point of view which attempts to canonize or recontextualize the subject matter thereby garnering a higher profile for its homosexual content (i.e. it becomes more mainstream). This would be on par with, say, David Whitney's Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. (See: Philadelphia, Brokeback, In & Out)

Queer film, on the other hand, can truly only be made by homosexuals for homosexuals. It deals with the stigmatization of the lifestyle and the socio-political questions that homosexuality poses. There is a self-awareness that is apparent in queer film. This self-awareness allows it resolve or least offer solutions to the same questions it asks.(I contend that Brokeback does not have this self-awareness as neither Jack nor Ennis identifies as gay.)

In shameless self-promotion, I'd like to direct you to my site for a more specific take on queer cinema. Here

There is also an aesthetic which is implicit in queer cinema which is sorely lacking in Brokeback. How different would the film have been if Gus van Sant had directed it? You can bet your ass the fight scene would have been shirtless and in slo-mo. Here's an article about queer aesthetic.

tornwordo said...

Even the sex in Brokeback seemed dubious to me. It smacked of what heterosexuals imagine gay sex to be like

Yes, I had the same feeling. I kept thinking that the homophobic people watching the film could find plenty of fodder for condemnation, and rue for the times gone by when all of that was unacceptable.

Roger Owen Green said...

GP- You should feel DOUBLY blessed.: not only are gays (or gayness) "in", but "Hispanics are now the largest minority in America" and should be catered to as well. I'm not agin it, it's just that it's almost a cult of media all running to what they think is the next big thing.

The movie Philadelphia really irritated me, if only because everyone in the Hanks' characters' family were universally so supportive. The villains were all Snidely Whiplash. Only Denzel's and Mary Steenburgen's seemed nuanced.
And yet EVERY TIME the wake scene comes up, I always cry. It must be that damn Neil Young song.

Gay Erasmus said...

Beautiful post.

No, we GLBT folk didn't ask for the film to be made, and no, it didn't necessarily tell us anything we didn't already know. But while Brokeback Mountain is, as you suggest, a very mainstream treatment of queer issues, I think it deserves points for refusing to accede to a simplistic celebration of gay rights. The film deals, rather, with a universal tragic vision of failed love -- the failed love of gay men, of women married to gay men, of fathers for their daughters, and so on -- rather than an advocacy of explicit gay rights. Ironically, I think the film's contribution to making people aware of the precarious but precious nature of gay rights is all the stronger for its depiction of a place and a time where such rights didn't exist and weren't even considered; I think it's always worth reminding people -- even queer people (I should say especially young queer people) -- that the rights that many of us are slowly winning now didn't always exist.

Slightly off-topic: having not read the short story before seeing the film, I actually assumed for the longest time that Brokeback was set in the late nineteent-century or early twentieth century. It sounded very much like something Willa Cather might've written. Silly me!

Oso Raro said...

Dear Sisters in the Stuggle,

Representation is a bitch, baby! I, for one, must be the only homosexual to have NOT seen Bareback Montagne, although Mr. Gordo has seen it and responded with appropriate coos of appreciation. I'm not boycotting or anything GAY like that, I just haven't had the time.

The debate regarding BBM and the furore over its losing out to Crash (in a word, Yuck, since Crash was an absolutely horrid little piece of feel-good filmmaking) actually obscures some of the represenational politics you speak of here, as well as the creepy parallels between BBM and Crash. Movies regarding the Other, chewed down and masticated for easy and constipation-free consumption. Complex filmmaking of any sort rarely happens at the Cinema 1-2-Many, but I do agree with some of the others commentators as to the ameliorative effects of vaguely positive represenations on heteronormativity. To quote the Communards, "There's More to Love than Boy Meets Girl!"

Yet, what I think you are actually trying to get at (or under) here is the nagging and annoying faith in representation that continues to haunt our collective dreams and nightmares (see the debate on the film Cruising for a good primer). Representation shall always be partial, incomplete, contingent, and controversial. But images themselves are only one aspect of social change and struggle, albeit an important one.

I guess one of the reasons I haven't put on my make-up and gone down to the cinemaplex is that I really don't care what Ang Lee or Annie Proulx have cooked up for us. LGBT folks like it? Wonderful! Str8s are learning something? Super! Do I need to see it? Nah. I'm already gay, I live in a gay-ish neighborhood, most of my friends are LGBT, I've got fegallah coming out my ass!

All of which is to say, I would cautiously support GP's point about LGBT-made productions, if only that their true audience is LGBT folks. Not in an essentialist way, but rather in an acknowledgement of the complexity of LGBT life that can only be barely approached in visual media. I'm thinking Go Fish, I'm thinking Paris is Burning, I'm thinking Boys in the Band (!). These are the films that communicate something about LGBT life to me.

But maybe BBM can do that too. Maybe I will slap on some warpaint and go see it, just for shits and giggles.

Oh, and also, Philadelphia is HORRID. I hate the emotional blackmail of the final scene, and left the theatre disgusted. Sort of like a night at a gay bar.

Love, Oso