Changing the Queer Narrative in Popular Media

Tonight I’m listening to the soundtrack to Brokeback Mountain. The instrumental pieces by Gustavo Santaolalla are so beautiful, but listening to it makes me think a lot about the tragic gay story and how Hollywood tells queer stories to a straight audience. I appreciate the impact Brokeback Mountain has had on mainstream culture, but I think it’s time for straight audiences to support a different gay narrative, one that allows for the possibility of happiness and fulfillment.

I remember first viewing Brokeback Mountain. I was sixteen at the time, and I had already spent several years seeking out gay media–always in secret, as I was not out at the time. Of course, I cried. Some years later I found the short story on my sister’s bookshelf and furtively read it. I loved the short story as much as I loved the movie, and I now have my own copy on my bookshelf.

What I find most interesting about Brokeback Mountain is it’s the only major film about a gay romance that I can recall becoming popular in the mainstream. Sure, we’ve had films such as Milk and Monster (another one that made me cry), but I can’t think of another mainstream film where gay romance was the focus. For that reason, I think Brokeback Mountain holds a unique spot in LGBT film history.

And for another reason as well. I’ve seen a lot of LGBT movies since I was sixteen, from Saving Face to Patrik, Age 1.5 (one of my personal favorites). Hell, I’ve been known to rent movies just because I knew they had a gay scene in them (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, anyone?). Most of these films have not become popular outside the LGBT audience, and I think that’s because they were made with an LGBT audience in mind.

I looked up Brokeback Moutain on IMDb to check the year when it was made, and then I referred to the user made movie lists to remind myself of some other queer films I had seen. I was surprised to see that the first eight lists were not LGBT specific. I can’t say for sure, but I have to wonder: was Brokeback Mountain made for straight people?

I know a statement like that would ruffle more than a few feathers. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s interesting. Whether or not the film was made for a straight audience, it remains true that Brokeback Mountain was quite successful with a straight audience. It’s a film that I think remains a cultural touchstone, and so it’s important to keep in mind the kind of message it sent.

Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy. The two main characters can never pursue their romance openly; they both marry women to keep up appearances. At the end, Jack becomes the victim of a hate crime. It’s not the most progressive story told about two gay men. I won’t deny it’s a beautiful film, but I don’t find it particularly promising that the one popular gay romance story is one that ends in homophobic violence.

During the summer, I wrote content for a queer women of color website. One thing the founder asked of me and my fellow interns was that we not reinforce a narrative of victimhood. She wanted to focus on queer women of color taking power and fighting oppression, rather than on those women falling victim to hatred and bigotry.

Brokeback Moutain is a story of victimhood, and I think it was popular in part because of that. Though Jack speaks often of wanting to have a real relationship with Ennis, neither character is threatening to a straight audience. They don’t flaunt their homosexual desires. They’re both masculine. They’re not looking to get married. They’re just two men trying to navigate their same sex desires. And they are unsuccessful.

Yes, there are many tragic queer stories. LGBT people are brutalized and murdered all the time. Brokeback Mountain does not tell an unrealistic story. But I think it’s critical that we stop and examine why the only popular gay romance story in film is one that ends in death.

Earlier today, I read a post by a young woman who talked about holding hands with her girlfriend in public. I expected the story to end with someone calling them dykes or trying to hurt them. Instead, the post talked about a woman smiling at the pair. It’s a simple gesture that meant a lot to this young woman. I want to hear more stories like this. I want to see a new film rise up–not to displace Brokeback Mountain, but to show that it’s possible to be queer and be happy.

It is possible to be queer and be happy. Even with the Ugandan kill the gays bill, even with awful people like Rick Warren spouting homophobic hatred. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve made a lot of progress. I think it’s time for a new story to be told to a straight audience–one that reminds society that LGBT people are not just victims.

63 thoughts on “Changing the Queer Narrative in Popular Media

  1. Totally agree with you on this. Another thing that bothered me about the film is that the men were almost violent to each other at many points. I wished it would show actual love, tenderness, and care between two men, instead of repeating that narrative that men have to be tough and rough and insensitive. We need a new story of manhood out there as well – the current one is doing a lot of harm to the world.

    • That aggressive masculinity seemed to fit with those characters in that story. Ennis in particular alludes to growing up in the midst of immense violence (father forcing him to look at the murdered and mutilated body of a gay man) but I would argue that, although it isn’t shown onscreen, the structure of the story suggests Ennis and Jack’s relationship for the most part spans years and involves little aggression and violence beyond the isolated incidents featured in the film for dramatic effect. On the whole, they were tender and caring for one another.

  2. I think that you are exactly right about Brokeback Mountain and I do wish other movies like this would be made for straight audiences. Does anyone know if another great movie is going to be produced on this subject matter?

  3. As a movie lover and queer person, it’s really frustrating to want to go “BUT WHAT ABOUT _____”, and then to realize that movies like “But I’m A Cheerleader” are not mainstream hits.

    • This funny thing is, I was going to mention But I’m a Cheerleader, because I saw it around the time I realized I was gay. My sister (also gay, oddly enough) showed it to me and my parents, and their response to the film was, “I don’t know why she has to shove it in our faces.”

    • “But I’m a Cheerleader” was very much in my thoughts while reading this post! The first time I saw it, actually, was in a women’s lib study class in high school (I was one of two males in the 15-20 student class.. the man-bashing is something post-worthy!). It had a profound effect on me, especially as I was struggling with a bi-curious life in a town that had the rustic, cowboy mindset that is seen in “Brokeback Mountain.”
      Today, I still find myself struggling with it — though I’ve had numerous same-sex relationships (if only fleeting), and am actually engaged to a woman (she knows about my experiences, but tends to throw it in my face when another male finds me “cute”).

  4. Just like Rick Warren or Uganda can be singled out to represent the norm for fundamentalist groups, so can Hollywood use their media to portray life.
    To make a difference every human has to contribute to promoting the good in themselves and each other.
    A negative attitude is often prevalent on both sides of almost every fence.

  5. Congrats on being FP! I agree with what you said. It’s hard to balance wanting to show the reality of our society’s hatred without focusing on thev victim hood or tragedy. I’d like to see more empowerment focused movies that speak to strengths in the LGBT community. I also think if movies are geared toward straight people, it could also be more positive. Research has shown there is power is setting the norm or dominant narratives. For example, if you tell people 80% of college students on THIS campus do not binge drink, you actually see a reduction in binge drinking. Conversely, men convicted of rape report that they raped because they thought it was norm (because their friends made lots of rape jokes).

    So…If we started creating movies that show how most people are actually supportive of LGBT rights, then it can facilitate even stronger change towards this direction!

  6. Here’s a happier story of an LGBT couple: my mother and her partner have been together for several years, they are friends with many people of all faiths, even the ones that don’t traditionally care for homosexuality, and they are respected members of the community.
    However if someone did say something rude to them because they are two women who are together, I’d probably sock that person.

  7. for some happy endings..read Patricia Highsmith’s Carol, she is, of course a renowned mystery writer..The Talented Mr Ripley? In 1952 she wrote this under a pseudonym to avoid being labelled as a gay writer..and watch Bound, by the then little known Wachowski’s brothers’..a film noir with the very sexy Gina Gershon :)

    • I was going to recommend “My Beautiful Launderette” as well. I have many gay friends (male) who regard that film as a kind of touchstone and I remember being very struck by it when I saw it. So yes, it was a cult hit in the US too!

      • Oh great. Good to have that confirmed. I thought it was a lovely film. It crossed racial barriers as well and it wasn’t schmultsy. Sometimes British films don’t make it in the US.

  8. I thought “The Birdcage” was a movie that ended positively. I know it was a comedy and styled as a farce, but it also dealt with denying true sexual orientation and the hurt it can create, even if for only the length of one evening. It also dealt with common themes of desire, jealousy, hope, regret and love through both the gay and straight characters.

    I think the Millenials coming of age will, and in fact, already is, changing the condition of the LGBT community.

  9. I totally agree. Although I appreciate that for many of that generation, being LGB is all to frequently so, I cringe at the Hollywood default of typecasting LGB as either comedic or tragic but not normal. I found “Imagine Me & You” to be refreshing in this regard. It was a simple love story that reminded me of my own love story so very much. Same sex in the movie. Heterosexual in my case. And that’s the point: we’re talking about two people being in love. [period]

  10. I commend you on a good post and congratulate you on being “Freshly Pressed”

    I do partially agree with you that “Brokeback Mountain” could have been better if it had been written from something other than the “victim” plot type.

    However, in the larger picture, it’s not strictly a LGBT issue. The cliche of “Star crossed lovers” or the “Tragic love affair” has been around through the ages. It’s a very tired cliche indeed.

    Shakespeare gave it to us with “Romeo and Juliet”, Jane Austen and several of her contemporaries gave it to us with tales of arranged marriages in the heavily class stratified England of the era. More recently, the “Twilight” saga has it’s own turn at the tired theme.

    It’s a theme that’s as worn as old carpet and putting a gay spin on it didn’t freshen it up in the least.

    My take on “Brokeback Mountain” is that there was more than enough material to create an internal rift between Ennis and Jack with no outside help needed.

    Jack built something for himself, his own company. He was in business and going somewhere while Ennis was largely adrift and had trapped himself in a backwater town when he could easily have left it.

    I grew up in Alberta, where that film was shot, and I’ve seen more than a few real life Ennis type characters. They had a point in their lives where all their worldly possessions could fit in a duffel bag, they had a vehicle to move it with and the money to hand to get that vehicle moving and not look back. For whatever reason, they simply don’t do that. I have a good deal of trouble relating to or sympathizing with people who could to something to better their lot, but simply don’t.

    If Jack, really wanted a relationship with Ennis; the internal conflict between the successful businessman that Jack became and the alcoholic failure and abusive husband that Ennis became would surely create enough friction between those two to drive the film.

    Certainly a story could have been built around the requisite soul searching that successful Jack would be irresponsible not to do once he saw the general self destructive failure that Ennis had become.

    Surely plenty of people, both gay and straight, could easily relate to that scenario of feeling deep love for someone but knowing that no matter how much you love them; they are more likely to destroy both of you than you are to save them.

    Killing Jack via a hate crime was cliche, and a cop out. The story would have been much more compelling if it was one of the enemy from within rather than one from the outside.

  11. http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt0115640/

    ‘A beautiful thing’ is my favourite ‘gay film’. It is a tender love story. The sexuality of the characters are important to the story, and bullying does play a part, but in the end love was what mattered, and this was accepted.

    I’ve recently blogged about that sitcom ‘The New Normal’, it is rather critical of the show. If completely disagree with my thought on the matter (or even agree) comment!

    http://joshuahowitt.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/normal/

    xx

  12. Life is often tragic when your reality doesn’t conform to the norms of the world or society in which you live – I think that was the point of BBM. However, what you seem to be saying is, let’s move the queer narrative beyond this…let’s show the queer experience as diverse, and full of joy.

    Joy certainly is threatening ;)

  13. I do absolutely love the soundtrack! I think you make a good point here though, and I think that’s why we have so much negativity in the gay community, partially. We keep reinforcing the negative parts of gay life to the straight media, and then they jump on stories about gay teen suicide and shove that down our throats. Being gay and dealing with family is hard enough without the media hounding down on us. I really do hope we have a positive, happy LGBT mainstream movie in the future. Patricemj is right; joy, in the case, is threatening :(

  14. Your post reminds me of John Water’s “Hairspray” – which has to be the only movie I’ve ever seen where the ‘fat girl’ gets the guy. I loved John Waters for that movie alone…I was the fat girl for too many years and it was so eye opening for people to see that sometimes the ‘non-normal’ person can win.

  15. What a great post (congrats on the FP)! I actually read the post to which you are referring — about the Lady in the SUV — and thought it as inspiring and encouraging as you did. Also, I think “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is one of my favorite movies (though your reference makes me wonder why my old college roommate was so adamant that I watch it with him.. I did always wonder, though we never did get close in that kind of way.. he wasn’t my type anyway).
    You make a great point, however: the LGBT community needs to get more positive exposure, and less of the straight-people-like-this-because-the-characters-become-victims kind of movies. I admit, I wasn’t a fan of “Brokeback Mountain,” simply because I could never get into the story. But the fact that its success is possibly tied to it’s relation of a hate crime is unnerving (not to mention the violent tendencies of both Jack and Ennis in their intrapersonal relationship).

  16. I remember that blog post you were talking about, “dear lady in the SUV”. It’s interesting to note that you came up with another equally inspiring post.

    Anyway, I must agree with you that those who belong to that, for lack of a better term, circle deserves a movies that don’t end in tragedy, which is ironically the trend. They’re here to stay, and the world will not end if movie makers will cater to their demands (i.e., do various movies that will challenge the stereotype).

  17. You’ve said here nearly the same thing I’ve said of a number of my favorite queer media. While it’s important to honor our dead and explore the complexities of coming out or being closeted in an often unreceptive environment, we need success stories, happy stories, stories where the main point is not always the coming out or being closeted.

    One manga that I am particularly fond of is called Kinou, Nani Tabeta? (What Did You Eat Yesterday) and is a series of vignettes about two gay (Japanese) men in their 40s living together in Tokyo. One is a closeted lawyer who loves to cook (and the manga is a conduit for his recipes) and one is an out-and-proud hairstylist. Some of the stories are about being gay in Japan (Shiro’s supportive parents; having issues at weddings when all the straight women want your number); some are about their relationship; some are about legal clients or salon clients; some are just about going out to dinner with friends. It’s a great series and I hope it gets a translation soon.

    Congrats on being FP and hooray for the Queer category on wordpress!

  18. This was excellent and I think and feel you are right. Not only do we need equal counterparts of gay and straight mainstream media available, we also need to see it isn’t always a tragedy to be homosexual. It’s like that running joke how the black guy is always the first to die in a movie. That’s because it was true. Even to this day there are movies where the black character is the first to go. I think it’s effed up because I usually love that character, they seem to be the funniest or the most inviting.

    I’m straight. I am for equal rights for everybody. I will admit that I do get a twinge when I see a man touch another man affectionately. I do not ever feel that they shouldn’t be that way in public. It just boils down to the fact that I don’t see it often enough. & there lies the issue.

    I think this article should be published in a magazine. More people need to see it.

  19. I certainly agree with this narrative on the subject of narrative. :P

    But although we don’t have mainstream films depicting this, at least for now there’s TV. Shows like Glee and Lost Girl, for example, show queer characters in a more positive light to a straight audience. We’re on our way.

    Also The New Normal, though I think that’s not quite as broad to straight audiences… at least, it isn’t to my parents. I think it’s a good show though.

    As for LGBT films, I’ve stumbed upon But I’m A Cheerleader! on cable once. That was pretty funny, and also enjoyable. In some ways, it reminded me of The Truman Show, just because of that whole 90s set up like the way Truman presented itself…

    But AfterEllen has made a Top 50 list of movies that made me want watch some of these GLBT films… Saving Face is one. And Summer of Love…

    One of these days, one of these films is gonna gain mainstream popularity again… It’s only a matter of time.

  20. Pingback: Changing the Queer Narrative in Popular Media | Cinematic Narrative | Scoop.it

  21. Have you watched The Kids Are All Right and Dorian Blues? Out of the LGBT films I’ve seen, I particularly like these two because they don’t necessarily end on a sad or happy note; the stories are told just as they are. While inevitably the issue of the characters being part of the LGBT community becomes a focus, ultimately like many other films they portray life as people in general may experience it. If you’re looking for LGBT films that are not ‘made just for the straights’, I’d say these two would make some pretty good examples. They’re both light-hearted and very well-written as well, make a really good watch. Hope you get the chance to check them out.

    And congrats on the FP! =)

    • I have to admit, I’m cautious of watching The Kids Are All Right because as I understand it, a lesbian character ends up cheating on her partner with a man. I love Mark Ruffalo to death, but that just kind of grosses me out.

  22. I loved that movie. Of course, I’m one of the straight ones it was targeted at. ;-)

    I agree, Hollywood seems obsessed with the violent side of LGBT, placing social hurdles in the characters way – because that’s what is interesting and what will sell films. I remember seeing Boys Don’t Cry, and loving the relationship that was unfolding on screen. But the final part of that movie haunts me to this day, tearing at the side of me that is sensitive to anything that portrays violence against women. But would it have been successful had it been just about two women who love each other and garner the respect of their family? Probably not, because film watchers thrive on conflict. It’s what makes a good story. And it’s what resonates with you even after the film is long over.

    When straight people (in general) think of homosexuality, the conflict from society usually goes hand in hand with it. And because the majority of the population is straight, Hollywood capitalizes on this by playing up the conflict card. Of course, by doing so they are also playing up emotions that are still holding the gay community back in being able to be regarded as just as “normal” as the straight community. This is where I feel Hollywood is doing their most disservice to the LGBT community, because as long as social hurdles are played up on the big screen, social hurdles remain a very real part of real life. And it would be really cool if someone would create a blockbuster film where the characters are LGBT and the captivating storyline has nothing to do with overcoming other people’s negative views of their relationship.

    At any rate, I think you raised so many good points in this blog article. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, you so deserved it. :-)

  23. I just watched I Can’t Think Straight and The World Unseen. Both great movies. It’s not mainstream in the US but has a huge following. It’s definitely mainstream in their native countries. Brokeback Mountain…I thought was OK. I remember at work some guys were talking about it and cracking jokes. I did pull one of the guys to the side letting him no I was offended. Of course they all didn’t know I was in a relationship at the time with a woman. I think the movie was created to bring awareness to the outside world. As far as how people saw it…I encountered a lot of ignorance regarding it unfortunately. They should have made it a little more realistic.

  24. Such a great post. Although I’m straight I find the lack of inclusive storylines within film and TV frustrating. I was thinking about this exact issue the other day and wondering with so many gay men and women in the media why there aren’t more “gay” stories?
    I would recommend, if you haven’t already, looking to online web content for a less biased and jaded view of homsexuality. There is a lot of content now out there like Out With Dad and Husbands to name just two. Husbands especially is a good one because it show a genuine and sweet romance between two gay men.

  25. Why can’t there just be a soppy love story, like the soppy straight love stories? After all, what is so different about the love? Isn’t deep intimate love between two people just that? Straight or gay, isn’t that the main problem, that it is painted as being something different when the only difference is the gender is the same. Love is.

  26. Great perspective. Thank you for this post. It’s thought provoking. I think I read the same post you mentioned about the girl holding hands with her girlfriend in public and it made me smile. I love that more and more people are becoming happier at the sign of love in general instead of trying to tear apart something beautiful.

  27. Lots of sad films, although with Boys Don’t Cry, the true-life story was even worse (she was dumped before being murdered…) I suppose films are dramatised to appeal to a wide audience, whether LGBT or straight – they’re trying to make money. On Brokeback Mountain, I’m blown away that the film came from a short story. Just read it. That’s a hell of a short story.

  28. Great post! I think that the reason that homosexuals are often mistreated and stereotyped due to cultural norms which influence what is normal and what is deviant for society. Our society needs to learn to embrace homosexuality, once embraced and accepted it will become society’s norm. Hopefully this acceptance will come soon.

  29. I can really relate to your thoughts because I always have the same thoughts. Exactly, why are almost all popular lgbt movies associate the lgbt with the atmosphere of sadness, depression, hurting love. I can’t even recall what movie provides a comedy – romance – kind of – lgbt – movie. Oh and one more, it’s often that in lgbt movies, there are too many unneccessary sex scenes it’s kinda disturbing and that’s kind of portrays that lgbt is all about sex, besides the gloomy stuffs of course. So, truly, I can relate to your thoughts, really. Anyway, by the end of this comment, I can recall one, Modern Family’s married gay couple who also adopted a baby. I love to see that couple. Anyway, great post. :)

  30. What about i love you philip morris ! ? fantastic film with the awsome jim carrey ! its a true story so it has its downs , and in real life the story ended sadly because he is still in prison to this day , but in the movie it ends with happiness and love :}

    • What’s of note about that film, for me, is the fact that none of the commercials for it (at least, the ones I saw airing on television) even suggested that it involved a gay romance. As I recall, all the previews for the film portrayed it as a comedy about a conman. Compared to Brokeback Mountain, I just don’t think the film has the same cultural resonance.

      • You know ! you are so right ! i thought it was just me !
        that i had missed it , when i saw jim carrey in bed with a man i was shocked ! but i loved it ! i thought i had just missed the a part of the plot in the trailer but it turns out , the media world had continued on there seedy little path to hide truth . i think it is because jim carrey is gay and he did the film because it relates to his life :] when i realized jim was gay my hole image on him was complete ! im so sure of it !

        http://truthprevails11.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/hello-world/

        here is another sad story , but it is mine , hopefully one day i will find a happy ending , and i will make a movie about it ;]

  31. Pingback: Friday Favorites – Humility, Picaresqueness, Queer Narratives, and Balloons « This Touching Life

  32. Patrik, Age 1,5

    This was one of the sweetest movies I’ve seen in a long time, it made me all bubbly and teary and pillow huggy…

    Have you ever heard of Better than Chocolate? It isn’t exactly a ‘victim’ movie so much as a *this is real life* movie that victimizes lesbians and transgendered.

    As for me, I like writing stories about relationships, not necessarily society rejecting a couple, but the couple going through the normal dramas and fights and make-ups that all couples go through. So they aren’t victims, but they aren’t always happy fluffy stories.
    (Though I am a sucker for a happy ending.)

    I hardly ever go around saying *Hey, read this!* but you might really like this. Don’t worry, it’s a very short story. http://creativemetaphor.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/a-little-tied-up/
    :)

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