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.