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December 14, 2005

Brokeback Mountain, Bigotry, and Non-Bigoted Disinterest

Damn It All: Most of this post just got zapped. It's back to its unfinished form, minus all the updates. Sorry, I just can't write all that crap a second time.

Andrew Sullivan seems to suggest that long-time nemesis Mickey Kaus is a homophobe:

The great thing about blogging is that, if it's done right and honestLy, it can sometimes reveal things about yourself even you didn't know. Mickey Kaus has always done it right. Which is why his posts about "Brokeback Mountain" are must-reads.

Now, that may not seem like an accusation of homophobia, but the post links (by the words "Mickey Kaus has always done it right") Kaus' musings on Brokeback Mountain. Kaus suggests there's a "tsunami" of politically-correct, gay-friendly elite opinion brewing intended to browbeat mainstream (straight) audiences into seeing this film-- if you don't see Brokeback Mountain, the stealth messaging goes, you hate gays. He suggests rather that widespread mainstream rejection of the film, or at least disintrest in it, isn't gay-hatin' so much as just not being terribly interested in a gay love story.

A reader emails Kaus:

If I follow your logic, I should be genetically repelled from such films as Out of Africa, The Princess Bride, The Notebook, Wuthering Heights, The Big Easy, and basically every Hollywood romance ever made except Brokeback Mountain because I couldn't possibly enjoy a story about people who are not like myself.

The suggestion being that characters in those films "are not like himself," and therefore, so what if the characters in Brokeback Mountain "are not like himself"? Same thing, right? I mean, I'm not Cary Elwes or Dennis Quaid; so what's the difference if I see a movie about people who are also not like myself, such as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhallenhyllenhall?

Kaus responds:

Er, no. If a gay man, say, goes to see "Wuthering Heights," there is at least one romantic lead of the sex he's interested in! In "Brokeback Mountain," neither of the two romantic leads is of a sex I'm interested in. ... My wild hypothesis is that more people will go see a movie if it features an actor or actress they find attractive! If heterosexual men in heartland America don't flock to see Brokeback Mountain it's not because they're bigoted. It's because they're heterosexual. "Heterosexuals Attracted to Members of the Opposite Sex"--for those cultural critics wondering what a commerical disappointment for this much-heralded movie will Tell Us About America Today, there's your headline. ...

What the cluelessly PC reader doesn't get is that most movies -- especially mainstrea movies -- feature main characters who, while better-looking, more capable, and richer than the average moviegoer, are nevertheless intended to serve as characters with whom the audience can identify. Audiences identify with the leads in movies (not so much the character actors, who often play odd and less idealized human beings), and generate sympathy and interest because the audience, to some extent, projects themselves into those characters. And wonders, for example, "Gee, what would I do if poisoned with a lethal but slow-acting radioactive poison like Dennis Quaid in DOA?"

Obviously there are many films that do not easily invite identification/projection -- films about oddball or repellant (or ugly) characters, or films about historical figures of such incredible accomplishment that they have no "Everyman" quality at all -- but these tend to be smallish independent films or big prestigious event pictures that garner a lot of awards but not a lot of public love. Ghandi, for example, is a movie many people saw once-- just once. A silly disposable romantic comedy with leads more easily identified with, like French Kiss or The Princess Bride, get watched by more people, with many more repeat viewings.

The further the main leads are from a movie-goer, the more difficult this identification/projection response becomes. Why aren't there more black leads in American movies? Well, not just because of actual racism. Just because there are many more white people in the country, and white people can more easily identify with a Dennis Quaid than a Jamie Foxx. The biggest-drawing black leads are people like Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, who seem -- and I know they'd hate hearing this -- somewhat decracinated.

Is this actual bigotry? I don't think so. Black audiences clearly prefer films with black leads; would that also be bigotry? And India's "Bollywood" doesn't feature too many caucasian-Canadian leads. Are they bigoted as well? Not really. It's just easier to project yourself into the fantasy world of a movie when the viewpoint characters are closer to you in terms of looks and background. (Well, in terms of how the idealized, dream-world image of you looks.)

Ever notice how many movies feature characters in advertising, the law, journalism, the media, etc.? Well, most people figure they could do those jobs (and they're probably right), and would like to do those jobs, if they had their druthers. They're jobs that people can see themselves doing, and which have a bit of glamour or status attached to them.

There are fewer films about ditch-diggers and cesspool cleaners.

Brokeback Mountain may be a movie with a universal theme -- love denied -- but the specifics of it are not universal at all. It's not bigoted to be more interested in movies about characters with whom you can more easily identify. It's just human nature.

And then there's the whole explicit-gay-sex thing. Many gay men don't seem to understand that straight men are put off by the idea of sex or intimacy between men. They are as guilty on this score -- believing their own sexual orientation should be widely shared -- as heterosexuals who think that gays ought to straighten themselves up.

Straight men just don't want to be involved in, or witness, gay sex. It's not a social construct, or at least it's only that to a small degree. Mostly it's an innate visceral aversion to that form of sex. Doesn't mean it's immoral, necessarily. Just not something we want to take part in.

A modest compromise for the Brokeback Mountain Browbeaters: Straights shouldn't bully gays about their sexual orientations, but neither should gays bully straights about theirs. Can we live with that?

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posted by Ace at 01:35 PM

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