With all the gay cowboy jokes being told and the recent torrent of media announcing HBO’s new polygamy drama Big Love, it seems everybody is talking about what happens when sex meets screen.
Those interested in celluloid sex over the years could do a lot worse than check out Joe Bob Briggs’s delightful new book, Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies That Changed History. Briggs, a film critic and former National Review columnist, writes: “Every sexual breakthrough in the movies, every taboo eliminated, has a corresponding backlash, and in the movement back and forth between the extremes of hedonism and absolute censorship, a picture of our sexuality more or less emerges.”
A nice summation, but it doesn’t really settle the question of whether Hollywood is changing sexual mores or just reflecting the sexual peccadilloes of Joe Six-Pack.
In political circles, the culture war is usually more war than culture. Meanwhile the real action takes place in books, television shows, and movies whose reviewers are loath to complain about obvious countercultural agendas. Brokeback Mountain and Big Love should be subject to more than reviews.
Conservatives, though usually the first to shout “culture war!” in a crowded theater, rarely get the job done. Eli Roth’s horror flick Hostel–which was described by Variety as “unhinged gruesomeness”–reached the top of the box office without any comments from the James Dobson crowd. But make one single movie about gay cowboys and conservatives react as if Hollywood’s velvet mafia paid the tooth fairy to sneak a copy of Heather Has Two Mommies under the pillow of every child in America.
If anything, anti-gay conservatives might consider giving their own awards to Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. I know Brokeback was supposed to be a breakthrough gay love story, but the message I got from it was this: One bad gay-sex decision can ruin your life.
The most remarkable thing about the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon is not the rise of gay cinema but the fact that straight sex has become passé. There was a time not that long ago when the erotic thriller was a popular genre. In the 1980s, we saw Body Heat, The Big Easy, Sea of Love, Fatal Attraction, and 9½ Weeks, with the sweaty trend finally climaxing in 1993 with Basic Instinct.
Believe it or not, the words Basic Instinct once inspired titillation about Sharon Stone’s naughty bits rather than fear about her Xanax prescription lapsing. But for me, Basic Instinct only brings back traumatic memories. That’s because I saw the movie with my mother.
As I sat next to my mom, she grunted in disdain at each erotic tension point. While most people audibly gasped when Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs, I only heard my mother: “Oh please. Ooh, I bet you think you’re so special. Oh come on.”
Basic Instinct‘s explicitness completely killed the genre. The erotic thrillers of the 1990s that came after–Jade, Sliver, and especially Showgirls–brought great humiliation to their filmmakers, which I imagine as a sinking feeling even worse than the one I would have had watching those movies with my mom. And now Basic Instinct 2 has bombed so badly that Seymour Hersh reported the U.S. military is considering using it against underground nuclear sites in Iran.
Paul Verhoeven, the director of the original Basic Instinct, as well as Showgirls, blamed the sequel’s abysmal box office receipts on Christians and the Bush administration. “Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States,” he told Reuters. “We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends.”
While blaming Christians is convenient, Verhoeven is merely trying to avoid responsibility for ruining straight sex in cinema. American society may be largely Christian, but it has gotten totally used to the dissolution of the traditional family as the most cliché of all social norms. Books tell us that straight relationships are cold and cynical. Women get He’s Just Not That Into You, while men practice giving strategic insults out of Neil Strauss’s The Game. Courtship and longing, perfectly fine for stories about gay ranchers and polygamous quartets, are considered tired for heterosexuals. Or, as Daphne Merkin wrote in Slate: “All the really persuasive bonding taking place these days is happening far from the Mom & Pop master bedroom.”
But is the non-traditional coupling and quartering so progressive? Progressive maybe, but not terribly exciting. Considering gay culture’s traditional emphasis on kitsch and camp, Brokeback Mountain is oddly somber. “This is one of the best serious films about homosexuality ever made,” said the New York Post. “Serious” is right. The movie made being gay seem like a real downer. The two rugged shepherds Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, neither of whom were terribly emotive, might have been on suicide-watch. And their unproductive semiannual fishing trips, where they go away to have sex in the hills, leave families ruined in their wake.
About the fishing: Just how much sex were they having on that mountain? An entire weekend of male-on-male sex with no fishing in between? You’d think they would have had plenty of time to put their other poles in the water.
With its angst-ridden homosexuals trapped in stifling relationships, Brokeback was the male version of 2002’s much-acclaimed The Hours–yet another movie that might have been executive-produced by Rick Santorum. The Hours weaves the story of mopey ole Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway with the story of a lesbianish woman reading the same book in the 1950s as she tries to leave a passionless marriage. The unhappy wife’s story is also entwined with that of her son, a gay man who ends up with AIDS and is taken care of by another lesbian, Clarissa, played by Meryl Streep. Clarissa’s daughter, Julia (Claire Daines), sums up the joie de vivre of the film well when she observes: “Mom–all your friends are unhappy.”
Each subplot, see, deals with a gay person contemplating or committing suicide. Someone needs to help these gay people with their marketing!
But if these films fail to celebrate homosexuality, they definitely manage to denigrate heterosexuality. Brokeback‘s filmmakers were praised for giving at least one wife a sympathetic role, but few people seemed to notice the subtle misogyny. I mean, yes, in child-producing marriages there will be times when babies cry and get on your nerves. And wives will be demanding and make husbands wish for escape. But why did Ang Lee make the babies cry in their every scene?
Big Love, the new HBO drama about polygamy, likewise trucks in unfair views of women. It takes three women to satisfy one man, while 1/3 a man is enough for each woman. Or almost enough anyway. The women are all one-dimensional, nagging wives who want more sex than their husband can provide. In the end, it’s a heterosexual nightmare of domestic and sexual obligations rather than the expected male fantasy. The creators of the show, who are obviously advocating for gay marriage, called the show an “ideal template to look at marriage and family.” True–if you hate straight, one-man, one-woman, marriage. What’s worse, the women–like the women in Brokeback and The Hours–are treated as baby factories rather than autonomous persons deserving of respect and undivided love.
The straight men in Brokeback fare even worse. Ranging from Randy Quaid’s embodiment of repressed intolerance to Graham Beckel as Jack Twist’s emasculating father-in-law, the only honorable and masculine men are the gay ones. Ennis’s wife Alma remarries a loving husband who better provides for her needs, and he is portrayed as meek and almost effeminate.
Writing on Andrewsullivan.com, Ross Douthat summed it up: “The film is a study in the contrast between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the former is–almost without exception–presented as preferable to the latter, as purer and more beautiful, and ultimately as more authentically masculine.”
Mainstream gay cinema is trying to tell stories through a heterosexual prism, complete with monogamous partners and children. There are some–the promiscuous-but-loving gay couple on Six Feet Under comes to mind–written in a realistic manner. But most gay characters fail to tell authentic gay stories, let alone universal love stories. Which is to be expected, given the many obvious and some fundamental differences between homosexual and heterosexual love.
Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, argues that homosexuality’s inherent lack of reproduction should be embraced as a social good. But with gay parenting on the rise and Rosie O’Donnell making documentaries lauding growing gay families, it can be hard to remember that the future of the species depends on heterosexual procreation. It may be a brave new world, but most of the time, it still takes man juice, one hot momma’s ovum, and a Luther Vandross CD to make babies.
That Brokeback Mountain is merely a gay twist on what more than one critic called a conventional heterosexual love story is telling. Anything more explicitly gay would have turned off hordes of male audience members and been profoundly marginalizing to women, who have no meaningful role–again, other than as babymakers–in the world of male homosexuality.
So when Brokeback Mountain 2: The Return of the Cowpoke premieres, count me out. I’ll be at home watching my worn out VHS tape of To Have and To Have Not. Sure, it’s 60 years old, but it’s sexy as hell and at least it’s about one man and one woman who love each other. By contemporary standards that makes it exotic.
Mollie Ziegler is a writer in Washington.