Magic Bullet or Chicken Soup? Brokeback Mountain as a Cure for Sexual Prejudice
Brokeback Mountain has stunned many observers by its success. The film has won numerous awards for its director, screenwriter, and cast, as well as Best Picture awards on both sides of the Atlantic, and, most recently, three Oscars. And Brokeback has not been a mere succès d’estime; it has been a box office hit on a national basis—even in the reddest of states. This popular success causes many to hope—or fear—that it will lead to widespread acceptance of same-sex relationships and support for ending discrimination in the right to marry.
The old adage, after all, is that cultural change precedes political change. We know that among the ancients, changes in the content of children’s stories came about a generation before changes in political and economic development. Today, of course, messages travel much more rapidly, reach many more people, and contain powerful visual images in addition to the words that the children’s tales comprised. Nevertheless, attitudes as powerful and as deeply rooted as those toward marriage and toward sexual orientation are not likely to be transformed by a single movie. Whether minimal or not-so-minimal, the effects of Brokeback Mountain are not likely to overwhelm centuries of sexual prejudice. This wonderful movie is more likely to contribute to the cumulative changes in attitudes toward LGBT people than it is to have a transformative impact.
To put Brokeback’s likely impact into perspective, we should think back to Philadelphia, a 1993 Oscar-winning weeper starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer fired from his job for having AIDS. I can find no evidence that Philadelphia transformed attitudes toward people living with HIV/AIDS, even though the disease was then thought of as a “gay plague,” and Hanks won his first Academy Award for acting in the role of a gay man. Similarly, I’m not aware of any evidence that Hillary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance as the transgendered Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) had a transformative impact on mass attitudes toward the transgendered. Instead, a presumably heterosexual actor’s playing a gay man or a transgendered person simply is taken to be evidence of the actor’s wide range. (Curiously, few find it a stretch for LGBT actors to portray straight people.)
As of this writing, I can find no data whatsoever that measure the relationship between seeing Brokeback Mountain and changes in beliefs about the rights of LGBT people. Perhaps such data will emerge, but perhaps not; I also have failed to find any indicators of this relationship for viewers of Philadelphia or Boys Don’t Cry.
What, then, can we conjecture about the impact of Brokeback Mountain? The film itself is very ambiguous. Very few words are spoken. Instead, the viewer must construct much of the dramatic action and plot development from visual cues. As a result, one might expect a lot of selective perception that reinforces preexisting beliefs—both pro- and anti-equal rights for LGBT people and pro-and anti-marriage equality. (One noted European political theorist told me that the film was about nature. He observed that all of the important events occurred outdoors, in nature, making clear that acts traditionally viewed as unnatural became as natural as any other acts in the great outdoors.)
Given the film’s immense box office success, even in small-town markets in the red states, the chances are that large numbers of people who saw Brokeback Mountain also voted for George W. Bush and in favor of amending state constitutions to define marriage as a union solely between one man and one woman. We don’t know what they think they saw when they attended the film, but I’m willing to bet that many members of these audiences would provide a different narrative of the film’s events from that which would likely be produced by my neighbors in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
More likely than having a transformative impact, Brokeback Mountain may have a catalytic effect. After all, the film showed two men who were not stereotypically gay going from a discreetly depicted roll in the hay to a lifelong romance, and it made a lot of money without being the object of great controversy. Movie houses that showed it were not picketed by the forces of traditional morality. The religious right seems to have made a conscious decision (hoping not to attract even larger audiences to the film) to ignore Brokeback Mountain rather than to pillory its creators and distributors. This combination of profit without controversy probably means that more films will be made depicting same-sex romance and relationships, thus further reinforcing shifting trends toward greater public support for equal rights for LGBT people and for ending discrimination in the right to marry.
What does all of this mean for changing public attitudes in the direction of greater equality for LGBT people? Sexual prejudice is a disease that since our earliest history has resisted treatment. Like chicken soup, Brokeback Mountain can’t hurt. And, like chicken soup, Brokeback Mountain may not be sufficient to cure the affliction.
Kenneth Sherrill is a professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York.
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