Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Barbara Koziak: Shepherding Romance -- Reviving the Politics of Romantic Love in Brokeback Mountain

Shepherding Romance: Reviving the Politics of Romantic Love in Brokeback Mountain

[1] The recent film, Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee and based on Annie Proulx’s short story, received an overwhelmingly admiring response from newspaper and magazine film critics, won a series of prominent film awards, and roused a large, fervent fan base. Several large on-line discussion forums created in the months following the film’s release analyze every scene, symbol, and character, and remain to this day communities with interests that have expanded beyond the film. Coinciding with the emergence of You Tube and a new amateur video culture, fan enthusiasm created both lyrical tributes and hilarious parodies on video websites. A mini-Brokeback tourist industry emerged, with one website devoting itself to mapping and photographing every shooting location for every scene. These web-based responses culminated in net-generated cultural activism and even the popular naming of a new syndrome, “Brokeback Mountain Fever.”

[2] Such exuberant responses to the film appeared in the midst of a politically treacherous period for sexuality in public life. In the years before the film’s appearance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in their 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas, five U.S. states enacted civil union or domestic partnership legislation while a handful of others recognized some spousal rights, and Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. On the other hand, during the 2004 election season, eleven states passed amendments or laws effectively barring same-sex marriage, and the red and blue state divide has largely formed around such prominent issues of sexuality and marriage. Political events after the appearance of the film were similarly ambivalent: Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, four other states enacted some form of civil union or domestic partnership laws, and New York now recognizes all marriages contracted in other states. Pulling in the opposite direction, the rush to exclude gays and lesbians from marrying continued with eight more states in 2006 and three in 2008. The last group included the stunning reversal through popular ballot of the California Supreme Court’s approval of gay marriage. Remarkably, although politics have been dominated by a sharp backlash against the early victories for gay rights, over the same period, popular support nationwide for gay marriage has been slowly increasing (Campo-Flores 38). Just this year, in the space of a week, legislators in Vermont and the courts in Iowa legalized same-sex marriage.

[3] To explain this growing support, cultural studies scholar David Shumway has argued that we should understand the changing social and narrative context for heterosexual relationships. In particular, Shumway claims that a new class of intimacy narratives in literature and film, in which people expect multiple relationships requiring intensive communicative work, has prepared the straight world to accept gay unions. However, unlike the intimacy narratives Shumway discusses, no single narrative work in the late twentieth century has so broadly appealed to both gays and straights. Although the approval has hardly been universal, popular gay websites and magazines were enthusiastic. For example, AfterElton.com’s list of 50 greatest gay movies begins with Brokeback as number one, and The Advocate featured several Brokeback themed covers. In addition, the film won numerous awards, including MTV’s Best Kiss award and the Academy Award for Best Director (if not for Best Picture), and it continues to appear in popular newspaper and magazine lists of the most romantic movies. The studio, Focus Features, understood these possibilities and worked to broaden the film’s appeal beyond GLBT and art house audiences principally by marketing the film to women, and particularly by branding it as romance (Lippman). This wide embrace is significant since Brokeback Mountain encompasses a classical romantic love narrative, not an intimacy narrative.

[4] In fact, the film arrived at a particularly strange, uncertain moment in the cultural course of love. Some have argued that romantic love emerged in the West in the milieu surrounding the production of French troubadour poetry of the twelfth century, gained widespread popularization in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but lately has been successfully challenged by new modes of heterosexual relations (Shumway, Modern Love; Bloch). In response to this historical thesis, a new debate has emerged on the cultural universality of such a love (Cheung; Janowiak; Gottschall and Nordlund). Others argue that romantic love as currently practiced has undergone a dangerous intensification (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim), while others examine how it has been infiltrated by consumerist desires (Illouz). More recently, some sociologists and historians have reemphasized the historical and psychic disjunction of love and marriage (Coontz), how marriage was traditionally not based on love, and how the effort to link the two has destabilized marriage. Feminist conversations, which in the second wave often critiqued both marriage and love (Beauvoir; Firestone), more recently turned to examining sexual desire and marriage in the midst of the politics surrounding gay and lesbian unions. This new conversation in feminist theory has been relatively silent on romantic love (Card; Josephson; Ferguson; Shanley). Those early second generation feminists had often seen romantic love as a velvet trap for women, but their analysis was rightly devoted to this trap, and they often ended on a utopian hope for a transformed love. It is time to reconsider the socio-political effect of romantic love narratives, particularly because Brokeback and the emergence of online communities enable us to reexamine both a new iteration of this orthodox tale and its contemporary reception.

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