Movies About Men, For Women

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In his comment to my entry about why I like the sex scene in Latter Days, MohoHawaii noted that he "always thought that there should be a larger market for romance stories that cross the gender divide. The straight female audience is largely untapped as consumers of male-male love stories. This is a potentially huge market, since there are 10 to 20 times as many straight women as there are gay men."

For whatever reason, I've been an enthusiastic part of that market since even before I officially reached adulthood. One of my very first entries on this blog was about my movie-watching habits in the 1980s. I decided as a college freshman that I'd see pretty much any movie back for a "revival" (which was important back in the days before you could easily rent or buy a copy of a movie, making revival houses unnecessary) or anything that was a "classic." This decision was facilitated by the fact that UA's student union had a HUGE movie theater in it, and it showed only second-run movies or revivals, for a mere buck-fifty. As I've mentioned, the first movie I went to see there was A Clockwork Orange, which I walked out of; the second movie I went to see was La Cage aux Folles, which I loved and my roommate hated.

I made a habit of dragging roommates to movies I really wanted to see, which is how, as a junior, I persuaded my 17-year-old sister (yes, I roomed with my sister--I actually roomed with all three of my sisters at one point or another) to see both Risky Business (had that dreadful R-rating, though in the early 80s ratings weren't quite such a big deal in the church) and Another Country, which was rated a mere PG but was all about homosexuality at some British public school.

I'm not sure how many teenage Mormon females would be so enthusiastic about a mannered art film exploring the difficulties of conducting a gay love affair at boys' boarding school, difficulties exacerbated because one boy had just hung himself after being caught en flagrante by a headmaster. But my sister and I LOVED it. And really, it's not so very remarkable that we loved it, because it was an interesting script and beautifully cast, emphasis on beautiful: it featured the very young Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Cary Elwes in their earliest starring roles.

I've talked to gay men who shrug when I mention that movie and say, "Oh, it was OK." I watched it a few years ago when it came out on dvd; it wasn't as good as I remembered, but I still liked it. And I think I liked it for one of the reasons I liked Latter Days, and that's the fact that women were not depicted as adversaries in that movie.

Of course, in Another Country, women are not really depicted at all: they don't really exist. Rupert Everett's character has a mother we see once or twice; Colin Firth's character has a girlfriend we never see. But for the most part, women are irrelevant in that movie.

Compare that to something like Maurice, where women are cast in the role of adversary or impediment, not very intelligent or worthy ones, either; rather, they are the temptation or social crutch one character succumbs to, leaving the other broken-hearted and alone with his unspeakable, unshakable desires.

Or think of Last Exit to Brooklyn, in which a gay character comes home and crawls into bed. His wife wakes and begins to kiss and caress him, attempting to initiate sex. Furious at having to deny himself what he really wants and engage in sex he doesn't enjoy, the man makes the sex absolutely brutal, so vicious and violent that by the time he rolls off his wife, she's wounded and weeping.

Or think of Total Eclipse, a fairly crappy movie hardly anyone saw, where Paul Verlaine is unwilling to commit to a relationship with Arthur Rimbaud (Leo DiCaprio), because "he loves his wife's body." But loving his wife's body doesn't stop him from becoming so annoyed at the way she's intellectually inferior to his male lover on the side that he sets her hair on fire.

Or think of Sordid Lives, which has some really lackluster performances (the lead, for example) but some really great ones--it's how I became a Beth Grant fan. OK, a lot of the female characters in that movie are very sympathetic. But there's also the dreadful female psychiatrist who's trying to make Brother Boy straight by forcing him to look at her genitals.

Or think of Wilde, or of Oscar Wilde's life. Wilde liked his wife, Constance; he felt fondness and affection for her, and doted on her when she was first pregnant. But she didn't provide the kind of companionship he really wanted. After Wilde meets Robbie Ross, Constance becomes a mere bit player in his life. After Wilde meets Bosie, she's essentially written out of the action. Wilde's actions destroy both himself AND his wife, but foremost in his concerns is always Bosie, the person he was in love with, not the person he married.

Or think of Angels in America, and the way Harper is a not-that-bright, not-that-appealing (not-that-believable), depressed, neurotic hindrance that Joe must escape in order to become a more authentic person.

I could go on and on. And the point is not to say that there's anything necessarily wrong with these movies, because I believe they're depicting real phenomena. I have no problem believing, for instance, that in England during the time surrounding the Great War, for a gay man who fell in love at university, it was really upsetting, confusing and humiliating when the guy you were in love with--and who claimed to love you back--spurned you in order to marry a woman, which is the story in Maurice. I managed to enjoy the movie perfectly well, even though women were depicted primarily as adversaries as obstacles; it's just that Maurice is by no means my favorite Merchant Ivory film or favorite Forster novel. (That would be A Room with a View, on both counts.)

Then compare all these movies--one in which women are irrelevant, a bunch in which women are the nasty plot complication--to Latter Days, where women are friends, roommates, mentors, mothers (and not nearly as nasty as the patriarchs), co-workers and even employers, but never discarded spouses or lovers.

Think of it in terms of my all-time favorite gay/transgendered movie: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The only woman Hedwig has to reject is herself, the person Hansel became in order to please the first husband. After Tommy encounters Hedwig's angry inch and freaks out, then tries to make it all better by saying, "But I love you," Hedwig replies, angry and hurt, "Then love the front of me." It means something very different when an unhappily/incompletely transgendered biological man says that to another man than if a straight woman says it to a gay man.

In Emily Pearson's essay "Irreconcilable Differences," about her mixed orientation marriage, she notes that watching the play about their marriage by her ex-husband, Steve Fales, felt like "being dismembered by an ice pick." She also writes about reading a review of the play in which the reviewer noted that

As important as his relationship with his wife is to his story--and as much as his desire to respect her privacy may be commendable--it's disconcerting how completely she disappears from his 'Confessions' between courtship and divorce."
I was floored. The reviewer had, in one sentence, summed up my entire marriage. I had completely disappeared between our courtship and divorce. Just as my mother, and every other straight woman I knew who had married a gay man, had completely disappeared between courtship and divorce.

I recognize the need for gay men to tell the truth of their stories. I applaud the effort. But I cannot applaud the perpetuation of stories in which the plot is designed from the get-go for women to be adversaries, impediments, that which must be abandoned in order for the man's real story to unfold. And that is what happens when we act like mixed-orientation marriages are examples of brave, courageous, admirable choices on the part of the men who pursue them. They're not. They might be understandable choices, and some gay men might make a better go of it than others. I'm not saying they should be forbidden or punished. (From what I've seen, in most cases, the marriage itself and the dreadful aftermath are usually punishment enough.) But they're not something we should admire--they're not, in other words, something we should make "politically correct."*

So I think that's one reason I like Latter Days more than any gay Mormon man I've ever met likes it: it doesn't denigrate women or women's sexuality. It doesn't treat straight women as maddening manacles or millstones preventing the main characters' happiness, or as unfortunate but unavoidable casualties along the course of the main characters' voyages of discovery. It doesn't even turn women into irrelevancies the main characters need not worry about. It treats them as people, entitled to respect and esteem, and invested in very real and respectable ways in the main characters' well-being.

So if someone wants to tap into the potential audience straight women could be for romances about gay men, I think all of that is important to keep in mind.


*That, by the way, is Ben Christensen's current way of trying to defend the whole business of mixed-orientation marriages: he marvels that his critics somehow missed the fact that he asked, "Why then is it not politically correct for a gay man to venture into what is usually considered the exclusive territory of straight men--to marry a woman and have a family--if that's what he chooses to do?"

I didn't miss the question; I spent 7000 words explaining why it's not politically correct, but I'll provide the short answer here: because most marriages between gay men and straight women privilege male well-being at the cost of female well-being. I also noted, "Christensen demands not only the continued right of gay men to marry straight women, but approbation and approval for doing so, and he has received even that." He's not brave enough to do what he wants regardless of what other people think of him; he wants everyone to approve him, and he becomes petulant when they don't.

On his blog, he recently asked if I or others like me would "accuse a woman expressing her right to marry another woman of having an overblown sense of entitlement? No; Holly has said as much. Why then the double standard? Why are some choices more politically correct than others?"

Jesus Christ, why are some people so much poorer at clear reasoning than others?

Some choices are more politically correct than others because some choices are more beneficial to society and individuals, while others are more harmful. Most mixed-orientation marriages are dreadful failures that bring misery and heartache to those involved, including spouses and the children these marriages produce.

Gee? Why wouldn't society offer such marriages its most enthusiastic endorsement? Well, you can only note that for a really long time, the Mormon church did.

That, Ben, is why your choice is less "politically correct" than others. Ain't no double standard there--just the simple awareness that it is unethical for society to promote choices in which the cost of one person's happiness/ comfort/ convenience/ pleasure come at the cost of someone else's suffering. Your marriage might be one of the few exceptions--you and FoxyJ might live your entire lives pleased as punch with your arrangement--but for most people who end up in them, marriages like yours are unnecessary, unmitigated disasters. Because most people in and out of such marriages can see that, they find your defense of mixed-orientation marriages--not just mixed marriages themselves, but your entire defense of them--not only politically incorrect, but naive, foolish and pitiable. Is that really so hard to see?

So Ben, there's no double standard in the fact that people like me are ardent supporters of the right to marry for two people who are fervently in love and who have a clear understanding of what they're offering each other in a marriage, regardless of gender, but aren't so big on the idea of sexually naive dudes blind to their own privilege saying, "I want what everyone else has, just because. Why doesn't everyone approve of me when I do whatever I want?"

You might as well argue that there should be no double-standard about drinking: if it's OK for adults to drink, why isn't it OK for 14-year-olds to drink? If it's OK for a 30-year-old guy to drink four whiskey and sodas during a Friday night at a bar with his friends, why isn't it politically correct for a 30-year-old pregnant woman to drink three cosmos that same Friday night? Why the double standard? Gee, could it have something to do with the fact that one course of action is far more likely to cause harm than another?

But since someone probably will argue that there should be no law prohibiting teenagers from buying alcohol, or else argue that all drinking should be politically incorrect, let me illustrate the problems with Ben's logic in another example involving marriage. In some states a 16-year-old can marry provided s/he has parental consent; in other states, second cousins can marry. So why shouldn't it be politically correct to marry your 16-year-old second cousin if that's what you choose to do? Why is that any different from marrying your 21-year-old fourth-cousin-once-removed, especially if she's not done with college? She's still younger than average, and you're still related. So why the double standard?

In other words, Ben, just get over the fact that people don't always approve of what you do, and live your live according to your own convictions and preferences, or else make choices that will more easily win you respect.

7 Comments

It's my observation that many, many gay men have experienced women as friends, helpers, and mentors on the way to coming out of the closet and coming to a point of full acceptance of themselves as gay men. Maybe this is a terrible stereotype, but I think this often happens because women are interested in relationships/friendships before they become interested in sex, and gay men find friendship with women non-threatening as they are trying to sort out the complexities of their desire.

So I agree, it would make sense for more movies to explore that theme...

I once thought that all gay men MUST naturally be feminists, because, for the reasons I've mentioned here, gay men easily enter into friendships with straight women. And because gay men, like women, face serious challenges that are fundamentally rooted in our society's construction of gender... Alas, it is not so.

Hey, what about Longtime Companion? I really liked the character of the sister, especially since I first saw the film back in my BYU days when my brother had just come out.

Snappy Holidays Holly!!

Hi JGW--I don't know why it is that gay men and straight women often offer each other such rewarding friendships; I only know that it happens. I have met more than a few of the variety of gay men who don't have much use for women, who disdain and dismiss them, but I'm glad to say they seem to be a rarer breed than the kind who actually like women.

Hi CL--I somehow missed Longtime Companion, but I just added it to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the recommendation.

Hi Dale--Snappy Holidays to You!

Wow. I am right there with you on your summation of these movies; I too spent much of the 80s obsessed with these same films....and let's not even go there about why 20 years ago there was a heck of a lot more to choose from on this topic. Found you through Ben Christensen's blog, which I linked to from a friend's comics blog....okay, is this guy for real? What the hell kind of person marries someone of the opposite sex knowing full well that he's gay?? Have I just missed the last 20 years??
Enjoying your blog; can't wait to read more.

Hi Wendy--sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Your profile had me cracking up; my interests also include "idle and malicious gossip," though it's one of those things I don't emphasize because, well, I guess I prefer euphemisms, like "blogging." Anyway, I'm very glad you stopped by and look forward to sharing plenty of "blogging" with you.

In other words, Ben, just get over the fact that people don't always approve of what you do, and live your live according to your own convictions and preferences, or else make choices that will more easily win you respect.

Point taken--and I say that sincerely. It's uncomfortable for me to hear, but mostly because it's true. And the rest of your post has given me a lot to think about too. Thanks as always for your perspective.

Yes, here I am commenting on old posts again, but I have to admit I don't stop by here all that often. I'm here today looking for your posts in response to "Getting Out" to link to on a site of LGBT resources I'm helping a friend put together. He's asked me to bring in some resources related to mixed-orientation marriages and I believe your perspective on the issue is an important one.

Take care.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 21, 2007 8:18 PM.

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