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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, December 30, 2005

The "Brokeback" Effect

By now, you’ve probably heard about "Brokeback Mountain." It’s a new movie about two ranch hands who work in Wyoming in the 1960’s, gradually fall in love, and silently struggle for years in a world that makes it nearly impossible for them to be together.

Over Christmas weekend, the film posted the highest per-screen average of any movie. To put that in perspective, "Brokeback Mountain" earned $13,599 per theater; “King Kong" took in $9,305 per screen. This weekend the film opened in more cities, building slowly on strong word-of-mouth personal reviews and a gaggle of award nominations, including seven Golden Globes.

The Milwaukee No on the Amendment Coalition hosted an exclusive premiere of the movie on Wednesday night, and it’s now open to the public at the Landmark Oriental. The film is expected to expand to many more theaters across the state over the next few weeks.

Could there be a "Brokeback" effect in Wisconsin?

There just might be. It won’t be overnight or obvious, but I think people will leave this movie with a greater compassion for the challenges facing gay people. People will leave the movie feeling—for the first time ever—a sense of connection and empathy to a love story between two men.

As Frank Rich discussed in the New York Times, Brokeback could have an effect on the ongoing culture war. He writes, “In the packed theater where I caught ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ the trailers included a National Guard recruitment spiel, and the audience was demographically all over the map. The culture is seeking out this movie not just because it is a powerful, four-hankie account of a doomed love affair and is beautifully acted ….The X factor is that the film delivers a story previously untold by A-list Hollywood. It's a story America may be more than ready to hear…”

I believe movements for social progress need popular narratives that tell stories of individual struggle. People—especially people who have no interest in following the twists and turns of issues on the news or in the statehouse—need narratives that invite sympathy (and maybe even empathy) for a group of people who used to be merely stereotypes.

Over the past decade, representations of gay people in mass media have increased dramatically. That’s important. But "Brokeback Mountain" offers something different. It’s a mainstream release with popular actors that offers one of many untold stories of people throughout the ages who have struggled silently with being gay—what it means to find love and to be forced to keep it secret because of the immense pressures of who your society, community, and family expect you to be.

There are people across Wisconsin who know gay people and generally support the concept of fairness, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding the challenges facing gay people. Maybe they’ve never had a friend who struggled with harassment or being rejected by family. Maybe they’ve said they support equal treatment for gay couples but deep down still don’t believe relationships between people of the same gender are as real or authentic as their own.

This movie is likely to get millions more people to see—and feel—the intense social pressures, the psychological anguish, and the just-as-real and powerful love that gay people experience. It will get people to cry for the silenced love between two men. It will get people angry about the senselessness of forcing gay people to live in sham heterosexual marriages.

If the movie continues to scoop up award nominations and continues to sell out shows as it expands into Middle America, I think there’s a very good chance it will slowly change the way people relate to gay people and gay issues.

Maybe more Wisconsinites will think about this personal story of loss when they hear debates about the civil unions and marriage ban. For the first time, they will have a popular narrative of personal struggle to reference. The "Brokeback" effect just might make the issue less abstract.

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