Continuing to sort out my thoughts from the recent Popular Culture Association convention in Atlanta, I recall a discussion about whether the movie Brokeback Mountain told a universal love story or whether the point of the movie lay in its specificity. I think that’s the sort of question which doesn’t have an answer, but can tell you a lot about the person asking and/or answering it.
I’m assuming that anyone able to access the internet to read this post is familiar with Brokeback Mountain the movie. While I enjoyed the movie, I didn’t think it was so all that: to me it was a story about denying your innermost self, with tragic consequences, set in a more scenic part of the country than is typical for such stories. But I’m more interested in Brokeback Mountain the phenomenon, in particular the way that people react to the movie and what that can tell us about American culture early in the 21st century.
One comment in many mainstream reviews (i.e., not in the gay press) of Brokeback was that it told a “unversal” story. I have a feeling that the reviewers thought they were paying the film a compliment. But what they were really saying, from their positions of power within the mainstream culture, was that the most important fact about a film about outsiders was that it could appeal to insiders, i.e. to people located solidly in the mainstream. In fact, if people can classify a story as “universal” they can overlook the specificity of the characters, in this case two men in love with each other who could not find a way to live in their society and express that love in a sustained manner.
Well, that reminds me of discussions about whether someone’s behavior was “too Jewish” or whether the most important thing for a deaf person was to be a really good lipreader so hearing people were not reminded of their difference. Fortunately we’ve moved beyond those two examples, at least in polite society, but apparently it is still acceptable to refuse to acknowledge the reality of same-sex love, banishing it to the ether with the label “universal”.
And here’s a question for the someone with internet access and some time on their hands: how often do minority publications refer to stories about the dominant culture as universal, and how many times do mainstream publications refer to stories about minorities as universal? I think the answer will demonstrate that the “universal” label is a declaration of power by the dominant culture which allows it to negate the reality of those minorities by simply failing to acknowlege their specific existence.