Issue #38, May 1998
Gazing out across some early twentieth century British estate, the esteemed cultural critic Lytton Strachey sees a group of boys playing soccer. They run to and fro, their young bodies muddy and colliding in homoerotic splendor. One in particular strikes his fancy, the loud one with blonde curls. "Ah," he intones with great satisfaction, "What a beautiful young man." But the young man, it turns out, is no man at all. He's Dora Carrington, the wild, androgynous female painter whose lifelong relationship with the utterly queer Strachey is the subject of the 1995 movie Carrington, one of many 90s films about heterosexual romance between people whom one would hardly wish to call "straight."
The queer tragedy of pining after oblivious heterosexuals was immortalized in movies like The Children's Hour (1961), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), and Maurice (1987); now Hollywood is exploring how this specific sort of unrequited love cuts both ways. Parodied and mourned in recent fare like Chasing Amy (1997), My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), and The Object of My Affection (1998), the homo-enfatuated heterosexual has emerged as one of the latest heroes in the romantic genre's ongoing quest to recreate the medieval thrill of courtly love. Idealized during the Middle Ages as a passionate yet entirely chaste form of desire (usually between a knight and his king's wife), courtly love has underwritten a great deal of what counts as "romance" in centuries since. After all, it is still generally the case that we value a prolonged period of yearning and waiting in "true love," even if chastity is out of the question. This holds for both homo- and heterosexual love -- think, for instance, of the charming despair and angels-are-singing fulfillment in the ultra-queer The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995) and the ultra-straight Swingers (1996). Both indie flicks work so well as romantic tales because their protagonists must languish almost interminably before meeting The Right One and dancing off into the proverbial sunset.
But what does it mean when fuddy-duddy courtly love is coupled with super-contemporary issues like sexual identity? And why is middle-of-the-road Hollywood placing heterosexuals in the ideologically weird position of falling for sexual minorities? One might easily claim -- particularly in the movies I've just mentioned -- that these are actually stories about converting homosexuals into "normal" people. Chasing Amy, after all, has lesbian Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) fall happily into bed with the alterna-macho dork Holden (Ben Affleck). Carrington features an ambiguous sex scene between Carrington and Strachey, just as My Best Friend's Wedding concludes with the seriously romantic dance between Julianne (Julia Roberts) and her gay friend George (Rupert Everett). And The Object of My Affection depicts hero Nina (Friends pinup girl Jennifer Aniston) in a hot almost-sex scene with her gay roommate (another George, played by Paul Rudd), whose sexual orientation is literally saved by the bell: right before consummation, his ex-lover calls and derails what appears to be a blow job in the making.
So perhaps these films are reactionary heterosexual fantasies about teaching homosexuals the "true" way to love; or, more generously, liberal fantasies about having your sexual diversity cake and eating it too, letting the queers be queer unless some nice straight person actually wants to bed one. I'd wager that most of them are doing both things, with a film like Chasing Amy taking the most reactionary perspective (nice boy converts lesbian), and The Object of My Affection (which, after all, ends with George firmly choosing his male lover over the weepy Nina) providing a liberal counterpoint.
But I think there is also a third possibility for these movies, one which helps explain their relationship to a contemporary trend in heterosexual thought. They offer audiences a new form of sexual conservatism in which your orientation matters less than whether you choose to form a family, become monogamous, and procreate.
Looking at movies like The Object of My Affection and My Best Friend's Wedding with this in mind, it becomes clear that what's at stake is less the conversion of homo into hetero, and more the conversion of queer families into traditional ones. As critic Kath Weston has explained, the queer family is a "family we choose," a group of close-knit friends who support and nurture each other in ways that biological families often spectacularly fail to do. Driven from their own families by prejudice, homosexuals have historically formed queer families to regain a sense of home and community that they miss. But in the post-Reagan era of job mobility and "rootlessness," the queer family has become a kind of norm for straights and gays alike. Celebrated on TV shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends, the friends-as-family idea is both comforting and pragmatic. When so few people have the luxury of living near their families, we are forced to form other kinship ties. In addition, it seems that pop psychology has finally taught us that biological families are mostly dysfunctional anyway, so why would anyone want to depend on them to "be there for you," as the Friends theme song says? And yet the queer family, often highly unconventional and rife with sexual ambiguity, is hardly traditional enough to qualify as having what Republicans call "family values."
Hence the need to find socially acceptable ways of bringing homosexuals into traditional families. According to My Best Friend's Wedding and The Object of My Affection, the easiest way to do this is to reinstate chastity as the norm in adult relationships. Both films are principally concerned with intimate but non-sexual relationships between straight women and gay men who are at the center of extended, mostly non-biological families. Abstinence in both films is romanticized, and all the most passionate, "marriage" style relationships are between platonic friends. Object is quite explicit about how this desexualized state of affairs is the best situation possible in which to have children. When Nina gets pregnant, she knows instinctively that her obnoxiously sexist boyfriend is the wrong father for her child, and she asks the sensitive George to help her co-parent the baby instead. George, a first grade teacher, has been longing to raise babies all his life, and falls in love with the idea of family that Nina offers him.
As Nina and George's relationship develops, they accumulate a "family" which includes Nina's relatives, their spouses, and George's gay lover and friends. None of the domestic partners we meet ever have sex: George's lover lives with an older man who adores him but is just "too old;" George lives with Nina; and Nina's mother lives in a post-sexual marriage. Implicitly, the best family homes are run by celibates. In the film's afterward, which takes place six years after Nina's child is born, we see that Nina and George's family has blossomed. Everyone has a long-term monogamous lover, everyone thinks of themselves as "family," and they've all come to watch Nina's daughter dance in the school play. "I had the most people come to see me!" the little girl exults to "Uncle George" on the way home. Of course it's great to see homosexuals treated like ordinary "family," but what kind of family is this? Elder members of the clan offer condescending, snarky comments to the younger ones; no one is allowed to have sex; gender roles are strictly enforced (women are emotionally fragile and men have jobs); and making babies becomes the source of all fulfillment. What we have is a slightly more colorful version of the Brady Bunch.
Similar sets of "happy" circumstances adorn the endings of My Best Friend's Wedding, and Object's indie precursor The Wedding Banquet (1993). In Best Friend, Julianne's family becomes her now-married best friend Michael, and her unbelievably devoted gay pal George. After she unsuccessfully attempts to woo Michael, Julianne realizes that the real pleasures in life come from platonic family bonds, and she and George dance at Michael's very traditional wedding through a sea of sparkly, bourgeois relatives. George even notes that "there may be no sex, but there is dancing." Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet also carves out a niche for gay men in the traditional family by providing them with a pseudo-wedding and children. To please his highly respected family, the gay Wai-Tung throws a wedding for himself and Wei-Wei, a friend who wants to get residence in the United States. But the fake wedding ends in a drunken night of sex between Wai-Tung and the besotted Wei-Wei, who immediately gets pregnant. Wai-Tung and his lover Simon, whose charade pleases Wai-Tung's family to no end (although they know what's "really going on"), ultimately do their duty as men and patriarchs in a traditional Chinese family.
Oddly enough, the addition of homosexuals and their queer families to the traditional family makes taboos against sexuality even more rigid. If anyone -- not just biological relatives -- can become your potential family member, then taboos against sex are virtually forced to skyrocket. You never know when the prick of love might become the sting of incest. Traditional families are, in essence, the locus of sexual taboo in our society: they are the first place we learn about prohibitions against homosexuality (babies are made by mom and dad), and prohibitions against incest. Blending queers into the traditional family relaxes taboos against homosexuality only to expand incest taboos to the point where one can't imagine sex except with a long-term monogamous partner. Everyone else is "family" and therefore off-limits. Queer families, while not always any less dysfunctional than traditional ones, at least have the advantage of allowing for the open expression of sexual desire between adults who are not biologically related. What we get from a film like Object or Wedding Banquet is the idea that open sexual expression is always a bad idea, particularly if you want families and children. So "family values" remain, in essence, unchanged.
Chasing Amy is perhaps the most ideologically heinous film in this respect, in that sexual taboo-breaking becomes the source of all social disruption. Alyssa's lesbianism is connected to her "sluttiness," which turns out to include a past episode in which she had group sex with men. Repulsed and confused by Alyssa's polymorphous perversity, Holden breaks up with her, and then rudely attempts to involve her in a mini-orgy with himself and his best friend/business partner Banky. Alyssa and Holden's family of comic book artist friends -- which includes straights and gays -- is torn apart by Alyssa's refusal to be sexually conservative. Had she just been a nice lesbian girl who happened to be hetero for Holden, we assume, things might have worked out. But she threatens their family with open sexual expression, which finally destroys her relationship with Holden, as well as Holden and Banky's long-term friendship. Here we find that homosexuality is OK only so long as everyone engages in highly selective serial monogamy.
Not surprisingly, films in which we find gays and straights sharing an overtly sexual -- and often non-monogamous -- queer family usually end with the family's dissolution or its recombination into traditional families. Three of Hearts (1993), about the non-sexual roommate romance between lesbian Connie (Kelly Lynch) and straight guy Joe (William Baldwin), is emphatic about keeping its characters out of family situations. Although there is the requisite wedding sequence, in which Joe pretends to be Connie's boyfriend, it's less a celebration of family than a statement about Connie's distance from it. Joe is a gigolo whom she's paid to accompany her, and Connie is still madly in love with her bisexual ex-girlfriend Ellen (Sherilyn Fenn). After Joe and Connie bond over a mutual infatuation (and fornication) with Ellen, the film ends with the two living together but utterly without extended family. Ellen has left both of them, and while Connie and Joe seem happy together, they are not comfortably nestled within the kinds of kinship networks formed in Object, Best Friend, or Wedding Banquet. Carrington ends even more tragically, with Carrington and Strachey leading bitter, unfulfilled lives at the center of a highly sexualized queer family that provides them with intellectual sustenance but little in the way of Object's warm fuzzies. Threesome (1994), a college dorm romance between a gay man and his straight male and female roommates, allows its nubile young protagonists to have group sex, but only because we understand this is a "phase" that they all grow out of as soon as they graduate into job and family.
So heterosexuals are falling in love with homosexuals because sexless relationships are the cornerstones of any family with "values." And queers are welcome into traditional families precisely because their presence actually de-escalates the possibility that people will be engaging in what was once called free love.
Certainly there's also a more utopian possibility -- that these are films about heterosexuals learning to love homosexuals without trying to make them straight. Save for Chasing Amy, every film I've described allows its homosexuals to remain happily queer (if somewhat inexplicably over-attached to their straight friends). Straights are forced to accept the reality of homosexual love, even if they do it ungracefully and sometimes only after trying to make the homosexuals have heterosexual sex. This even seems to be the message in the übernormal Kevin Kline vehicle In & Out (1997). But if these recent Hollywood heterosexuals are sacrificing a wish to make everyone straight, they are only doing it because they have a chance to absorb everyone into conservative family-driven communities where all the bad old values of sexual and social repression run rampant.
Although these movies think of themselves as "straight but not narrow" liberalizing forces, they are draining away the transformative possibilities created by radically queer families in which sexuality is treated as a part of everyday life. The Object of My Affection, which I believe typifies romantic comedies devoted to redefining heterosexuality, never attempts to question the way its family constrains erotic desire, reinforces gender norms, and directs us all toward child-rearing as a domestic goal. Although heterosexuals may be learning to redefine love, this is hardly a radical breakthrough if we never question the problems posed by families formed under conditions not of our own choosing. Going back to traditional families -- even if they include homosexuals -- is a cultural step in the wrong direction.
Annalee Newitz has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley and is a freelance writer. She is the author of the forthcoming book When We Pretend That We're Dead: Monsters, Psychopaths, and the Economy in American Pop Culture, and writes regularly for New York Press, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Punk Planet.