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Noah Feldman Final Draft Final Paper Homosexual vs. Heterosexual: History in Time and Film

The history of sex and relationship in American film has correlated well with American history to portray one man and one woman together in a civil, committed and passion filled union. The idea of portraying man and woman together comes from catholic priests and followers of the Production Code Administration and The National Legion of Decency who administered censorship laws relating to sexuality in the late 1950’s. This standard in American film, where and man and a woman could only be seen together under certain restrictions (those being that the two were married and no adultery had taken place; I. Pure Love, the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man, is the rightful subject of plots. II. Impure love, the love of man and woman forbidden by human and divine law) began to become frail with the emerging culture that is America (Doherty, 354-355). In an article titled The History of Sex in American Film, it is mentioned that, “By the late 1960’s, Hollywood began handling sexual content in a much freer manner” (Journal of Popular Culture, 558). People began to experiment sexually in American through sexual acts, behaviors and feelings that would eventually be portrayed onto the big screen. The article continues to mention that, “…the important change was a movement away from institutional regulation to a more liberal policy of self-regulation…the makers of these films felt free to explore new themes of sexuality…they would have an impact on the history of sex in film, influencing mainstream directors to take more risks in how they handled sexual content” (Journal of Popular Culture, 558). The willingness to experiment with sexuality in films from Hollywood directors and producers had a major influence in American culture because of the power it had as a mass medium. People would see movies and be influenced by the decisions that the characters were making on screen (a 1


reason why the Production Code was put into effect into the first place). With America continuing to become more lenient towards sexuality with regards to film and film content, the idea of homosexuality began to take its place in film and culture. The homosexual figure in American society has been frowned upon multiple times in both history and film, causing an epidemic of controversy and negative attitudes. Especially films such as Philadelphia (1993), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and The Kids Are Alright (2010), which will be discussed in this essay, tackle specific issues relating to homosexuality, the depiction of homosexuality in American history and also the relationship of homosexual couples and how outsiders view this relationship. The idea that the homosexual relationship is considered wrong and something of ‘outcastic’ has been recognized by the PCA and other important catholic figures of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Doherty mentions in “Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934” homosexuality and other forms of sexuality and sensibility is not allowed. It says that, “Impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law…must not be presented as attractive and beautiful” (Doherty, 7). This impure love idea is called into question during these films with regards to the relationships that carry on and how the characters choose to establish their relationships within their society. This will be discussed later in the essay but first it’s important to counteract the homosexual impureness to that of the heterosexual pureness. The heterosexual figure in American society has been depicted time and time again through many different styles of films and surrounding cultures. The male, usually a dominant figure in his world, intends to find a mate to suit both his lifestyle and his needs. On the contrary, the female, both delicate and feminine, needs to reconcile the differences of beauty and femininity with a rugged, more earth prone male type. Whether through biology and the theory on Natural Selection, or with the species most closely represented by humans, the attraction between a male and female is considered more natural in America. Take Brian Johnson and Sheung Kwan Lam and their explanation of Self2


organization and natural selection with regards to evolution. They mention that, “Natural selection is usually defined as the consequence of three properties of organisms: 1. Variation among members of a population, 2. Differential reproduction, and 3. Heritability of traits important for survival or reproduction” (Lewontin 1974, Roughgarden 1979, Johnson and Lam, 880). The distinction between establishing a relationship, especially in film has correlated with natural selection as a means to find a partner who a person can mate with, get along with, and shows characteristics of instinct. From films like Casablanca (1942) to Titanic (1997), the bond between the male and female figure has become suitable based on these certain principles. This is not to say that there wasn’t a slew of sexually implied behaviors and nudity in these films however there was a correlation between sexuality and the willingness for two people to come together to begin and maintain a lasting relationship. Take Jack and Rose and their relationship as an example. Here, Jack is a young attractive male in search of a life free of trouble and hardship. He wants to break away from his ‘peasant’ image and make a name for himself. On the other hand, Rose, a self-driven, successful and beautiful young woman is controlled by her unstable older boyfriend. Her need to express her anger and rage is locked inside until she meets Jack. Jack’s need to become a more driven individual correlates with Rose’s lashing out ‘irregular’ behavior, according to her boyfriend and mother. Their attraction to each other is fueled by a young break the mold generation, willing to do whatever it takes to become successful as a couple. This is shown when Jack stays in the ocean and lets Rose lay on the wooden door in order to stay warm. They exchange words and say the famous “I’ll never let go” line. Their ability to overcome obstacles from outside influences and ideals is the fire that defines the heterosexual couple. Their undying love for one another through sexual acts and strong demeanor pave the way for what society refers to as the ‘ideal’ couple. To establish homosexuality as it pertains to American society, the morality of American population is called into question and how people have responded to homosexuality throughout the years. Jeni Loftus of Indian University conducted a study about the attitudes towards sexuality. She 3


concluded that there were two main reasons which people choose to look at homosexuality as ‘different’. She says, “First, the changing demographic makeup of the population might explain these changes. Research demonstrates, for example, that those with more education are more liberal in their attitudes towards homosexuality…second, shifts in cultural ideologies…attitudes toward homosexuality are embedded within other attitude beliefs…” (Loftus, 762). The breakdown to explain the swayed attitude towards homosexuality has to deal with not knowing much about homosexuality and also the ways which cultures decide to deal with homosexuality. In America in the 40’s, it was determined by catholic officials that homosexuality was impure and that it should never be shown as beautiful or worthwhile. But because cultures and countries tend to evolve over time and begin to accept things that may seem out of the ordinary, there has been an acceptance for the homosexual community to make a stamp on American society. Events such as the Gay Pride Parade (1969), Pride Week (1981) and National Coming Out Day (1988) have been significant events which allow homosexuals to establish themselves among the community. As American society has evolved, so have the values and norms which allow for a more accepting sexuality to exist along heterosexuality. The last explanation of both heterosexual and homosexual groups to be discussed before analyzing the films is how American society views each group and certain issues that are pending from them. It is widely known through history and modern thought that heterosexuals are the best and that there is nothing better than the idea of a man and a woman being together. A lot of this has to do with the experimentation of sexuality and the film Deep Throat (1972). The controversy surrounding the film was mostly due to the explicit showing of sexual content and the idea that the woman was being victimized through sexual activity. The subject matter is not so much important, however, it is the idea that exploited sex to a society that got caught off guard was the more important issue. Sex was considered, at the time of the early 1970’s, to be something more private and done in the privacy of 4


people’s homes. A sacred act between two people was now being shown to everyone all over the world. The ‘sacredness’ of sex was now becoming revolutionized in a way which was appropriate and educational at the same time. People could learn things from seeing something that they may or may not have done before. Regardless, the film demonstrated that pleasure exists for both the man and the woman on a sexual level. This type of content and sexuality connects to that of American beliefs in a way which allows heterosexuality to be more dynamic and diverse. Homosexuality, according to American society over the years, has had a more negative impact than that of heterosexuality. Members of the opposite sex have never felt comfortable and have never been looked at as people who share the same values as those of people who are homosexual. A form of racism, homosexuality has been looked at from other cultures and societies as an act which is deemed for extreme punishment and/or death. Some factors relate to this issue with regards to religion and catholic beliefs that sexual relations between members of the same sex is immoral and should be outlawed. More so, overtime, homosexuality has been slowly making its way as equal to American society with events and recognition, as mentioned above. But there is still some skepticism and hesitation towards these people which allows for a more negative environment. The balance between distinctions of the heterosexual and homosexual relationship can be sorted out through film and the power film has to be a mass medium. Film acts as education and allows for the society to examine what they think they want to see and what they think they want to feel. The diversity in film allows for people of all different types of sexuality to explore and branch out to different films/filmmakers. A couple of examples include Boys Don’t Cry (1999), To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), and Normal (TV 2003). With regards to identity and sexuality, films help push ideologies in directions so that those people can feel a sense of normalcy. With the breakdown of homosexuality through the films of Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are Alright, it will be clear how America chooses to look at these relationships and the acceptance of society to recognize homosexuality as equal. 5


Philadelphia is a film about Andrew, a successful lawyer who is fired from the law firm he practices with because he is a gay male with AIDS. The story unfolds primarily with Andrew as his condition worsens within a short amount of time. This situation, AIDS being a fatal disease, is seen to the most extreme circumstance. Within a short amount of time, Andrew is a normal functioning part of society which rapidly turns around to kill him in what seems like a few short weeks. The film tackles issues of homosexuality through the heterosexual friendship relationship of Andrew (Tom Hanks) and Joe (Denzel Washington) and the homosexual sexual relationship that Andrew and his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) experience. The breakdown of each relationship is crucial to examine both the homo and heterosexual side. First, the relationship between Andrew and Joe. Andrew comes to Joe in a time of desperation. He is looking for help to fight his battle based on the prejudice nature of his bosses and law firm. Joe, hesitant at first, begins to help Andrew to satisfy his claim: the claim that the law firm fired Andrew based on the fact that he is a homosexual with the AIDS disease. The relationship between Andrew and Joe serves as a stepping stone for the homosexual community. The idea that a person was fired from a job for being what society would term as ‘different’ is unfair and wrong. Joe represents the third party who accepts people for who they are and defends the rights that people have regardless if they are homosexual or not. His title of lawyer is only a bonus to the situation which he is trying to define. When Joe decides to help Andrew, he is committing himself to the homosexual community in a way which sends the message that it is inappropriate to dismiss somebody who may be different than you. Joe represents the homosexual community and their right to be equal in an unequal society. Another relationship to look at in the film is the bond between Andrew and Miguel and how their relationship is portrayed. It is mentioned that Andrew and Miguel have been together for years. They do not flaunt their sexuality to others and they spend time together in an organized and private manner. Their relationship is like any other heterosexual couple, where each partner cares for one another effectively and attends to each other’s needs. As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, a 6


relationship is a man and woman sharing a passionate, committed filled relationship. The difference, being that in this case there are two males, creates on problem until it is seen through the eyes of Andrew’s bosses. Until the point where they begin to notice the legions on his face and neck, Andrew was ‘normal’. Jonathan Demme points out with the film that the discrimination lies with the inability to function together in a society. If a man and woman can function together, why would a man and another man not be able to do the same thing? The last relationship to take a look at is between Andrew and his law firm. The reasons that go against Andrew try to shy away from his homosexuality when really it is the basis for him being laid off. Andrew, as mentioned in the film, as performed in the court room numerous times successfully and has never had an issue. It is only until Andrew becomes noticeable ill that the firm decides to take action. The problem with this is is that Andrew could have been ill from anything. It is the understanding of his illness by the law firm that his bosses decided to let him go. The image of the firm is what they worry about and the film in general is more about protecting their identity than anything else. The film explains the criticism and neglect of the homosexual community and focusses to show it in first a negative way, and then a positive way (when Joe wins the case for the death bed ridden Andrew). The law firm symbolizes all the people who do not approve of homosexuals and their disrespect for same sex people. However, Joe, the most important character, stands up for the homosexual community by choosing to represent Andrew on the premise of wrongful mistreatment in the workplace. By representing Andrew, Joe represents the homosexual community as a whole. Brokeback Mountain shares similarities to Philadelphia however differs when the film deals with two men who force themselves to maintain both a homo and heterosexual relationship. Ennis and Jack are two sheep herders who develop a ‘brother-like’ friendship which turns into a 20 year homosexual relationship. Hidden behind their heterosexual relationships, their homosexuality is only spent on week long fishing trips and postcards sent by mail. 7


Ang Lee flirts with the look of the film implying the vast isolation of Ennis and Jack’s relationship by revealing the endless terrain and sky. The openness of the landscape allows for a visually stunning but more important visual connection to homosexuality. It implies that homosexuality is all around and that it is just as beautiful as a mountain range sunset. The distant shots that Lee uses correlates to the beauty and isolation at the same time. Through the lens, it is obvious to notice that Ennis and Jack’s relationship is beautiful but distant at the same time. One particular scene in the film that shows negativity towards homosexuals is when Jack goes into Joe’s office to find some more work. Joe, inexplicably mentions to Jack that he knows about his and Ennis’s relationship and that if people knew, it would to be difficult to find work in general. In response, Jack storms out of the trailer. Given that this film is set in Wyoming of 1963, there was no respect towards homosexuals or the homosexual community. At the time, it was frowned upon and quite frankly unheard of to be gay. Another scene in particular is when Jack tries to buy a drink for another bull rider. The bull rider mentions that he doesn’t want it and walks away, not because he doesn’t like beer but because he is disgusted by Jack’s advance at him. Jack’s need for companionship is turned down and he is forced to begin a falsified relationship with Lureen, a passionate, driven cowgirl. The struggle that Ennis deals with internally is interesting because throughout his life, his brother and sister took care of him until they left him alone by pursuing their own careers/people. Essentially, Ennis has never had a proper care taker until Jack comes along. The crucial scene which helps demonstrate this is when Jack makes a move on Ennis in the tent. Ennis is extremely hesitant at first but gives in to his desire. Ennis, through this act between him and Jack, has realized that for the first time in his life, somebody is there to nourish his needs. This becomes an even bigger struggle because Ennis is fighting his urge for companionship with his heterosexuality. By partaking in homosexual behavior, Ennis feels guilty that he is betraying his true self and his soon to be wife Alma. However, by the end of the film, Ennis discovers that it is his homosexuality that is his true sexuality. 8


This is seen by his excitement towards his and Jack’s fishing trips and/or postcards that are sent back and forth. The struggle with identity is the main concern with Ennis and Jack’s relationship. The difficulty to maintain their relationship is caused by a population of people who don’t see homosexuality as a good thing and also by the families that they have developed for themselves. It is only at the end of the film where you see the passion that Ennis felt for Jack when Ennis keeps his and Jack’s shirts from when they fought years ago. The symbolization of the shirt represents their commitment to one another through their personal struggle with their relationship. The Kids Are Alright is somewhat different from the first two with regards to the acceptance of the homosexual in society. Nic and Jules are lesbians with two children, one child from each of them through a sperm donor. They have been happily married for years until Joni (their daughter) decides to get in touch with Paul (sperm donor) and begin a friendship with him. Eventually, Nic becomes extremely jealous of Paul when he influences her children in different ways. This turns Jules off and Paul and Jules develop a sexual relationship because of it. The issues that surround the film deal with neglect and marriage and how difficult it is to maintain a lasting relationship, despite homo or heterosexual. Nic finds out for herself that Jules has been sleeping with Paul and when she asks why, the reason is because Nic can no longer satisfy Jules in an emotional and physical manner. Jules also mentions that she doesn’t feel appreciated anymore. The two are torn apart by the event and do not speak for days until Jules confronts Nic and the children with a speech about the hardships of marriage. The film demonstrates that marriage/relationships are difficult to maintain, whether there is sex involved or not. Nic’s attention to her job and inability to focus on her partner is replaced with material objects. This, being somewhat beneficial as far as a career for Jules, only further advances the problem that they struggle with emotionally. The end of the film takes a comedic approach to fixing their

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problem when their son Lazer mentions, “You can’t split up, you’re too old”. They smile and then hold hands, signifying their try to fix their relationship. These films exemplify the homosexual community in different ways, highlighting each of their good while hinting at the outside population’s idea of what they think of homosexuality. Given that these films are all very recent, there is still prejudice towards this community and how others choose to treat them as a whole. In any regard, it is important to see these films as guidelines and recognize the messages that they are sending. Among many, the most important message to take away from these films would be to accept everyone for who they are and not place judgement because somebody else or an organization tells you otherwise, “Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden” (Doherty, Production Code, 363). The sexuality pertaining to the homosexual and heterosexual relationship is evolving with films and TV shows (Glee 2009 TV) and is continually becoming more acceptable as time goes on. With acceptance and exposure through films, TV, and other mass media, society can understand the homosexual relationship and treat is as equal to that of the heterosexual relationship.

Works Cited Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.

Johnson, Brian R., and Sheung Kwan Lam. “Self-organization, Natural Selection, and Evolution: Cellular Hardware and Genetic Software.” BioScience 60.11 (2010): 879-885. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Loftus, Jeni. “America’s Liberalization in Attitudes toward Homosexuality, 1973 to 1998.” American Sociological Association 66.5 (2001): 762-782. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2011.

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Meskell, Lynn. “The Intersections of Identity and Politics in Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 279-301. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2011.

Osterweil, Ara. “Ang Lee’s Lonesome Cowboys.” University of California Press 60.3 (2007): 38-42. JSTOR. Web. 7 Apr. 2011.

“The History of Sex in American Film.” Journal of Popular Culture 41.3 (2008): 557-559. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. EBSCO. Web. 5 Apr. 2011.

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Homosexual vs. Heterosexual: History In Time and Film  

An analysis of homosexuality and heterosexuality in american film and american history

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