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"I wish I knew how to quit you": Finding Joy in Tragic Gays

I don’t often agree with philosophers, but Aristotle was absolutely onto something in Poetics when he argued that the “fearsome and pitiable events” of a tragedy make for the best stories. He had Oedipus Rex and Orestes in mind, where a series of choices made to avoid fate leave the hero unhappy. But in our contemporary moment, stories with unrequited love, love requited too late or forbidden love are the perfect source of tragedy, because of how they persist (and eventually don’t) in spite of familial and/or societal expectations.

There’s something about the tragic couple’s love and connection, even when forces are against them, that makes them so brave and magnetic to watch. Knowing that some trick of fate or miscommunication will tear them asunder by the end of the story makes watching them fall deeper in love – and desperately attempting to defy their fate – all the more intense. Watching them love in spite of the barriers that would otherwise keep them apart makes their passion all the more enthralling.

And of course, it just hurts. So. Good.

I’m pretty sure my love for tragedy, and tragic gays in particular, began with Ang Lee’s groundbreaking neo-Western about two sheepherders who fall in love on a job, Brokeback Mountain. Long before I watched my first production of Hamlet or ever read Aristotle’s Poetics, I was endlessly rewatching Brokeback, the first gay anything I ever saw. I must’ve watched Brokeback Mountain over a dozen times in high school. If I had Letterboxd back then, it would be an incoherent, grade-A mess because of how many times I logged it.

Brokeback Mountain just scratched an itch. I had a feeling going in that Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) weren’t going to get the happy ending I wanted them to. Because the story is set in the 1960s and 70s, societal expectations meant that they needed to marry women to hide their sexualities. Their clandestine affairs – disguised as “fishing” trips away from the prying eyes of the town and their wives – are desperate attempts at recreating their first summer on Brokeback, the summer that they fell in love.

But the most heartbreaking part of Brokeback is the fact that Jack desperately tries to make their romance work, and is even willing to leave his wife and son for Ennis, but Ennis fears the consequences of being found out. Their trips to Brokeback are becoming too difficult for Ennis to manage with his obligations to his family and his job, which frustrates Jack and pulls the (unhappy) couple in opposite directions. Before they can meet again, Jack dies in a car repair accident, leaving Ennis heartbroken and mourning for his lost love. When Ennis pays a visit to Jack’s childhood home to try and pick up his ashes, he breaks down in Jack’s closet embracing his still-bloodied shirt – one that he later keeps hung up with his in his own closet.

Art by Lyvie Scott

It’s not lost on me that Brokeback is one of the more tragic endings to a queer romance, especially since Ennis is still closeted and mourning at the end of his arc. But I think the reason I gravitated towards Brokeback as a young lesbian in high school was because the only notable lesbian film I’d heard of in 2015 – Blue is the Warmest Color – had a… reputation for being a fetishistic and male gaze-centered film. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought there’d be a “Brokeback for lesbians.” I was content to endlessly rewatch Brokeback for years and recommend it to every person I knew, something I still do to this day because it’s a powerful piece of gay media depicting one of film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking love stories. It’s right up there with Jack and Rose from Titanic, a comparison critics often made when Brokeback was released.

And then in 2019, much to my overwhelming glee, Céline Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire came out, and the entire world shifted. It moved. It changed. I love period pieces with a passion, especially ones set in the eighteenth century, so I was willing to sit through two hours of the most indiscernible French just to watch a painter and her subject fall in love – only to be ripped apart by an arranged marriage. Lady on Fire is a perfect tragedy from the start: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) for her future husband without her knowledge, because Héloïse does not want to marry. Over the course of painting Héloïse, Marianne eventually confesses the true purpose of her presence, and the two fall in love in spite of Héloïse’s impending marriage.

AND IT HURTS SO GOOD! The film invokes the classic tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice (a story they actually read and discuss together) when Marianne finishes her painting and has to leave the manor. Héloïse asks Marianne to take one last look at her – in her wedding dress, to boot! – before they part ways forever. Years later, Marianne finds a portrait of Héloïse and her son at an art showing. But the portrait contains a detail hinting to their relationship: Héloïse holds a book in the portrait, her finger open to the page where Marianne sketched an intimate portrait of herself. It’s a poignant gesture that indicates Héloïse hasn’t forgotten the woman she loves, and it made me go positively feral the first time I saw the movie. And then there’s Lady on Fire’s electric final scene, where Marianne notices Héloïse at a performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (another callback to their relationship when Marianne played “Spring” for Héloïse) but Héloïse remains fixated on the stage. It’s like the worst kind of agony, because Marianne is literally right across the mezzanine from her, but doesn’t notice her once.

Watching Lady on Fire filled me with such joy because it was like watching Brokeback all over again. But this time, it was for me. At long last, there was a movie about two women falling in love with all the angst, melodrama, and tragedy I want out of my movie-going experience. As a lesbian who terminally falls for straight women, watching Marianne fall hopelessly in love with a woman she knows is duty-bound to marry a man hit extremely close to home. Lady on Fire was for the lesbians, the bisexual women, the sapphic women who have felt all-consuming love for another woman but couldn’t be with her because of fate or circumstance. And getting to see tragic sapphics was just so [clenches fist] rewarding and uplifting.

Art by Lyvie Scott

But of course, tragic gays don’t bring joy to all queer folks. Brokeback can be considered a classic example of the infamous “bury your gays” trope. The phrase comes from the term “Dead Lesbian Syndrome,” initially coined to describe the trend of killing off lesbian and bisexual female characters in film and television, like Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charlie in Supernatural. The term grew to encompass all queer characters when people in the community noticed that creators killed them off in higher numbers (and thereby denied them the chance to be in a happy endgame relationship) than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, and became the more ubiquitous “bury your gays” or “tragic gays.”

In most cases, “bury your gays” is a blatantly homophobic trope that renders queer representation meaningless and narratively “punishes” the queer character for their assumed deviance or depravity. The tropes of the psycho sapphic, like Catherine in Basic Instinct, and the depraved homosexual, like Silva in Skyfall, often go hand-in-hand with “bury your gays” when the character is written in a homophobic manner. And even when actually-decent queer representation exists in media, all too often are those characters killed off for shock value – hence the term “bury your gays.” That, or they’re forced to part ways for one reason or another.

So rarely do the happy gay couple remain together at the end of the film or show. Ennis and Jack are never reunited because of Jack’s sudden death; Héloïse and Marianne are torn asunder by the former’s marriage. The discourse used to defend this trend of “buried gays” and “tragic gays” often focuses on “historical accuracy,” as if the only queer stories that matter are the ones where someone is killed by HIV/AIDS or a hatecrime, or forced to enter a heterosexual relationship to save face because it was “a different time.” And yes, there have been barriers both societal and institutional preventing the happiness of queer folks and their right to love. But if these are the only stories about queer folks in film and television, we perpetuate the notion that the only good gay is a dead one – and what does that kind of representation do for a community’s fight to be accepted by society at large?

Plenty of queer films and shows that aren’t Brokeback and Lady on Fire as of late have attempted to reverse the bury your gays trope by making their queer couples endgame: Moonlight, Our Flag Means Death, and “San Junipero” from Black Mirror. Even Ang Lee let one of his gay couples remain happy and together – even if they had to fight and make a lot (a LOT) of personal sacrifices to get there – in The Wedding Banquet. Even though the main character, a gay Taiwanese American man in a committed relationship with a White man, is forced to marry a woman to appease his overbearing parents, he, his wife, and his boyfriend find a way to make their queer family work for them. It's a melodrama of the highest, purest form from start to finish.

But for some reason, those happy endings just don’t hit me the same way. I think Star Wars is at its best when angst drives the narrative; my favorite fictional character of all time is Ophelia from Hamlet; I have at least half a dozen thinkpieces buzzing around in my head about the superhero genre and the tragic form. I’ve seen She-Ra, but I still prefer Hannibal. Love, Simon is great if you want a coming-of-age story, but I’m more moved by the pain in Jack’s voice when he says “I wish I knew how to quit you” in his last exchange with Ennis – not Simon’s first kiss. Ennis sobbing while smelling and embracing Jack’s shirt, trying to hold his lover in his arms one last time, is more appealing to me than Molly’s romantic foibles with Hope in Booksmart.

Art by Lyvie Scott

I hear the criticism, and then I remember Marianne turning back, and making the poet’s choice, to remember Héloïse in her wedding dress, painting Orpheus and Eurydice to cope with leaving Héloïse, and immortalizing her lover in the titular portrait of the film. And all the discourse about tragic and buried gays melts away because to me, seeing the strength of the love between two queer folks in spite of the homophobia they deal with on a day-to-day basis fills me with so much joy. It makes me thankful that I am able to love without having to do it in secret, makes me appreciative of just how far things have come since the 1960s and 70s where Brokeback is set – and especially since the 1760s when Lady on Fire takes place. And secretly, I think I like tragedy because I want a love as passionate and intense as theirs.

Besides, sometimes tragedy is just good sometimes. It tugs at the heartstrings, it connects you with the enormity of your emotions, it shows how cruel the world is to those who just want to love and be themselves. Everyone enjoys different genres, and just because tragedy makes some people “feel bad” doesn’t mean the genre should cease to exist for queer audiences who yearn for that kind of content and actively seek it out. There’s a reason why being queer lends itself to the tragic form: the very nature of how queer folks and their relationships are treated by society at large forces them to hide their true selves and find joy in each other.

Unfortunately, these romances and self-discoveries in the tragic form are not always created by (or even for) members of the LGBTQ community – and that’s when the tragedy can take on a homphobic and/or fetishistic edge. (I am looking directly at you, Blue is the Warmest Color!) But these faults in the storied past of queer film doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be tragic gay love stories. LGBTQ people deserve to have the full gamut of stories about their lived experiences, from schmaltzy melodramatic movie musicals to heart-rending, pull-your-hair-out devastating dramas or gruesome, gore-filled slasher flicks.

And at the end of the day, when queer people are behind the camera telling these tragic queer stories, we get authentic stories that actually reflect the lived experiences of queer folks. While Brokeback isn’t a perfect example of this – Ang Lee is not a gay man – Lady on Fire is. Céline Sciamma is a lesbian, and is no doubt the reason why the film didn’t fall prey to the hands of “Dead Lesbian Syndrome.” As far as tragic gays go, Lady on Fire is the best of the best: until the very last scene, it’s so clear both Marianne and Héloïse still love and think about each other every day.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying tragedy or tragic gays. They’re part of a genre that was set in motion at the very beginning of story-telling, and there’s a reason we still want to keep telling, watching, and reading tragic love stories, queer or other wise: sometimes you just really need a good cry or to have your own love affirmed as genuine. So if Brokeback or Lady on Fire is your comfort movie or your way to celebrate pride, don’t let anyone take that away from you.

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