On Love Narratives

This article entitled “Shepherding Romance” is written by one of my professors in New York. An émigré from the Czech Republic when it was Czechoslovakia and a Yale-trained scholar, it was her Political Philosophy class that first formally introduced me to the Ancient philosophers, and subsequent classes that piqued my interest in feminist theory. Dr. Koziak lit my passion for the political, and continues to influence me with her work. This article is no exception. It uncovers various aspects of romantic love in an investigation of the “changing social and narrative context for heterosexual relationships,” and explains how these changes have prepared us to accept other types of relationships. With an eye to the film Brokeback Mountain, she explores the history of “romantic love narratives” and their socio-political effect. She says, “The film invigorates romantic love as a political force both in its view of non-heterosexual men and its spur to cultural activism.”

Koziak begins by placing Brokeback at "a strange stage in the cultural course of love.” The historical thesis is that romantic love emerged from French troubadour poetry in the twelfth century. But this is challenged by the newer cultural thesis that argues for the cultural universality of love. The debate is fragmented and focuses on diverse topics such as the so-called dangerous intensification of love, the replacement of love with consumerism, and the historical disjunction between love and marriage. It is not a unified community of thinkers in any sense. In addition, many second wave feminist scholars, Simone de Beauvoir, for example, criticized both love and marriage. The new feminist conversation, says Koziak, focuses largely on sexual desire and marriage instead of romantic love.

Rather than parse these debates and conversations, she turns to what they depend on, the “record of cultural production,” which includes poetry, novels, films, and other forms of narrative. She explains that love narratives can be split into two categories: the tragic narrative and the happy narrative. The Tristan poems are of the former variety while the romance novel is of the latter. Chick-lit is representative of contemporary happy love stories while Brokeback belongs to the category of the tragic. Of Brokeback Mountain she says, “The lost social and political power of romantic love, its traditional transgressions against patriarchal control of familial allegiances and reproduction, and its fervent individualism all emerge from the film reenergized.”

Koziak traces love’s history in the article and also identifies the five key elements of true romantic love stories. She analyzes Brokeback systematically, paying attention to how it deepens and complicates traditional romance narratives. Though she classifies it as one of those narratives, she also shows how the film complicates the traditional by its “portrayal of socially and economically marginal men, of maternal-like care, and of explicit but subtle emotionality.”

Criticism of the film has focused on the idea that it is a singularly gay story, not a love story as such. Koziak rightly says that this criticism not only ignores the fact that self-repression is not exclusive to gays, but that sexuality is ambiguous. She says, “what is clear is that both (characters) sleep with and marry women, but their greatest pleasure comes from each other.” She quotes Heath Ledger (who played Ennis, one of the leading characters) to clarify: “But I think it’s just purely a story of one soul falling in love with another. And it’s just the other soul happens to come in the form of another man.” If we side with the critics and de-emphasize it as a love story, it loses much of its power.

Near the end of the article Koziak asks: “Given the film’s work on and through love narratives and that romantic love narratives are both replicated and rewritten, how might this film affect the political discussion on homosexuality and marriage?” She explains that while intimacy discourse allows us to see partners in a relationship abstractly and interchangeably, romance has typecast its lovers. But Brokeback “rewinds the cultural clock to use romance to make the case for the dignity of same-sex couples.” The film makes heterosexuality about love, not sex, a point that Koziak highlights.  It is a challenge to change our focus. She says, and I quote at length:

“In its most obvious achievement, the film harnesses the cultural status of ‘romantic love’ to this same-sex desire. The labels of homosexual or gay have been about sex, not love.  The word itself tells who is having sex with whom, not who loves whom. The sexual act is the focus; after all, states banned sodomy, not love. Of course, it would be absurd for a state to ban love, as though it could be enforced, but that could almost be said about sodomy. And a state can make love difficult.  However, this just means that the labels we use means we comprehend people through their sex acts. The words ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ highlight that. But with Brokeback, ‘homosexuals’ get to recap part of the history of heterosexuals—start with romance, yearn for intimacy. The issue here is not sex but the nature of the emotion and the terms on which two people associate.”

In the last section of the article Koziak focuses on the fan community of Brokeback and the numerous online forums and other offshoots it has inspired. She points to the “fever and personal stories of transformation” linked to the film as evidence of the reinvigoration of love as a political force. In the end she says that Brokeback is a rewritten justification for marriage, and gives romantic love “a new serenity and dignity.”

I found Koziak’s article very insightful, and hope that those who fixate on the sex aspect of homosexual relationships might discover or rediscover the beauty of any relationship based on true emotion and romantic love. If you're interested, please read the full article here