Why are Marty McFly and Doc Brown casting lingering glances at each other? Why is that hug between Maverick and Iceman lasting so long? It’s all part of the latest online phenomenon of Brokeback Spoofs. These creative online video mash-ups start with the music and title cards from the Brokeback Mountain trailer, mix in clips from favorite movies like Top Gun, Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption and presto! BrokeBack to the Future. Star Wars: The Empire Brokeback. The Brokeback Redemption. None of which, thankfully, are coming soon to a theater near you.
These Brokeback trailer parodies have recently risen to the level of journalistic analysis. A writer for the NY Times has devoted an article to this internet trend, claiming that “as a commentary on the forms and ceremonies of proto-gay relationships” these online shorts are “worth taking seriously.” The writer contends that these spoofs, while ostensibly comic in purpose, reveal the homosexual subtext lurking in our popular movies.
This type of critical theory is, of course, nothing new. The idea that same-sex relationships are necessarily overtly or covertly homosexual is rather entrenched in much of contemporary literary criticism and other academic circles. Participants in the relationship may be utterly oblivious to the fact, but ultimately unconscious homosexual longings are at the center of their friendship.
Now, to me, the humor in these Brokeback Spoofs stems from their parody of this queer theory (“Every movie you’ve ever seen is gay! Get it?”). But like the NY Times writer, I also believe the spoofs reveal a serious point: the poverty of same-sex friendships in contemporary society.
C.S. Lewis, in his chapter on Friendship in The Four Loves (one of his best and most often overlooked works), fought against the same literary criticism of his day that saw a subtext of pink triangles in every relationship. Lewis, himself a professional literary critic at Oxford, took the theory to task, exposing its specious logic and unfasifiable claims.
As Lewis observed, the claim being made depended on asserting a proto-homosexual element in every relationship. For to say every friendship is consciously homosexual is too obviously false. Thus the theory turns on the unverifiable, yet irrefutable claim that friendships are secretly, unconsciously homoerotic. In this scenario, very lack of evidence is itself treated as evidence—“it’s just what we should expect.”
In a memorable passage, Lewis likened this approach to a man arguing for the existence of invisible cats:
"If there were an invisible cat in that chair, the chair would look empty; but the chair does look empty; therefore there is an invisible cat in it." … A belief in invisible cats cannot perhaps be logically disproved, but it tells us a good deal about those who hold it. Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.
Does Lewis go to far? Perhaps not, especially if we consider the technical and rarified sense in which Lewis conceived of the idea of Friendship. Today, what we casually call friendship would be better termed as ‘Companionship’ or ‘Camaraderie.’ This is a wholly good and pleasant experience which sees small groups spending free time together, engaging in entertainments, encouraging one another, sharing in uproarious inside jokes, and more. Yet, this is experience is not Friendship itself, but rather the soil from which Friendship sprouts.
True Friendship, Phileo, is much more intense and rarer. It is often birthed from a realization, sometimes unconscious, that two persons have a common insight or interest previously thought be merely their own. For Emerson this experience was summed in the phrase: “Do you see the same truth?” Blessed is the one who meets such a kindred heart or mind. For the ancients, Phileo was the “happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue.”
To emphasize the distinctness and greatness of Phileo when compared to Eros, Lewis offered the following hypothetical:
Suppose you are fortunate enough to have ‘fallen in love with’ and married your Friend. And now suppose it possible that you were offered the choice of two futures: “Either you two will cease to be lovers but remain forever joint seekers of the same God, the same beauty, the same truth, or else, losing all that, you will retain as long as you live the raptures and ardors, all the wonder and the wild desire of Eros. Choose which you please.” Which would we choose? Which choice should we not regret after we have made it?
Today, we have almost lost the idea of a robust and thriving Friendship, due in no small part to an inability to conceive of two strong men or women caring deeply for one another with no hint of Eros. And in so doing we have impoverished the quality of our lives and robbed ourselves of the experience one of God’s greatest blessings.
What we need is a re-imagining of the role of Friendship in our culture. To begin reviving Phileo, an ideal start would be reading Lewis’s Four Loves; the bold might go on to Cicero’s On Friendship or the relevant sections in Aristotle’s Ethics. Transcending the mere companionships in your own life—and cultivating and deepening the Friendships you have already—is even better.
And then who knows? Perhaps someday we will see a true Brokeback Redemption.