While I agree that escape is one of the reasons people attend movies and watch television, I think there is an even deeper reason we seek out narrative entertainment: something about authentic fiction resonates with the human experience. It is what NPR’s Ira Glass calls “the pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of trying to make sense of the world.” Good stories, Glass says, ask “What bigger truth about all of us does it point to?”
We, as a human race, are moved by story.
Consider that the longest-surviving religious texts are predominantly narrative. Despite what conservative fundamentalists would have you believe, the Christian Bible, for example, is not a list of rules and regulations. It is 80 percent narrative, comprised of hundreds of stories of societal screw-ups searching for the things all of us are searching for: unconditional love, redemption and purpose.
The resonance of story is also the reason we see so much activity these days in online fan fiction communities.
Find yourself a die-hard Tibette (Tina and Bette from The L Word), Otalia (Olivia and Natalia from Guiding Light) or Naomily (Emily and Naomi from Skins) shipper, and ask her why she’s so invested in those characters. She will probably tell you it is because she sees something in the couples that she either identifies with, or one day hopes to identify with. And when television writers disappoint us, we rewrite the kind of happy endings we want for ourselves.
A lie that tells the truth
Picasso famously said “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Those truthful lies are why we, as a gay community, are affected so deeply by fictional stories of overcoming adversity or of successfully navigating duel identities and finding personal and societal acceptance as a whole person. There is an element of truth in these stories that we can cling to, truth we can apply to our unique difficulties as gay people — even if the stories are, at least superficially, about heterosexual characters dealing with heterosexual conflicts.
But is that acceptable? Shouldn’t the LGBT community have the opportunity to watch dynamic, organic gay characters on the big screen? Shouldn’t there be films that challenge the paradigms of heterosexuals? Absolutely.
But the fact is, there are closeted gays who would never attend a screening of a movie like Milk or Brokeback Mountain; just as there are ignorant heterosexuals who would never watch a film with such overt homosexuality.
Metaphors are necessary.
In fact, I would argue that metaphors are beneficial. In a world where homosexuals are, at best, are not allowed the same civil liberties as heterosexuals and are, at worst, beaten and killed because of their sexual orientation, it is common to feel isolated and misunderstood. A roller derby story that can be interpreted (or even misinterpreted) as a coming out story simply proves that some human struggles are universal. We are not alone.
Maybe the lesbian sixth sense causes me to read too much into movies and television shows. Or maybe it’s like Allegra says in The Jane Austen Book Club. Maybe characters have secrets their authors know nothing about.
Maybe they slip off when their author’s back is turned, to find love in their own way.