I hadn't realized, until someone tipped me off, that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 had exactly the same marketing strategy as Brokeback Mountain, the gist of which was "Hey, a film sticks it to the conservatives but it's playing in the red states!" This is the now-familiar Heartland Breakout meme. Moore boasted that his movie was big "in every single red state in America. ... It sold out in Fayetteville, North Carolina." As with Brokeback, the press bought into the story. In 2004, Time magazine wrote:
You would have expected Moore's movie to play well in the liberal big cities, and it is doing so. But the film is also touching the heart of the heartland. In Bartlett, Tenn., a Memphis subuurb, the rooms at Stage Road Cinema showing Fahrenheit 9/11 have been packed ...
I've gotten lots of email asking why I've written so many items about Brokeback. Forty-two items on the subject would be one thing. But forty-three?I must be an anti-homosexual bigot, or a closeted self-hater, or just generally hateful, etc. Here's why I thinkI've written so much on it:
1. The Heartland Breakout Meme seems like B.S.: Fahrenheit wound up reaching about the same number of theaters--approximately 2,000 at its widest distribution--as Brokeback. But Byron York, for his book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, got hold of confidential movie-industry data showing that, contrary to the Heartland Breakout scenario, Fahrenheit had done the vast bulk of its business in the usual blue state urban centers (and in ... Canada). It had almost uniformly underperformed in red state cities--including Time's Memphis, where the audience was more than 50% lower than you'd expect given Memphis' share of moviegoers. Some enterprising reporter should get hold of similar data for Brokeback, once its run is over. Do you want to bet they show the same insular, blue-state dominance? The only difference would be that Fahrenheit 9/11 (at $119 million) was much more as popular as Brokeback, measured in box office.
2. The Heartland Breakout Meme seems like B.S. of the sort that consistently hurts Democrats (and others who believe it): B.S. is B.S.. Bloggers are allowed to point it out (he says defensively)--especially if it's B.S. the mainstream press has no particular interest in pointing out (because it kills the story, or because they'll seem homophobic).** But this B.S. falls into a special category: the sort of gratifying myth that in the past has helped lull liberals (and gay rights activists who may or may not be liberals) into wild overconfidence. Remember when Democrats actually believed that Fahrenheit would help push Bush out of office? It didn't work out that way. Moore's film didn't change many minds in part because, as York puts it, it "never reached audiences that had the power to defeat the president at the polls." Despite all the "heartland" hype, it was a blue-state movie. York notes that Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ--a mirror-image "red state" movie that did well where Fahrenheit did badly, badly where Fahrenheit did well--prefigured the 2004 results, in that it attracted an audience roughly three times the size of Farhenheit's (or four times Brokeback's!).
Much of Democratic politics seems to now consist of embracing and fanning comforting, but ultimately deceptive, liberal memes. Enron has fatally damaged Bush, Abu Ghraib has fatally damaged Bush, Katrina has fatally damaged Bush, Abramoff has fatally damaged Bush, the Plame investigation will fatally damage Bush--you can catch the latest allegedly devastating issue every day on Huffington Post or Daily Kos (and frequently in the NYT). If you believe the hype--if you don't compare Michael Moore's box office with Mel Gibson's box office, in effect--you'll believe that Democrats don't need to change to win. They just need to push all these hot memes forcefully. If you don't believe the hype--if you think that netroots Dems are too often like the Iraqi Sunnis who think they're a majority--you'll look for a Bill Clinton-like alternative with greater red-state appeal.
More specifically, if you believe Brokeback Mountain is sweeping the heartland, you won't hesitate before presenting gay marriage as the obvious next step in the evolution of civil right--a step that's already been taken, really, according to Frank Rich. After all, they swooned over Ennis and Jack in Plano, Texas! If you don't buy the Heartland Breakout spin, you'll press the gay marriage issue much more cautiously (and will especially avoid the moralistic, guilt-tripping attitude that allows Republicans to pull off the Democrats-are-the-real-elitists act that Tom Frank writes about in What's the Matter with Kansas.)
Misjudging the depth of cultural antipathy to homosexuality can be costly for political groups aside from Democrats. Did gay activists realize, when they pressed the incoming Clinton administration to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, that the result would be to formalize an often-oppressive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy? Why, wondered Andrew Sullivan in 2001, do "we seem to be going in reverse"? Which brings us to 3.
3. If the Heartland Breakout Meme is B.S. with respect to Brokeback, it's B.S. for a reason: A big reason gay rights advocates might underestimate the difficulty of their campaigns is that they accept a facile analogy of civil rights for gays with civil rights for racial minorities. Didn't Harry Truman integrate the armed forces by decree? Well, why couldn't Clinton do the same? Answer: Because integrating by sexual orientation isn't the same thing as integrating by race. Sexual orientation involves actual differences in behavior (at least a strong tendency--orientation!--toward such behavioral differences). The military might well have difficulty openly assimilating male soldiers who want to have sex with other men--the culture of many military institutions runs on sublimated hetero impulses (something dramatized effectively in the movie Jarhead, among other places). Marines use the idea of "Jody," the mythical civilian back home who is screwing your girlfriend/wife, to get soldiers committed to battle. The trick might not work so effectively on Marines who are less hot for the women back home than the men in their own units. No doubt other tricks could be developed to motivate gay Marines. The point isn't that gays shouldn't be able to openly serve, but that it's not a simple adjustment to make. Less simple than opening the Marine Corps to all races.
The Brokeback Breakout idea is both a symptom of this oversimplification--after all, why shouldn't the red states embrace the benign modern counterpart of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"--and a cause. If you think the visceral straight male reaction against male homosexual sex has effectively disappeared--look at Plano, etc.--you won't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the possible deep-seated, even innate, sources of resistance to liberalization, and you'll tend to be surprised and baffled by their persistence. At worst, you'll pass them off as sheer redneck bigotry--a proven way to lose the red states for good.