Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which won this year’s Orange Prize for fiction, is a retelling of a very old story, the rise of the Greek warrior Achilles to immortality through his feats at Troy. Its innovation, however, is that the person who tells the story is Achilles’ companion Patroclus, a shadow by the hearth of myth, and to make the love story between the two young men explicit rather than inferred. Miller does a magnificent job of balancing antiquity and a sense of the modern. And in doing so, her novel highlights some of the profound limitations contemporary storytelling about LGBT people and relationships between people of the same gender has placed on itself.
In response to decades of popular culture that framed same-sex desire as a condition that could only lead to isolation, misery, and death, movies, television, books, even music videos responded with narratives that framed homophobia, whether externalized or internalized, as a powerful and deadly force, and a significant driver of stories. While the stories have been powerful tools in changing attitudes—Vice President Biden cited Will and Grace as a factor in changing his mind about equal marriage rights—they have something in common with the stories they pushed back against: both sets of stories treat homosexuality as a source of problems. As we imagine a future destination for gay-friendly popular culture, in other words, maybe what we should be dreaming of is stories that look like those from the distant past Miller summons back into existence, rather than anything from the recent past.
In The Song of Achilles, Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship is doomed not because they are men and love each other, but because their relationship is tied up in the warp and weft of history and the forging of legend. Throughout the novel, their relationship is presented as erotically emotionally fulfilling, and both men fight for their relationship and live it in public as a point of pride. Achilles claims Patroclus as his husband. Warned that in Troy, their relationship could cause comment because they are beyond the age when Greek boys stop having sex with each other and begin having sex with women, they choose to live publicly together anyway. They don’t even necessarily break because Patroclus is mortal and Achilles is half-human and half-god. Patroclus summons his courage to insist to Thetis, Achilles’ divine mother, that he is a worthy lover of her son, and ultimately, she comes to believe him. Ultimately, their love founders because Achilles ultimately chooses his fame over their relationship.
It’s a vision Patroclus sees early in his arguments with Thetis, who urges Achilles to come with her, away from his human father and his education. “She would feed him with the food of the gods and burn his human blood from his veins,” Patroclus worries. “She would shape him into a figure meant to be painted on vases, to be sung of in songs, to fight against Troy. I imagined him in black armor, a dark helmet that left him nothing but eyes, bronze greaves that covered his feet. He stands with a spear in each hand and does not know me.” In Troy, Achilles slowly becomes the sum of his fame. Walking through the camp and realizing that Patroclus knows many more of the men than he does, Achilles tells Patroclus “There are too many of them…It’s simpler if they just remember me.” And when he and Agamemnon clash, it becomes clear that Achilles is in love with the promise of his legend as much as Patroclus. “‘My life is my reputation,’ he says. His breath sounds ragged. ‘It is all I have. I will not live much longer. Memory is all I can hope for.’ He swallows, thickly. ‘You know this. And would you let Agamemnon destroy it? Would you help him take it from me?’” Their tragedy is Achilles’ romance with his own death, a self-destructive, immortalizing urge that has nothing to do with self-hatred over his love for Patroclus.
It’s exactly the kind of story that we need more of: depictions of relationships between men and women as sources of passion, emotional support, and pride that serve as the basis for characters who have other entanglements with the world, other triumphs, other tragedies. This is not to say that we should eliminate stories about the power of homophobia, given that it remains a powerful force in American society and the world at large. Coming out, self-hatred, family rejection or surprising family acceptance, and displays of societal homophobia, from verbal intolerance to violence, are both reliable dramatic fulcrums, and powerful mobilizing tools against hateful attitudes. And making those experiences central to gay characters’ identities and story arcs is also a way of acknowledging that straight audiences, when encountering gay characters, may foreground those characters’ sexual orientations, and may have as their central experience of those characters either grappling with their lingering assumptions about LGBT people or congratulating themselves for embracing characters wholeheartedly, even if the fictional people in those characters’ lives do not.
But if the only thing gay characters are allowed to do is be a vehicle for straight people’s revelations, or for conversations about the state of society, we’re replacing stereotypes with sainthood and the burden of social utility. And after a while, if the only or biggest problems characters have stem from the fact that they aren’t heterosexual, the lingering collective message is that homosexuality or bisexuality are a problem, even if one of society’s making and to society’s shame. It may be an inversion of old Hollywood narratives that portrayed gayness as a reason to be depressed, miserable, or suicidal. But it’s still a striking limitation to place on characters if the goal of such shows is to defy cramped visions of gay life and to present gay characters as fully human. Joy matters. As Daniel Mendelsohn writes in a piece for the most recent issue of Out about growing up without gay television, “Who hasn’t learned how to kiss from the movies? What I was desperate to see in the mid-’70s, when I was 14 and 15 and 16, was precisely what the pop culture wasn’t ready to show me — the images that all my straight friends had been casually absorbing all along: what desire and sex, kissing and lovemaking, happy coupling actually looked like.” What we need is not to render homophobia invisible, and swap one dominant narrative for another, but more stories overall, and more diversity in their narratives.
For two examples of stories that have been somewhat limited by their focus on homophobia, take closeted rapper Kaldrick King (Andra Fuller) on the CW’s making-it-in -Hollywood ensemble drama The L.A. Complex, and David (Justin Bartha) and Brian (Andrew Rannells), the gay couple having a baby with a surrogate on NBC’s The New Normal. Representations of gay men of color have lingered particularly far behind depictions of white, upwardly mobile gay men, and The L.A. Complex deserves some credit for its execution of the story of a black gay man who is deeply ambivalent about his sexuality and wracked with self-hatred that explores the reasons for Kaldrick’s self-loathing rather than presenting it as a given. And while I have been moved by watching Kaldrick’s interpretation of his father’s exhortations to be a man as an injunction to hide the sweetest part of himself, I’ve winced at the execution of his story within the larger menu of stories about gay life on offer. In the first season of the show, Kaldrick beat his lover, Tariq, bloody, giving as an excuse that the younger man had made a pass at him, rather than admit to his record producer that the two were in a relationship. Kaldrick’s relationship with Tariq could have lots of other fascinating inflections, from their collaborations on Kaldrick’s new album, to their age difference, to styles of black masculinity. But The L.A. Complex defaulted to the most familiar conflict that could possibly befall a couple that looked like Kaldrick and Tariq: a black, gay man’s self-hatred erupting in violence. It’s made him responsible for that violence. But it still sacrificed other opportunities that I’d love to see someone pick up and run with.
By contrast, Brian and David are free of self-hatred, and of any other problems. They’re professionally successful, possessed of a gorgeous house (and guest house, into which they move Goldie, their surrogate). They have the money to pursue top-flight surrogacy. Their surrogate gets easily pregnant on their first try. In fact, their lives are so seemingly perfect that, through the first three episodes of The New Normal, their homosexuality is the main source of their problems. Whether it’s Nana (Ellen Barkin), Goldie’s homophobic grandmother, harassing the two men with whom her granddaughter is having a child, or the heterosexual dad who confronted the two men while clothes shopping in Tuesday’s episode, persistent homophobia is the main driver of conflict in the show. And while I don’t doubt that such nastiness would be a major concern for gay men who were starting a family, the sharp focus on those incidents flattens Brian and David and the differences between them that they’ll need to resolve as they raise a child. It doesn’t suit the show’s drive towards didacticism to explore Brian’s compulsive shopping and the impact his obsession with looks may have on their child, at least not yet, even though impulses like those may have at least as much impact on his son or daughter on a daily basis as the occasional encounter with a diminishing number of nasty bigots.
I’d find these kinds of depictions less tiresome if they were part of a more diverse set of stories about the lives of gay characters. And in some ways, we’re making progress back to Achilles and Patroclus, to characters whose sexual orientations are part of their lives and their stories rather than the sum of them. On Go On, NBC’s show about the members of a support group, Julie White plays Anne, a lawyer who is grieving the loss of her wife, whose death has nothing to do with her lesbianism, but with her reckless attitude towards taking her heart disease medication. While the show remains overly, and uninterestingly, focused on Matthew Perry’s Ryan, Anne’s a reminder that it’s possible for gay couples to experience traumas that aren’t driven by their sexual orientation, and that, executed well, loss doesn’t have to be inflected by societal homophobia to be powerful. The show trusts White to sell her sadness when she tells the group about the time when her wife’s loss hits Anne hardest: “Everything’s quiet. Kids are asleep. We’d always have a glass of wine.”
Lost Girl, the Canadian supernatural show about fae and the humans who love them, has done an exceptionally good job on this score. The main character, Bo, is a bisexual succubus with a tumultuous love and sex life. But when her relationships founder, they often do so because of factors that drive other stories, rather than because of pressure or ambiguity about her sexual orientation. Her long-simmering attraction to a human doctor, Lauren, hit the rocks first when, as Bo’s human friend Kenzie put it, Lauren “spy-banged” Bo to get information for a powerful fae political figure. Later, it was completely derailed when it became clear that Lauren works for the fae because her human girlfriend was kept in a state of suspended animation by that same political figure. Bo may not be as much of a legend as Achilles, but the relationship between her ability to sustain a relationship and the fate that tugs at her, reminding her of her capacity for greatness, has something in common with Miller’s retelling of that very old story.
And The L.A. Complex has made some improvements as Kaldrick’s begun a relationship with a lawyer named Chris who challenges him on his internalized homophobia, but also on the fact that he doesn’t know how to cook, or that he has a temper, and that burgeoning love is beginning to show in Kaldrick’s music. Kaldrick’s been tormented by the belief that his homosexuality defines his life for the worse. Watching him close the gap between his own self-image and The L.A. Complex‘s understanding that there is more to him than his fear could be a fascinating process.
The final defeat of societal homophobia is still a long way in the future. But as much as stories about the weight of that homophobia have been powerful tools in that fight, they’re insufficient to the causes of both justice and art. It’s dangerous, in pushing back against the idea that gay life is about more than homophobia, to get caught only telling stories about bigotry, about self-hatred, and about relationships strained and doomed by both of those forces. Just as we desperately need more stories about LGBT people of color and about lesbians, whose representations in popular media have lagged dramatically behind portrayals of white, upwardly mobile gay men, we need a much broader range of depictions of how people live their lives as LGBT people. Sexuality as a source of identity can belong anywhere from the foreground to the extreme background. Joy and sexual bliss—Kaldrick is extraordinary not just as a truly humanized black gay man, but as half of some of the most erotically charged sex scenes between gay couples of any gender to appear anywhere on network television—are as important and as dramatically compelling as intolerance and distaste. And fighting homophobia isn’t the only way for LGBT people to be heroes or to experience tragedy.