Brokeback Mountain sucks. It wasn’t terrible. Much of it was really good. The performances were damn near perfect. But it sucks. Pun intended.
I’ll try not to spoil too much if you haven’t seen the film, but the plot is essentially boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy is beaten to death, boy mourns alone.
It shouldn’t be a cliche, but it is, and it exists across all media. Time for another list of movie examples: Dream Boy, Yossi & Jagger, Midnight Cowboy, Long-Time Companion, and Kiss of the Spider Woman all include death. (Ironically, one film that doesn’t is the gay inversion of Shakespeare, Private Romeo.)
This is not to say that death is always the wrong ending. Some films, like Milk, are based on true stories, and others, like A Single Man, succeed because death is thematically important. Straight romances are torn apart by death as well, which Titanic proved is not bad for the box office.
Death films should still get made, and there are plenty of happy films to balance them. But the problem lies with the public majority, and the producers that pay for them. The queer films that get the biggest budgets and the widest release are the ones that involve death, tragedy, and suffering.
In recent years, with films like Weekend, The Kids Are All Right, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and ParaNorman, the gay characters are treated as they should be—like any other character. They don’t need to be reduced to walking awareness campaigns. Progress is being made in film.
But film is not alone in its treatment of gay characters, and TV is an entirely different beast. Series including True Blood, Big Love, In Treatment, Torchwood, The Wire, Damages, OZ, Huff, and The Sopranos have all had gay characters kill themselves or be murdered (or be murdered by aliens in the case of Torchwood).
The reason for this cliche is not homophobia. The reality is that, just like racial minorities, sexual minorities are always going to be minorities. It’s a statistical reality. TV producers will therefore include minorities only as much as they feel they have to. Unless they want to do something wildly original (which they never will), producers will continue to cast main characters as straight and white, and probably male. This leaves the supporting parts for minorities, and opens up the floodgates to casting cliches like the Indian-American doctor (Aasif Mandvi has 10 “Dr.” characters on his IMDb page).
Supporting parts are important to many stories, and sometimes characters in background roles fight their way to the front by being the fan favourite. Ensemble shows end up spotlighting these characters, which for Glee was Kurt. But supporting parts are also used for dramatic plot reasons. When a character is not the centre of the series, but is closely related to the character that is, that person is a target for writers who are desperate to cause conflict—which is why they kill the gay best friend.
This sort of cliche, and the slowness of change, is only noticed by members of the minority. I doubt it was a white man who first noticed that all six members of Friends were white despite living in one of the most diverse cities on Earth. Social progress always seems slow from the minority point of view. From the majority point of view it probably seems too fast, but the majority cannot expect silent assent.
This brings me back to the reason Brokeback Mountain sucks, which is because it became a flag pin. It was picked up by the straight majority as a great piece of film that they could pat themselves on the back for having seen. It didn’t push any content boundaries (it is only 14A), and it was not a daring new story; yet it was hailed as a great piece of landmark cinema.
If straight audiences can soak up a feel-good film like Crazy, Stupid, Love, or a drama series like The Sopranos, they should be able to do the same for Breakfast With Scot and Queer As Folk. In the end it is always the majority that will need to adjust, and having more gay characters that survive is a good way to start.