I just rented a British made-for-TV DVD the other night called Bob and Rose, which is probably not on very many people’s radar any more. It was written about five years ago by Russell T. Davies, the man who created Queer as Folk, and will be even better known to select audiences for his revival of Dr. Who. I don’t know how Bob and Rose played in Britain, but unlike Queer as Folk, it didn’t seem to make much of a splash outside. It played on America’s Logo Channel, which many have criticized for being a dumping ground for not- ready- for- prime- time GLBT-themed productions. That may be American provincialism speaking – it did win best drama, best actor and best actress awards at the Monte Carlo TV Festival, and several British comedy and indie awards. Also keeping it obscure is the possibility that American and other non-British audiences find little to connect with in the Manchester local scene.
But it may also be that the subject matter still strikes too many mainstream people as bizarre. It’s about a totally gay man (a “Kinsey-6”) who falls in love with a woman and the effect it takes on their separate networks of friends and family. Whatever the reason, it’s a pity. It’s sweet and sensitive and funny and should be seen, if not for all the usual entertainment reasons, for the fact it takes the discourse over homosexuality and gay identity a step ahead of where most gay people themselves would probably want to take it.
When Anne Heche “married” Ellen DeGeneres, the world of popular culture and society watchers was surprised to hear her say, “I’ve never fallen in love with a woman before; I don’t think I’m a lesbian; I just happened to fall in love with Ellen.” And when the two broke up some time later, Anne went back to being a normal heterosexual woman and quickly paired herself with a man again.
To hear the talk on such goings-on is to realize how completely we tangle ourselves in the webs of the categories we create. In this case, we have gay, straight and bisexual. Anne moves from straight to bi to straight again. Ellen remains at gay from start to finish. But when you look at what you’ve got with the labels gay and straight and bi in this case, you soon see they are not very useful categories at all. Why, for example, do we have a category for bisexual but not for somebody who is straight all the way all the time except for one period in her life? Or do we create a new subcategory of bi and call it “person-triggered homosexual” as opposed to “gender-triggered homosexual”? That, in turn, will only raise the question of whether a “person-triggered homosexual” differs in any significant way from a “person-triggered heterosexual.”
And that brings us to the argument made by folk who want to eliminate the categories of gay/straight/bi altogether. Which brings us back to the topic of civil rights and the politics of identity. If there were no homophobia, no religious activists seeking to withhold gay rights and turn back the clock on social recognition of gay partnerships, there would probably be a fairly rapid falling away of the borders between gay and straight and bisexual. Who would give a wuss?
Which is what the story of Bob and Rose is all about. And why England, like much of continental Europe, is many years ahead of the U.S. in providing a safe and secure place for its gay citizens to live and prosper. As an American, I watched Bob and Rose with a sad awareness that America continues to fall farther and farther behind the other democracies it once thinks it led.
In the telling of the story, Davies hits all the activist buttons he hit in Queer as Folk. Gays are good people, most of them, except when they’re not. Funny people, for the most part. Their straight friends have easily as many hangups – more actually, when you see how often gays take things in stride that straights stumble over. But there are friendships across the divide. And there are loved ones, mothers in particular, who go to the wall for their gay children and take on the hero roles in the gay community.
Bob (Alan Davies – no relation to Russell T. Davies, as far as I know), a Manchester schoolteacher, falls in love with Rose (Lesley Sharp, known for her role in The Full Monty), a secretary struggling with a good man boyfriend she doesn’t love and a mother in need of her mothering. Bob’s mother is the mother of gay dreams, a woman who organizes protest marches for gay rights and lives a life of 110% support for her gay son. His father is another story. Resigned to having a gay son, he comes alive with the discovery that this gay son has taken to a relationship that may well last with a woman who might provide grandchildren. And as Bob’s former gay lover remarks, “here they all are, out campaigning for their gay children, and all it takes is for one of us to fall in love with a woman to show it was all a sham.”
He’s wrong, actually. Bob’s mother takes a while to warm up to Rose, and the story plays with the reversal of the usual disappointment when mom discovers her son’s sexuality. She cried when she first learned he was gay; now she’s about to cry upon learning he is not. But he is. But I’ve said that.
Queer as Folk was instantly celebrated in Britain, America and no doubt elsewhere for its open enthusiastic celebration of gay sex. It has been referred to more than once as gay soft-porn for its shots of gorgeous nude bodies rolling in the lofts and backrooms. It’s more gay soap-opera than porn, however, and so is Bob and Rose. The situations are highly contrived. The acting is terrific, so you don’t mind the absurd coincidences and the situations, like Mother’s discovery at the altar that the man she is about to marry is a crook, which go way over the top. Or the absurd quick and easy rehabilitation of a bad-guy character just to make a happy ending all around. Queer as Folk pretty much stays with full approval of the young frantic barhopping crowd, with occasional suggestions that there might be love elsewhere. Bob and Rose makes plain that it’s not about “might;” it’s virtually certain that love will be found in relationships and not in meat markets, and it’s not about hierarchies of relationships, gay and straight; it’s about knowing real love when you see it in any of its many forms. Canal Street in Manchester has evolved from where it’s at to where it really isn’t at, actually.
Despite the pressure of gay chauvinism in Bob’s network and more than a little homophobia in Rose’s, and two friends from hell on Bob’s side working full time to sabotage their relationship, it grows and lifts them above the crowd.
What you’re left with is a story written by a gay man of a romance between a man and a woman that anybody, gay or straight, could only wish for themselves. The all too common gay take on the film, as evidenced in the blogs and reviews, that this is some sort of sell-out to heterosexuality, is quite mistaken. It doesn’t take long for it to sink in that you’re looking through a window on a world where gays are normal and ubiquitous and homophobes are idiots and creeps, and that the real goal for the gay community maybe ought to be letting one’s attitudes catch up with one’s principles. If you’re really for liberation, for freedom of association and approval of any and all healthy human relationships, and not just for a zero-sum game of gay rights, where I get back at your disapproval by out-disapproving you, you should want to be at Bob and Rose’s wedding and hope they invite you at least to baby sit, if not become aunts or uncles to, their kids.
August 5, 2006