- Intolerance, A Survival Guide:Heteronormative Culture Formation in Cormac McCarthy's The Road
A Crisis of Signification
In an interview with 'the national review' following the legalization of same-sex marriage in his state, the then-Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, stated, "Marriage is principally for the nurturing and development of children. The children of America have the right to have a father and a mother" (Gallagher). His comment here implies that the victims of such unions would be the children raised by same-sex parents. A year later, in an interview with Chris Matthews on the television show Hardball, Romney complicated his stance:
I don't want civil unions or gay marriage. But there is a difference, even when just the word is the difference. And the difference is that, if you indicate as a society that you're indifferent between a same-sex couple marrying and a heterosexual couple marrying, then it means our schools and other institutions are going to have to indicate that there is no difference whatsoever, and that obviously has societal consequences that are important.
Romney significantly identifies language as the means by which the institution of marriage becomes corrupted—"even when just the word is the difference"—stressing the importance of maintaining a definition that supports only the predominant conservative model. His argument, [End Page 103] that including homosexual relationships in our cultural and legal definition of the word marriage would corrupt the practice of heterosexual marriage, takes a polarized approach to culture formation whereby definitions must remain static or else fail entirely; instead of allowing culture, language, and legislation the necessary room to adapt so that they might accurately reflect the people who live by them. By invoking the "societal consequences" that same-sex marriage would generate, Romney expands the category of the victims of this supposed corruption of marriage to all children influenced by "schools and other institutions." Why married, same-sex partners would be detrimental to the nurturing and development of their own children is unclear, but even more puzzling is the implication here that families that include same-sex parents harm heteronormative families by simply living in their midst. Suddenly, a desire to affirm a bond between two consenting adults of the same gender gets cast as an attack on the most sacred object at the center of the structure of contemporary culture: the child.
The contemporary need for the child as a locus of self-justification has reached a hysterical pitch in the face of what many perceive as the dissolution of cultural structures instigated by the recognition and representation of alternative lifestyles in our laws and our fictions. The legacy of the hell-in-a-hand-basket mentality of the Moral Majority surfaces in the increased virulence of cultural documents ranging from anti-abortion advertisements to popular apocalyptic fictions. The Evangelical Christian book series Left Behind, which began publication in 1995, has sold more than sixty-three million copies (Homepage).1 The novels follow the plight of the sinners who remain on earth after the Rapture, indulging Evangelical fantasies about the suffering of those who fail to follow in the path of the Lord.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a far more secular contemporary version of a post-apocalyptic tale, yet it is likewise situated in the paranoia of its contemporary moment. Centered on the relationship between a father and his son trying to survive in an inhospitable landscape strewn with ash and corpses, the novel establishes hope where we always hope to find it: within the structure of familial relationships. The Road is a bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and an Oprah's Book Club selection. The father-son relationship that the novel depicts is the engine that drives its popularity; it is the theme of the novel to which mainstream outlets return again and again. Reviews almost uniformly [End Page 104] laud the sentimental portrait of consanguineous love; many seem to imply that the tenderness—a ubiquitous word choice—that the man shows towards the boy somehow eclipses or undoes the scenes of brutal violence contained in the novel.2 In McCarthy's interview with Oprah Winfrey, the talk show host...