Is Alma a “tearful, frumpy, perpetually nagging drudge”?
Or another victim of heteronormativity?

Regardless of his relationship with Jack, Alma’s life with Ennis is a nightmare version of heterosexuality, complete with dingy apartments, crying kids, and little hope for a future.

No such thing as queer cowboys? In the film Jack travels to Mexico to hide his desires ...

... but he wouldn’t have too look far in Dallas, home to several Western gay bars and an annual lesbian and gay rodeo.

"The Brokeback Phenomenon" was national as well as local, even as some right wing commentators sought to suppress its cultural significance.

National gay and lesbian newsmagazine The Advocate ran several cover stories about Brokeback Mountain and its stars.  More recently, after Heath Ledger’s death, The Advocate’s tribute to him featured a cover image of him as his Brokeback character, Ennis Del Mar.

One of the film’s most important scenes takes place at a dance at the Childress, Texas, Social Club.

In that scene, the ranch foreman invites Jack to a “cabin down on a lake” to “drink a little whiskey, fish some, get away, ya know?”

The epistemological uncertainty of this brief exchange is highly disruptive of patriarchal heteronormative discourses and knowledges: is the invitation strictly homosocial, or is it a not-so-thinly-veiled homosexual proposition?

In queering what might be traditional heterosexual homosociality, this scene blurs the lines between homosexuality, heterosexuality, and homosociality, just as the film as a whole does.




The “Christian” response

Most fundamentalist Christians in North Texas fiercely defend their right to discriminate against gay men and lesbians as part of their religious belief system. They used Brokeback Mountain as a chance to proselytize, citing the Bible and/or using “fire and brimstone” rhetoric to condemn the film as an example of contemporary culture’s moral depravity. (In most cases, they felt no need to actually see the film.) For example, after local secular critics lauded the film, one such person wrote to the Dallas Morning News to express her concern:

“I am both saddened and outraged at the results of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association pick of Brokeback Mountain for best picture. As a Christian, I believe we need to take a stand when biblical truths are being trampled by society’s push toward tolerance and acceptance of a lifestyle that is blatantly against God’s standard.”[13][open endnotes in new window]

A similar letter continued in the same vein, drawing upon the religious and medical discourses of previous decades:

“There is no way abomination can be called love. It is filth and nothing else. All two male perverts can give life to is AIDS. The film, Brokeback Mountain, is not a love story. It is pornography. Why does the media promote perversion?”[14]

These letters reveal the essentialist way that many locals use the term “Christian” — for them it means standing fundamentally against homosexuality in any way, shape, or form. The idea of a pro-gay Christianity is largely beyond the scope of such people, even though Dallas is home to the Cathedral of Hope, one of the largest gay-friendly Christian churches in the world.

Furthermore, once homosexuality is equated with other “sins” that can be renounced, all of those who practice or condone such behaviors can then be termed “liberals.” For example, as another local expressed it, Brokeback Mountain

“is an affront to marriage and women. I see no beauty in adultery, but then I am not a liberal.”[15]

Or: “To say that homosexuality is not evil is like saying it’s not evil to cheat on your wife.”[16]

That same letter writer then went off on a rather bizarre tangent, revealing further assumptions about the character of so-called liberals as well as hinting at his own position vis-à-vis sexuality:

“I hope everyone enjoyed Valentine’s Day. I focused on many aspects of love and wondered: Why do so many seem to resort to liberalism? It’s a great life with no responsibilities, but you don’t find love. That’s not the life for me. I have a greater power to answer to when I die. So I choose to live conservative Christian values.”

Here, liberal seems to be equated with homosexual (both are apparently loveless and hedonistic), and — rather significantly — both are apparently conscious choices that one can make. As another letter to the editor bluntly put it, “by the way, a homosexual can lead a clean godly life by not being a pervert,” lending further credence to the idea that many fundamentalist Christians seem to understand homosexuality in a universalizing sense — i.e. as a desire common to everyone — even if they consciously choose not to act upon it.[17]

Other more professional, moderate Christian pundits were at least willing to see the film before discussing it. Their comments demonstrate some interesting reception paradigms, as many decoded (and even recommended) Brokeback Mountain as a film about the wages of sin. Still others reveal fears (also expressed by the fundamentalists) that queers are taking over Hollywood and thus the nation itself. Talk radio host and Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Mark Davis felt the need to come out of the closet with his editorial,

“I’m a Conservative, and I liked Brokeback Mountain.”

Although his main point was to defend his decision to see the film (“conservative credentials do not require hostility toward the movie, nor is it fair to label those wishing to avoid it as raging homophobes”), he nonetheless used his essay to express a “kinder and gentler” homophobia, speaking out against domestic partner benefits, gay marriage, and adoption. His most preposterous assertion was,

“Our movies and TV portray far more gay people than naturally occur in the population.”

When several follow-up letters to the editor took him to task for that statement, Davis became belligerent. “Sorry, but that's just nuts,” he replied to one.

“Objective demographers conclude that America is maybe 4 or 5 percent gay — if that. Nowhere near the 10 percent claimed by gay advocacy groups. Compare that to the prevalence of TV shows and movies that feature gay characters, and you'll see what I mean.”[19]

Although media historians see a growing trickle of queer characters in film and television in recent years, Davis sees a deluge. His paranoia, like that of many homophobes, may be fueled by his own need to see homosexuality quelled in the public sphere, thus making it easier to quell in the private sphere.

Davis' fellow conservative editorialist at the Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher, took another approach to containing the film’s dangerous ideas, suggesting that it was OK to see it because it was genuine “art.”[20] As Dreher saw it, the film is clearly not

“about the need to normalize homosexuality, or ‘about’ anything other than the tragic human condition.”

Typical of many of these conservative op-ed pieces, the writer does realize to some extent what the film is about:

“True, the men begin their doomed affair in a time and place where homosexuality was viciously suppressed, and so they suffer from social constrictions that make it difficult to master their own fates.”

But then he goes on to suggest that Jack and Ennis are not “real” men because they have failed to rise above such constraints:

“both men are overgrown boys who waste their lives searching for something they’ve lost, and which might be irrecoverable. They are boys who refuse to become men, or to be more precise, did not, for various reasons, have the wherewithal to understand how to become men in their bleak situation.”

Like many other conservative Christians, Dreher realizes that homophobia and heterosexism create a truly tragic state of affairs for queer people, yet he fails to see his own complicity in propagating such attitudes. He mistakes the socially constructed effects of heteronormative patriarchy — emotionally deadened masculinity, the denigration of femininity, the closet itself — for the “tragic human condition.”

Anne Hathaway’s subtle performance during this climactic phone call scene suggests that she too has led a lifetime of deception, demanded and enforced by compulsory heterosexuality. The possibility of same sex love and desire remains repressed so that the façade of heterosexuality can be maintained.

Local queer responses

Queer people in North Texas were deeply invested in Brokeback Mountain before, during, and after its release. Gay men circulated nude j-pegs of Heath Ledger snapped during the production of the film, and they bought and read the Annie Proulx story in unprecedented numbers; local bookstores could not keep it in stock. They eagerly discussed the purchase of the two cowboys’ shirts featured in the film by Seattle collector Dennis White, who compared them to another famous gay icon: the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939).[21] Re-edited video trailer parodies such as Brokeback Penguins and Brokeback to the Future were sent so often via email that the Dallas Morning News commented upon them.[22] And at least one gay couple I know of began to refer to themselves as Jack and Ennis and pretend that their dog was a lost sheep, all the while mumbling “I wish I knew how to quit-choo” at the drop of a hat. In addition to reviews, op-ed pieces, and numerous letters to the editor, the area’s gay newspaper the Dallas Voice ran a story on the film’s dual advertising campaign, noting that one ad squarely aimed at heterosexual consumers

“practically de-gayed the film — showing Jake Gyllenhaal cooing over his newborn son held by his picture-perfect wife.”

However, the film’s publicists sent the Dallas Voice critics blue Brokeback Mountain bandanas, which according to the decades-old Gay Hanky Code, represents anal sex,

“worn on the left for tops; worn on the right for bottoms.”[23]

One of the more interesting Brokeback Mountain artifacts circulating among gay men (and undoubtedly others) was a parody of the film’s poster art featuring the faces of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Re-titled Dumbfuck Mountain, the doctored ad features the tag line, “Love is a Farce of Nature.” Yet while this artifact uses Brokeback Mountain to fashion a glibly leftist, possibly pro-gay critique of our national leaders, it expresses that critique from firmly within dominant heterosexist assumptions. Bush and Cheney are “dumbfucks” in this artifact precisely because they are supposed to be gay. There is nothing in the flyer about their failed global policies or anti-gay rhetoric; implying they are “Brokeback” is all that is needed to judge them negatively. (Indeed, it now seems that “Brokeback” has become synonymous with “gay” within contemporary adolescent culture: both terms are used interchangeably to describe something as stupid or wrong.)

Reaction to the actual film of Brokeback Mountain varied among local queer people, although the majority of GLBT people I talked to about the film seemed to like it, decoding it mostly as a love story between characters with whom they could empathize and identify. Although a few were disappointed by the film’s tragic tone, most queer spectators understood that the film was as much about the closet as it was the love affair between Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. For example, responding to the editorials that called Ennis childish and unmanly, one gay man wrote to the Dallas Morning News to assert that Ennis was the way he was because of his traumatic childhood (having been forced to view the mutilated murdered body of a local gay man), and was thus understandably

“terrified of the brutal consequences of being perceived gay.”

Expounding on the film’s “moral,” and linking it to contemporary gay rights struggles, he continued:

“Whether or not same-gender marriages are legalized by government, gay men and women would not have to hide their sexual orientation if society did not condemn them. Fear and hatred of those who are different often result in death. My hope is that viewers of Brokeback Mountain will change this reality.”[24]

Most of the GLBT survey respondents also reacted to the film as primarily as melodrama in the Sirkian tradition, a story that ended badly because of the social constraints placed upon Jack and Ennis, not because they were queer per se.

However, a small but vocal minority of gay men were very disappointed with the film, seeing it as more of the usual Hollywood approach to representing homosexuality. Some argued that Jack and Ennis were far from “positive role models” and were angry that Hollywood had served up yet another tragic tale about being gay. As one such critique (sent to most of the gay newspapers in Texas) expressed it,

Brokeback Mountain had a wonderful opportunity to provide a history of the struggles faced by gay men during this period. The movie accomplished that. What it didn’t do was take advantage of the chance to provide hope and a sense that gay men can overcome these struggles and the social adversities. As a gay man who lived much of the movie’s story line, I feel angry that the creators of this film did not feel it necessary to leave the audience with the idea that two men can fall in love and pursue a happy, healthy life together.”[25]

Suggesting that the movie would only add fuel to anti-gay rhetoric, this writer concluded,

“If you are a member of the GLBT community and you were not outraged by this movie, you were not paying attention. The mood set by this movie is dangerous.”[26]

A few letters sent to the Dallas Morning News sounded similar themes, calling Brokeback Mountain

“another film that portrays male homosexual love as ultimately just a tragedy and betrayal against women. God forbid that these two guys might have ridden off into the sunset together to live happily ever after without ever marrying and having kids. The only way mainstream society can deal with gay love is to portray it as a tragedy, and this film is no different.”[27]

That critique — sounded throughout the Metroplex with various levels of complexity — was met by other GLBT people who defended the film. According to their argument, Brokeback Mountain was necessarily depressing, because it was dramatizing the effects of the closet. Responding to the above letter, one writer asked if gay men who disliked the film were

“expecting La Cage Aux Folles on the range? Apparently they just don’t get it at all and want their art sugarcoated with happy endings. They miss the whole point of the film. Without films like this, the ‘riding off happily into the sunset’ is never going to be a given. For gay men to come out whining about how depressing the film was is about the same as Jews going to Schindler’s List and then complaining about how sad it made them feel.”[28]

Dale Carpenter, a former official of the Texas Log Cabin Republicans (a group of self-proclaimed gay Republicans), also weighed in on the matter in an editorial published in the state-wide gay newspaper Txt Newsmagazine. Surprisingly — or not — Carpenter’s essay begins by quoting well-known right-wing scourge Midge Decter and her notoriously homophobic essay “The Boys on the Beach,” in which she argued the old canard that male homosexuality was a childish flight from adult responsibility. Echoing many straight conservatives, Carpenter reduces Jack and Ennis to “adulterers” who selfishly “frolic” while their families (and their sheep) are decimated. He suggests that

“the deeper reason their love doesn’t completely register is that every time they go off together one is left wondering, what about the kids?”

Carpenter’s essay also reveals his investment in traditional models of masculinity. For example, he praises the fact that Jack and Ennis are not effeminate — he is glad to see that they partake of “real” masculinity and “not the posed hyper-masculinity of the leather, Levi, and uniform fetish scenes” — and in so doing he aligns himself with essentialist models of patriarchal masculinity and not a queer critique thereof. Ultimately, Carpenter questions,

“Do we think [Jack and Ennis] have no obligation except to fulfill their own deepest desires? Do we really believe that the only tragedy in the film is the thwarted love of these two men? Why is nobody in the gay community even considering this moral complexity?”[29]

Contrary to Carpenter, many straight and queer people were willing to see the film in very complex ways, although true to contemporary cultural theory, they usually decoded the film from within their preexisting subject positions. Thus conservatives — even gay ones — were upset by the film’s seeming validation of “adultery” and betrayal of “family values.” Other queers decoded the film as yet another Hollywood film made by clueless straight people — seemingly accepting the media’s description of the film as a “gay cowboy movie” and then critiquing its intimate moments as

“the kind of sex that a person who’s neither gay nor a cowboy imagines gay cowboys must have.”[30]

One straight feminist journalist (or at least what passes for a feminist journalist in North Texas) felt that the film ignored the plight of the men’s spouses. Jacquielynn Floyd thought the overall film was “pretty good,” but in her opinion Alma and Lureen

“came across not much more sympathetically than the horses and sheep.…the poor wives are written as stock characters: one is a tearful, frumpy, perpetually nagging drudge; the other is a brittle big-haired harpy.”[31]

In contrast to that reading, some gay men felt the film spent far too much time sympathizing with Lureen and Alma, referring to those stretches of the movie as the “boring parts.” Scott, the male film student quoted at the start of this essay, still feels the film represents homosexuality as an uncontrollable addiction. Thus, even as opinions about the film’s meaning(s) varied widely, they were nonetheless loudly sounded opinions, leading a few commentators to try to minimize the film’s social impact, even as many others used it as a chance to comment on the real life issues raised by the film.

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