JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

More dysfunctional and cruel fathers. Jack’s cold and surly father seems to know all about Jack and Ennis, but cannot nor will not speak the truth.

When he talks to Lureen on the phone, Ennis imagines that Jack was murdered by gay bashers with a tire iron—that his death was not an accident as she claims.

The film privileges Ennis’s version of Jack’s death by visualizing it, yet Jack’s death remains as much of a mystery as was his life.

Far from presenting Lureen as a “brittle big-haired harpy,” as some commentators argued, the film suggests that she too has suffered the soul-deadening effects of the closet.

The Dallas Morning News ran a story on two ranchers who were a devoted couple for 24 years — Sam Beaumont and Earl Meadows.

Sam was left the ranch but could not defend his claim to it because of Oklahoma's sodomy laws. The legal fees bankrupted him.

It all comes back to the image of affection and sexual desire between men. Why is this image so scary?

Ultimately, Ennis remains trapped within the role heteronormative culture has forced upon him, just as the whole experience of Brokeback Mountain is reduced to a static postcard stowed away in his closet.

 

 

Truth and truthiness: spin control

One of the more provocative debates surrounding the release of Brokeback Mountain was its relation to reality. How “real” are the characters and situations depicted by the film? What does the film tell us about the “real” world of men, masculinity, and (homo)sexuality? Brokeback Mountain — both within its running time and within its reception — raises many epistemological concerns. As has been famously argued, the closet itself is a socio-cultural instrument that regulates patriarchal “truths” and “knowledges.” Brokeback Mountain foregrounds this "epistemology of the closet" in a climactic way with its open-ended dramatization of Jack’s death.[32][open endnotes in new window] Was Jack killed when a tire rim accidentally exploded (as his wife Lureen relates), or was he murdered by gay bashers with a tire iron (as Ennis imagines)? The film’s visualization of Ennis' version possibly gives it more semiotic “weight” than Lureen’s oral account, but the diegetic “truth” of the event remains elusive, a fact attested to by audiences’ varying interpretations of this plot point.

In addition to these two possible causes of Jack’s death, viewers have also suggested that Lureen’s father might have had Jack murdered, or that Jack may have died of AIDS. It is 1983 when he dies, and had Jack succumbed to AIDS, Lureen probably would have had to concoct a cover story in order to maintain their married, heterosexual façade. Lureen’s phone call to Ennis, shot in a static close up and tersely enacted by Anne Hathaway, is riddled with pregnant pauses and ambiguities caused by a lifetime of self-deception. Both this scene and the subsequent one between Ennis and Jack’s parents dramatize that not only has the closet regulated and deformed the lives of Jack and Ennis, but also those of their families. Jack’s surly father seems to know all about Jack and Ennis. He even taunts Ennis by hinting that that Jack had another male lover. However, true to the functioning of the closet, Jack’s father cannot speak any of this in open terms. Ultimately, the film leaves the “truth” of Jack’s death as yet one more epistemological uncertainty caused by the closet. Furthermore, in keeping the cause of Jack’s death indeterminate, the film suggests that there are many things that are fatal to rural semi-closeted queers. Jack could just have easily been killed by any one of them.

The film’s reception revealed some fascinating epistemological contortions on the part of moviegoers as well. Several people in Texas went on record saying that queer cowboys simply did not and could not possibly exist, either historically or in the present day. This disavowal is difficult to maintain (though perhaps psychologically understandable as a defense mechanism) since it hardly takes a private eye to find gay cowboys in The Metroplex: the area has several queer western bars, and is home to an annual gay and lesbian rodeo. (Annie Proulx has also related that she wrote Brokeback Mountain after watching an older ranch hand lusting after the younger ones in a Wyoming cowboy bar.) Despite that, a few men wrote to the area’s newspapers to deny the very existence of queer cowboys. One man asserted that he and his ranching friend Buck

“have about 120 years of experience between us, and we have never seen a gay cowboy. Nor have we ever seen a gay horse (stud or mare), cattle (bull or cow), cow dog, cat, chicken, hog, goats or geese.”[33]

Perhaps he is correct, since “gay” is a specific type of late 20th-century mostly urban male homosexual identity, and many queer cowboys — like Jack and Ennis — probably would not use the term “gay” to self-identify. Similarly, although biologists have observed homosexual behavior in many animal species, they too should not be considered gay; more logically, homosexual acts should be considered part of the natural spectrum of animal behavior. However, to acknowledge that fact would again threaten the heterosexual-homosexual binary so important to the maintenance of heteronormative patriarchy.

A few other straight cowboys wrote to area newspapers with the same argument: queer cowboys cannot really exist because they had never met one.[34] Of course, it is not likely that homosexual or bisexual cowboys would relate that fact to cowboys whose heterosexuality is defined in part by the performance of overtly homophobic attitudes and acts. Furthermore, human beings have a remarkable capacity to see exactly what they want to see — or not see. As one self-identified heterosexual survey respondent bluntly put it,

“a lot of people don’t beleave [sic] in people being gay.”

Spelling aside, this comment unpacks in at least two possible ways. If the comment means that a lot of people don’t believe in the existence of gay people as a group with shared identity markers (let alone the existence of gay cowboys), then the observation rests on a rather shaky rejection of observable, quantifiable reality. On the other hand, if the comment means that a lot of people don’t believe that anyone should act on his or her gay desires, then the observation seems to suggest the innate, universalizing queerness of all human beings, as well as the felt need to keep such “Jack-Nasty” desires firmly locked in the closet.

Perhaps in response to such confusions and preposterous assertions, throughout the run of the film, area newspapers ran several extended stories about real life “gay cowboys.” The day of the Academy Awards, in addition to much ink about Brokeback Mountain and its Oscar chances, the Dallas Morning News also ran a long, full page story about two real life cowboys and the injustices they suffered at the hands of our legal system.[35] The story profiles ranchers Sam Beaumont and Earl Meadows, two men who were a devoted couple for twenty-four years, even though both had been married to women at earlier points in their lives:

“It’s just what men were supposed to do.”

Those marriages both ended in divorce, and when the two men met in 1977, Sam, Earl, and Sam’s three sons set up life together on an Oklahoma ranch. That ranch, which had originally been in Earl’s parents’ names, was eventually deeded solely to Earl and grew to 83 acres. Yet, when Earl died in 2000, his homemade will — which left the ranch to Sam — was contested in court by Earl’s cousins. Sam was caught in a legal Catch-22. He was unable to argue that he and Earl had been a committed gay couple, since that would have been admitting to a felony crime according to Oklahoma’s sodomy laws. Despite many appeals — even after the federal Supreme Court voided such state laws — Sam was booted off his ranch by Earl’s cousins and driven into bankruptcy by extensive legal fees. At the time the story was written, Sam had been taken in by a gay friend from Dallas, but the two men were living in “abject poverty” about 40 miles from the deserted ranch where Sam had spent the best years of his life. Despite the powerful thrust of Sam’s story, no letters to the editor ran in response to it. Perhaps reality is not as much fun to debate as are the movies, as reality’s injustices are more dire and disturbing, and subsequent self-examinations more painful.

Other stories about “real life” gay cowboys in the mainstream press were less heart-wrenching but still effective in asserting the existence of manly (and sometimes married) homosexuals in the Wild West. When Willie Nelson released his song “Cowboys Are Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the Dallas Morning News featured a story on it, complete with a picture of cowboys dancing together at The Round Up, one of the area’s country and western gay bars.[36] Jacquielynn Floyd (who had argued that the film did not treat Alma and Lureen fairly) used her column to discuss the issue of straight women married to queer men, and listed the contact information for a local “You’re Not Alone” support group. Still other stories in the mainstream press speculated on what the success of Brokeback Mountain across “Middle America” meant to gay cowboys and queer people in general.[37] One syndicated story, “Mountain of Hopes,” revealed that many rural gay men and lesbians were planning Oscar parties, and it also profiled rodeo rider Jim Gilbert, whose real life story was almost identical to that of the movie, including

“his early efforts to deny his gay orientation, his failed marriages to women, the desolation he felt when his male lover died.”[38]

Still other stories and emails circulating in the wake of Brokeback Mountain urged people to remember the 1998 hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard, underlining the fact that violence against gay men in the Wild West is still a contemporary issue — and not merely a historical one.

Intriguingly, when pundits could no longer rationally argue that there are no such people as queer cowboys, a few turned to arguing that Brokeback Mountain was really not all that significant anyway. For example, although he was concerned about the growing number of homosexuals in the media, Mark Davis attempted to dismiss the significance of Brokeback Mountain by repeatedly assuring his readers that it was only a movie, and therefore need not be taken too seriously. Iconoclastic blogger Mickey Kaus, who apparently self-identifies as a neo-liberal but often sounds more like a neo-conservative, admits to having written over forty entries about the film. One Sunday, the Dallas Morning News ran a long jumbled editorial by him in which he argued that “The Heartland Breakout Meme” — his expression for the idea that Brokeback Mountain was doing good business in the so-called red states — was itself liberal propaganda. Once again reflecting the obsessive cultural association between male homosexuality and anality, Kaus repeatedly wrote,

“The Heartland Breakout Meme seems like BS [Bull Shit].”[39]

Comparing Brokeback Mountain to Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) — another film that according to Kaus only pretended that it made good money in middle America — Kaus argued that red-state America was in fact avoiding Brokeback Mountain because of the region’s (understandable) homophobia.

On one level, Kaus' editorial was meant to chastise liberals, as its subtitle suggests:

“Liberals think it’s a heartland hit…but they’re wrong — again.”

However, the essay also repeatedly validates red-state homophobia, what Kaus euphemistically refers to as “the visceral straight-male reaction against male homosexual sex” and the “deep-seated, even innate, sources of resistance to liberalization.” Apparently, debunking the “Heartland Breakout Meme” is important to Kaus (as it was apparently important to the editors of the Dallas Morning News who chose to run the editorial), because

“if you believe Brokeback Mountain is sweeping the heartland, you won’t hesitate before presenting gay marriage as the obvious next step in the evolution of civil rights.”

This, he argues, would be a bad mistake for liberals to make — if they fail to heed

“the depth of cultural antipathy to homosexuality.”

(Commentators like Kaus always find ways to avoid the term “homophobia,” unless they are using it as an example of a nasty epithet the Left unfairly hurls at the Right.) Unable to contain the film’s radical ideas, pundits such as Kaus attempted to contain the very meaning of the film’s popularity, reassuring readers that their justifiably homophobic belief systems will ultimately triumph over gay marriage, just as they allegedly triumphed over Brokeback Mountain.

Ultimately, the reception of Brokeback Mountain suggests that there is an epistemological crisis at the heart of many debates involving religion and politics, and especially the gay rights debate. Fundamentalist religious beliefs (including books on reparative therapy written by disbarred psychologists and published by crackpot ministries) are felt by some people to express more valid “truths” regarding (homo)sexuality than are as those studies vetted by medical, psychological, and sociological professionals and published by respected university presses. Talk show hosts and global leaders with little-to-no knowledge of human sexuality are content to make pronouncements about others’ civil rights based upon their own extremely limited and prejudiced belief systems, and much of the public seems content to let them. However, the complex realities of human sexuality as documented by a wide variety of researchers, theorists, and art works such as Brokeback Mountain are slowly being brought to light, and will continue to shape the many meanings of (homo)sexuality within the pubic sphere.

Conclusion           

Brokeback Mountain and its reception provoked more discussion of homosexuality, homophobia, and the alleged binary opposition between straight and gay than any other recent event, cinematic or otherwise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a concerted effort by many people in North Texas — especially straight men whose very identities continue to be inextricably intertwined with the mythology of Western masculinity — to distance themselves from the film and its ideological significance. Some feared the film and refused to see it; others saw it but decoded it in accordance with their own conservative subject positions. Semiotic gymnastics were occasionally required for some of those readings: one local cowboy tried to distance himself from the film by asserting that Brokeback Mountain “was not about cowboys in Texas but about two sheepherders in Wyoming,” apparently forgetting that Jack Twist lives the majority of his life in Childress, Texas.[40]

Still other reception paradigms revealed the psychosocial dimensions of homophobic paranoia, with some people fearing that the merest exposure to the film would “lead to the gaying out of the country.” Among the men most threatened by the film were cowboy poets (who probably had to spend considerable energy defending their masculinity even before Brokeback Mountain was released), and fundamentalist Christian men whose manly love of Jesus also requires the maintenance of a thick wall between holy, homosocial love and the allegedly bestial nature of homosexual love.

It is that wall that Brokeback Mountain knocks upon if not demolishes. In presenting Jack and Ennis as “normal” married men who like to go on fishing trips together, Brokeback Mountain threatens our culture’s very definitions of heterosexuality and masculinity. In the words of one local editorialist,

Brokeback Mountain has started emotional debates partly because it challenges a cherished ideal shared by the whole of Western civilization. That ideal is that, either by biology of God’s blessing, heterosexual men are naturally inclined to lead, and to determine the moral code by which we should all live.”[41]

By showing “normal” masculine men who also are sexual intimates — something that supposedly feminizes and devalues men in our culture — Brokeback Mountain threatens to reveal heteronormative patriarchy itself as a sexist sham, a socio-cultural formation content to use women for sex and child rearing and little else. After all, for many straight men, homosocial bonds are more important to the functioning of everyday life — not to mention everyday pleasure — than are heterosexual bonds between man and woman. What “normal” straight guy doesn’t long to get away from his wife and kids and spend a few days camping in the woods with his best buddy? After the release of Brokeback Mountain and the debates it generated, the meaning of such fishing trips may never be the same again.

Go to Notes page

Go to Appendix 1

Go to Appendix 2


To topPrint versionJC 50 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.