Mythic U.S. masculinity in its iconic setting: the wide-open spaces of the Western frontier.

A new idea for some viewers: “manly” men with homosexual desires.

At the end of the film, the openness of Brokeback Mountain is contrasted with the cramped space of an actual closet.

Homosocial horseplay becomes homosexual.

Heterosexuality in Brokeback Mountain is far from appealing. Instead of “a clean godly life [that can be led] by not being a pervert,” it is represented as unhappy, unpleasant, highly limited, fraught with rigid hierarchies, enforced silences, and the ever-present threat of violence.

Ennis hears from Lureen that Jack is dead: “tragic human condition” or a life deadened by the strictures of heteronormativity?

A nude shot of Heath Ledger taken on the set of Brokeback Mountain and circulated among gay men in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in anticipation of the film’s release.

This composite nude shot of Jake Gyllenhaal’s head on someone else’s body also circulated among gay men before and after the film’s release.

Jack and Ennis’s intertwined shirts—now as iconic as Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

Homosexual intimacy: Can this image arouse “real men”?

Homosexual intimacy: Or does it make them want to vomit?

Homosexual intimacy: Perhaps a bit of both?

Could this shot turn people gay by osmosis? Some viewers thought so.

Cowboy poets rhapsodize the many charms of the rugged cowboy—as long as he remains heterosexual.

Cowboy poet Joel Nelson on protecting cowboy iconography in an article in the Dallas Morning News: "I just can’t decide how I feel about taking what we consider to be a hero and injecting that into his character.” [photo credit]

More Western iconography queered: Jack ropes Ennis in order to get him to come down to camp on their last day together.

The roping turns into a fight; Ennis cannot express his feelings except in violent homosocial terms.

Jack tries to comfort Ennis, but to little avail.

Though I received this internet “mash up” from a gay friend who found it humorous, its joke is built solely on the perception that homosexuality is itself “dumb” or “fucked up.”



Brokering Brokeback Mountain
a local reception study

by Harry M. Benshoff

So I'm curious if you see Brokeback Mountain as the movie that allowed mainstream audiences to have a chance to look at the world a different way (as it seems to be marketed). Or if you felt it treated homosexuality as this horrible addiction that's so dangerous it can lead to someone dying. I can’t make up my mind.
— Scott, former UNT Radio, TV, and Film Major[1][open endnotes in new window]

By almost anyone’s calculations, Brokeback Mountain was the movie event of 2005/2006. Based on a story by Annie Proulx, this “gay cowboy movie” (a misnomer, as I shall argue below) generated considerable box office revenue, multiple interpretations, and a fair amount of controversy, as pundits of every ideological stripe weighed in on its cultural significance. As one of the few popular movies dealing with issues surrounding male homosexual desire and identity, the reception of Brokeback Mountain makes for an interesting case study. Not only does its reception support various concepts of contemporary cultural theory (such as the necessarily negotiated decoding of polysemous, heteroglossic media texts), it also underscores the many interpretive meanings of (male) homosexuality that exist within contemporary culture-at-large. As will be shown, by challenging the ideological foundations of heteronormative patriarchy, Brokeback Mountain generated a large amount of fear, anger, delight, disappointment, and/or moral outrage among diverse groups of filmgoers.

The following analysis also draws upon queer theory, an array of ideas about human sexuality that critiques “normalising ways of knowing and of being.”[2] Queer theory is informed by many of the same poststructuralist and postmodern ideas that shape third wave feminism, postcolonial theory, and other contemporary ways of thinking about the politics, practice, and production of social identities. Like much of that thinking, queer theory postulates that human sexuality is not an essentialized or biological given, but is rather a fluid construct that is shaped by the various discourses within which it is spoken. In its broadest terms, queer theory insists that there is a general overlap between all forms of human sexuality — that there are multifarious human sexualities situated between the essentialist poles of homosexuality and heterosexuality. As such, one of queer theory’s central goals is to deconstruct and complicate Western culture’s illusory straight-gay binary. Other aspects of queer theory investigate the multiple meanings of male homosocial desire and explore its relationship to masculinity, (homo)sexuality, patriarchy, and the so-called “closet” within which homosexual desire has been said to hide.[3]

Arguably, one of the film’s most potent (and disturbing) effects is its queering of rough-and-tumble homosocial masculinity.

Thus, while most popular culture, including Hollywood movies, contributes to simplistic understandings of gender and sexuality as either-or binaries, queer theory allows one to dissect those images and begin to analyze them for the ways in which they maintain (or more rarely critique) the various hierarchical meanings of gender and sexuality. In this respect, Brokeback Mountain is an exemplary queer film, exploring diverse sexualities that cannot be easily labeled or described. Similarly, queer theory can be used as it is below, to investigate the ways in which the film’s reception affirms, denies, and/or otherwise complicates the social constructions and popular understandings of male (homo)sexual desire.

For example, the release of Brokeback Mountain was far more culturally significant than that of the occasional Hollywood drag-queen farce precisely because Brokeback Mountain queers traditional concepts of U.S. masculinity and the film genre most closely tied to its representation, the Western. The film powerfully dramatizes the processes and effects of both social and internalized homophobia, and it continually blurs the borders between straight and gay, homosocial and homosexual. Like Romeo and Juliet, Brokeback Mountain is an epic tragedy about star-crossed lovers whose social and familial obligations prevent them from realizing the true potential of their love. However, it is not a “gay cowboy movie” as the popular press world have it, as neither Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) nor Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) would claim a gay identity. In fact, both men behave according to typical heterosexual norms throughout most of the film: dating women, getting married, and raising children. Yet the film is a queer cowboy movie, one in which (homo)sexual desire is explored in relation to social and historical discourses of race, class, region, religion, gender, and the nuclear family. Above all, Brokeback Mountain is film about a notoriously difficult-to-dramatize concept: the homosexual closet. As one of its most perceptive reviewers described it, the film is about

“the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.”[4]

Although Brokeback Mountain was a much discussed national phenomenon from before its release to after its Best Picture Oscar snub, this essay analyzes its reception in North Central Texas, an area referred to by many locals as The Metroplex. The Metroplex, anchored by Dallas and Fort Worth, is the fifth largest media market in the nation. It extends northward to Denton, home of the area’s largest university, the University of North Texas. Texas prides itself on being a conservative “red” state, and The Metroplex shares in that pride. Although The Metroplex is home to many gay and lesbian people, it was technically illegal for them to have consensual homosexual intercourse until 2003, when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down Texas’ sodomy laws. Most GLBT activism and visibility within the Metroplex is centered in Dallas, where the local gay and lesbian weekly, the Dallas Voice, is written and published. Over the last five years or so the area’s mainstream newspapers — the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the Denton Record-Chronicle — have attempted to become somewhat more inclusive of gay and lesbian concerns, often to the consternation of many. For example, when the Dallas Morning News decided to run “commitment” announcements for gay and lesbian couples alongside of (but separate from) traditional heterosexual “wedding” announcements, conservatives were outraged and queers were mostly disappointed by the compromise. As in many other places in the United States, homosexuality remains a controversial issue in North Texas, a fact amply demonstrated by the local reception of Brokeback Mountain.

Drawing on personal experiences, conversations, film reviews, op-ed pieces, letters to the editors, and an anonymous voluntary survey conducted at and around the University of North Texas, this essay explores some of the many issues Brokeback Mountain raised in North Texas.[5] ( Two survey forms about Brokeback Mountain are attached to this essay as Appendix 1 and Appendix 2.)

True to its national release pattern, Brokeback Mountain first opened at one art house cinema in Dallas and then spread outward to more suburban multiplexes. This “platforming” release pattern has also been used for other recent queer-themed projects including Far From Heaven and The Hours (both 2002), and it is facilitated by the fact that these films were made by the “independent boutique” subsidiaries of major Hollywood corporations. Brokeback Mountain was first developed at Columbia Pictures by producer Scott Rudin, with New Queer Cinema alumnus Gus Van Sant set to direct. When the project was put into turn around, it was picked up by the independent company Good Machine and then found its way to Focus Features, currently the “independent” division of Universal.[6] There it was directed by Ang Lee, best known for several period films about romance and sexuality including Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Less well known is the fact that Lee was also the director of the gay/Asian romantic comedy The Wedding Banquet (1993), one of the most financially successful independent films of all time. Brokeback Mountain’s producers undoubtedly had those facts in mind when they chose the Chinese American director to a helm a small queer historical drama with potential cross-over appeal.

As will be discussed below, the exact nature and extent of Brokeback Mountain’s “crossing-over” was also a topic of heated debate. When I first saw the film on its opening weekend in Dallas, all three screens of the art house multiplex where it was playing were routinely sold out. The audience at these first screenings was comprised mostly of gay men (many of whom had driven hours to see it), followed by urban heterosexual couples and groups of women and teenage girls. As the copious sniffling in the theater suggested, most in the audience seemed to decode the film as a tragic love story, whether or not they understood the cause of that tragedy to be “the closet.” (Indeed, it seems that after gay men, Brokeback Mountain’s most ardent fans were heterosexual women ostensibly drawn to the film because of its themes of romance and family drama; my research also suggested that straight women were far less threatened by the film’s depiction of male intimacy than were straight men.) Brokeback Mountain expanded to more theaters in the next few weeks; it opened at the local Denton multiplex on January 20, 2006 and played there for four weeks.

Business was less-than-booming at most regional multiplexes, where walk-outs and oppositional comments were observed. Other small towns in Texas decided not to show the film at all. The manager of the Lone Star 4, the only movie theater in Childress (a town where part of the film was allegedly set) declined to book the film altogether, fearing a backlash from his constituents, whom he described as “a real small community with a lot of church presence.”[7] Redrawing the many lines Brokeback Mountain sought to blur, such a response reaffirms the naïve belief that small towns do not have queers (let alone people interested in queer cowboys), and that being Christian invariably means being hostile to homosexuality. Much of the public debate surrounding the film proceeded along similar lines, trying to reduce complex queer concepts to simplified and easily dismissed factoids about “gay cowboys.” However, as the following reception analysis demonstrates, Brokeback Mountain nonetheless opened up an important public space for discourse on the place and meaning of queer men in the United States.

What are they afraid of?

One of the more interesting aspects of the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon was the number of straight men who admitted that they were “afraid” to see the film. (The irony of heterosexual men — allegedly our culture's epitome of brave, strong, masculine behavior — being afraid of a movie apparently escaped them.) There were many possible reasons for this cinematic homophobia. Some (mostly heterosexual) survey respondents suggested that straight men were avoiding the film out of fear “that they might be ‘stimulated’ by the gay sex scenes,” forcing them “to think about the certainty of [their] own sexual preferences.” Others felt that straight men might be “grossed out” by the film’s portrayal of homosexual intimacy — the fundamentalist Christian lobby group the American Family Association did claim that the film would make patrons vomit in the aisles.[8] Obviously, these two responses (titillation and repulsion) are not mutually exclusive, and are perhaps more deeply conjoined than is commonly acknowledged. According to data on the conflicted sexuality of gay bashers and at least one scientific study of anti-gay prejudice, many homophobic people themselves have ego-dystonic homosexual desires — i.e. desires that they find highly disturbing to their sense of self.[9] According to this model of human sexuality, homophobic attitudes and behaviors are thus theorized to be both a defense mechanism against one’s own same-sex desires, as well as an overtly physical way to publicly perform one’s alleged heterosexuality.

Summing up what was potentially frightening about the depiction of male-male intimacy in a film like Brokeback Mountain, one survey respondent wrote that “the thought of boys kissing freaks some people out, as if you could turn gay by osmosis.” This rather prevalent belief (whether spoken of in joking or serious terms) suggests that many people acknowledge there is in fact a “slippery slope” between heterosexuality and homosexuality — that the two terms do not represent a binary opposition (as heteronormative patriarchy usually asserts). If this is indeed the case, then our culture’s obsessive construction of an absolute and essentialist heterosexual-homosexual binary may itself be understood as a defense mechanism, used to quell the fears created by the idea that human sexuality is indeed more fluid and/or protean. And that fear ultimately serves to defend and preserve patriarchal privilege, for if sexual object choice were indeed fluid, then gender would not matter, and male and female would have to be considered equal states of being, not the top and bottom terms of a gendered hierarchy.

Fear of Brokeback Mountain even extended to attending the film at all. Straight men worried what their friends would think if they saw them going into the theatre, and wives reported that their husbands refused to accompany them to the film. As one 20-year-old straight male survey respondent put it, the film’s

“politically charged reputation intimidates [me] from seeing it at a public theater alone….being thought of offensively just because you see the film is a stigma.”

Another straight male student recounted this tale:

“When I went to see the film with a friend who is also a heterosexual male I was bombarded with questions and accusations from friends and colleagues. Friends snickered and joked, saying that [I] was now a homosexual for simply seeing the movie with another male. A few coworkers asked if we had held hands in the theater. One female coworker was so disgusted when she discovered that I had seen the film that she no longer speaks to me.”

Apparently, for some such Americans, even attending a screening of Brokeback Mountain was tantamount to treason — a betrayal of heteronormative masculinity. Laughing at drag queens is good fun because they are so clearly “not men,” but, as many commentators have noted, Brokeback Mountain’s straight-acting men who sexually desire one another “threaten our very concept of masculinity.”[10]

Indeed, several survey respondents reported that Brokeback Mountain made them think about gay men in new and/or different ways: as one put it, he

“hadn’t thought about ‘manly’ gay men before.”

Brokeback Mountain's connection to the ideals of the West/ern and its traditional iconic masculinity upset many people in North Texas, an area of the country where Western mythology (in dress, food, sport, profession, attitude, etc.) is still a central component of the region’s self-definition. As another survey respondent wrote,

“Presenting a film which may feminize that ideology is scary.”

Among the local people most disturbed by Brokeback Mountain were the area’s (straight) cowboy poets, men who felt the need to defend their own manliness against not only Brokeback Mountain but also the feminizing effects of poetry itself. In a special Dallas Morning News story, rather pointedly entitled “Protecting Their View: Cowboy Poets Gather to Preserve a Culture — and Keep out Pretenders,” several cowboys weighed in on the effects of “that movie.”[11] Mr. Nelson, whom the article refers to as a “wise and thoughtful man,” mourned the fact that Hollywood had

“finally taken the last American hero and pulled him down a notch….I just can’t decide how I feel about taking what we consider to be a hero and injecting that into his character.”

Another cowboy poet, Mr. Schoenfeldt,

“was saddened that the agenda-driven Hollywood crowd’s movie, Humpback Mountain — you may laugh at that if you like — disparages the way of my life.”

Humpback Mountain was but one of many homophobic puns — including Buttback Mountain, Bareback Mountain, Brokebutt Mountain, and Backdoor Mounting — that circulated during and after the film’s release. These puns attest to the general public’s fascination with anal sexuality, and they reduce the multifaceted forms of male-male intimacy, romance, and love to an act many people consider bestial, filthy, and degrading. Although the very idea of anal sex is almost always displaced onto gay men, some statistics show that approximately 35-40% of heterosexual couples engage in anal sex.[12] Although “straight” men can be and are penetrated by their wives and girlfriends, it is not something widely discussed outside of pornographic websites, and probably never in locker rooms and other places of male homosocial bonding. For to be penetrated within the heteronormative order is to be feminized, and to be feminized is to be gay or queer. As usual, our sexually hypocritical culture seems to be simultaneously titillated and repulsed by anal sexuality, as it is by other forms of queer sex.

This fixation on anal sexuality — and Brokeback Mountain as a signifier thereof — was evidenced by media commentators as well as survey respondents. One respondent noted that people might be shying away from Brokeback Mountain because the

“gay sex scenes have been so hyped up that some people probably think the entire movie is a pornographic sex scene.”

However, the film itself is relatively chaste sexually, so who created the drooling, disproportionate hype over its alleged hyper (i.e. anal) sexuality? Another survey respondent chose to fill out his (somehow I doubt it was a her) questionnaire “comically.” Giving his age as “69” and his profession/occupation as “butt lover,” this individual wrote that the message of the film was “butt sex good” and that watching it “made me want to be a cowboy and want to screw a horse.” He described his own experience of seeing the film as

“all my butt lovers enjoyed it; it was hard to understand what was going on since we were all on ex [the party drug ecstasy] and having an orgy.”

The writer’s obsession with anality continued, commenting that the film’s detractors “need to learn the power of the rectum” and that “people just don’t appreciate bm” — apparently a joking reference to both Brokeback Mountain and bowel movement. This individual’s character was crystallized by his answer to the survey’s final question about other gay and lesbian films he might possibly have seen. “69” wrote that “gay nigers [sic] from outer space is my favorite movie.”

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