2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
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[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.” 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.
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 filmpowerfullydramatizes 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.”
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. ( 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.”
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.” 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. 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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
Or: “To say that homosexuality is not evil is like saying it’s not evil to cheat on your wife.”
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.
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.”
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.” 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.”
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). 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. 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.
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. 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.”
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
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].”
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,
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."
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.”
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.
3. For key studies of such topics, see Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
5. Two survey forms about Brokeback Mountain are attached below as Appendix 1 and Appendix 2. The first is a quantitative questionnaire that was used by a professional audience research company to track data about the film’s demographic appeal and how it might be most effectively marketed. The second survey is a qualitative questionnaire that I wrote and circulated on the campus of the University of North Texas. In designing my survey, I chose to construct open-ended questions that would hopefully elicit a wide range of actual viewer responses, rather than force answers into prescribed categories (as does the quantitative survey). As such, my survey does not pretend to be statistically significant or demographically balanced; its purpose was to elicit further comments about the film which were then analyzed along with other artifacts of reception (film reviews, op-ed pieces, etc.). My survey was distributed mostly around the Radio, TV, and Film Department at UNT and at the campus media center (which serves a wider population). I received about 45 completed surveys in all.
9. Overviews of homophobia can be found in Byrne Fone, Homophobia: A History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000) and David Plummer, One of the Boys: Masculinity, Homophobia, and Modern Manhood (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1999). See also Gregory M. Herek, “Beyond ‘Homophobia’: A Social Psychological Perspective on Attitudes Towards Lesbians and Gay Men,” in Bashers, Baiters, and Bigots: Homophobia in American Society, ed. John P. DeCecco(New York: Harrington Park Press, 1985). The study that proved that homophobia is positively correlated with same-sex feelings is reported in Henry E. Adams, Lester W. Wright, Jr., and Bethany A. Lohr, “Is Homophobia Associated with Homosexual Arousal?” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 105:3 (1996): 440-445.
26. The intense feelings generated by the film were instrumental in breaking up a friendship between two UNT colleagues of mine: a straight female English professor who defended the film and a gay psychologist who was bitterly disappointed with it.
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