This week, while reading Brenda Cooper and Edward C. Pease’s article, “Framing Brokeback Mountain: How the Popular Press Controlled the ‘Gay Cowboy Movie’,” I found that Cooper/Pease’s analysis of the immediate critical response across the United States to the release of Brokeback Mountain (2004) jives with Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s explanation of the oppositional minoritizing vs. universalizing approaches used to place homosexuality within heterosexist society in “Epistemology of the Closet.”
Cooper/Pease highlight three constantly recurring themes–or “frames of reference” (251)–in the critical reviews across national, regional, and local newspapers and national, religious, and entertainment magazines: that Brokeback Mountain is a “universal” love story, that the cinematic “gay cowboys” somehow simultaneously belong to/are opposed to the classic stories and images of the American cowboy West, and that America today is distanced from its homophobic past. The first of these themes is my concern. In calling Brokeback Mountain a universal love story–and comparing it to the “culturally familiar” gang of Romeo & Juliet et al.–critics made it safe-viewing for straight, heteronormative audiences (Cooper/Pease 257). Reviewers particularly made it appealing to straight women by invoking such famous romance tropes and icons. As one male reviewer put it: “…women are so broad-minded, or so in need of a love story, that they’ll go even when their gender isn’t part of the equation” (McBride 95). Herein is the connection to Sedgwick, who explains that one minoritizing view of homosexuality is the archaic belief that gay men constitute a specific sub-group of men–once known as “inverts”–who are actually women’s souls trapped in men’s bodies (57). So in trying to universalize the appeal of a movie about same-sex love, contemporary critics minoritized it instead by implying that straight women would have a special stake in its story and identify with men who desire men…which leads to the inverse and problematic conclusion that gay men have a special attachment to and understanding of the affairs of straight women.
This is the double-edged sword of homonormative projects, sometimes these efforts have the opposite desired outcome. This is not to say that Brokeback Mountain was not an important and successful film–quite the opposite. But was it important and successful for the right reasons? Why didn’t reviewers minoritize their framing of the film by saying it was specifically for lesbians and gay men to appreciate? Or by emphasizing the still-existent homophobic experiences unique to gay/queer people, which is what Annie Proulx, the author of the story on which the film is based, originally intended?
- Cooper, Brenda and Edward C. Pease. “Framing Brokeback Mountain: How the Popular Press Corralled the ‘Gay Cowboy Movie.’” Critical Studies in Media and Communication. Volume 25, Issue 3 (2008): p. 249 – p. 273.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Epistemology of the Closet.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin (eds.). New York: Routledge, 1993: p. 45 – p. 62.
- McBride, Dwight A. “Why I Hate That I Loved Brokeback Mountain.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Volume 13, Number 1 (2007): p. 95 – p. 97.