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Tuesday, Feb 28, 2006, 4:11 pm

Newsflash: Brokeback Mountain is about gay love

By Phoebe Connelly
Posted by our intern Brandon Forbes

Oscar favorite Brokeback Mountain seems to be hailed on all fronts as a universal love story, an archetypal tale that transcends the fact that the lovers are actually two men. Daniel Mendelsohn comments on this spin of the film in a recent NYRB review:

One of the most tortured, but by no means untypical, attempts to suggest that the tragic heroes of Brokeback Mountain aren't "really" gay appeared in, of all places, the San Francisco Chronicle, where the critic Mick LaSalle argued that the film is
about two men who are in love, and it makes no sense. It makes no sense in terms of who they are, where they are, how they live and how they see themselves. It makes no sense in terms of what they do for a living or how they would probably vote in a national election....

The situation carries a lot of emotional power, largely because it's so specific and yet undefined. The two guys—cowboys—are in love with each other, but we don't ever quite know if they're in love with each other because they're gay, or if they're gay because they're in love with each other.

It's possible that if these fellows had never met, one or both would have gone through life straight.


The statement suggests what's wrong with so much of the criticism of the film, however well-meaning it is. It seems clear by now that Brokeback has received the attention it's been getting, from critics and audiences alike, partly because it seems on its surface to make normal what many people think of as gay experience— bringing it into the familiar "heart of America." (Had this been the story of, say, the love between two closeted interior decorators living in New York City in the 1970s, you suspect that there wouldn't be full-page ads in the major papers trumpeting its "universal" themes.) But the fact that this film's main characters look like cowboys doesn't make them, or their story, any less gay. Criticisms like LaSalle's, and those of the many other critics trying to persuade you that Brokeback isn't "really" gay, that Jack and Ennis's love "makes no sense" because they're Wyoming ranch hands who are likely to vote Republican, only work if you believe that being gay means having a certain look, or lifestyle (urban, say), or politics; that it's anything other than the bare fact of being erotically attached primarily to members of your own sex....

The real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it. If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they're not really homosexual—that they're more like the heart of America than like "gay people"—you're pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed."

Phoebe Connelly, a former managing editor at In These Times, is Web Editor at The American Prospect.

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