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The portrayal of sexuality in popular media is often inaccurate or controversial due to the stigmatized nature of the topic in society. Non-traditional sexual orientations often lack the exposure and respectful depiction in films. However, as societal paradigms shift, the 21st century has seen an increased and more honest portrayal of sexuality. Brokeback Mountain was one of the first large-scale Hollywood productions to depict homosexuality realistically and authentically, creating a precedent to launch queer cinema into the mainstream.
The primary theme of Brokeback Mountain is discovering sexual identity in culture and society that is inherently masculine and unsupportive of non-traditional sexual orientation. The film follows two men Jack and Ennis who work as hired cowboys, herding livestock in the rural mountains. In their time alone, they form an awkward but passionate sexual relationship. After parting ways, they have serious heterosexual relationships, but it is evident that they are struggling with their identity and long for the emotions experienced during their time in the mountains. During their period meetings, it is evident they still have passion and care for each other. After Jack’s accidental death, for years Ennis struggles to come to terms with grief and the feelings he had for Jack. Eventually, Ennis accepts that he has loved Jack strongly all along (Brokeback Mountain). The central message of the film can be summarized as that love and sexual desire are natural between any human being, despite identity, and do not adhere to social paradigms or acceptance.
The struggle with sexual identity is a relevant aspect of socio-cultural acceptance. Cowboys living in the rural West where old traditions and Christian beliefs are prevalent are usually portrayed as hypermasculine figures. It can be argued that Brokeback Mountain depicts the message of finding one’s sexual identity in a very respectful and authentic manner, stirring away from common stereotypes. Queer representation in Hollywood films is mostly negative, particularly at the time when Brokeback Mountain was released, and the LGBTQ community was not as widely accepted as today. These depictions are often crude and homophobic. Homosexuality has always been portrayed as a comedic element that serves as an insult. Gay characters or actors had extreme and eccentric styles of clothing or mannerisms of dialogue. In drama films, people with non-traditional sexual orientations are often portrayed as closeted and anti-social individuals, shunned by society (“Queer Representation in Film and Television”).
Brokeback Mountain was controversial upon release and received a mixed response. It was applauded for bravely breaking barriers and depicting homosexuality as something natural, human, and authentic. However, it was also lauded for falling short on its message, essentially showing straight characters (played by heterosexual actors) who cannot even accept they might be gay (Bermudez 28). It can be argued that Brokeback Mountain did steer clear of traditional Hollywood stereotypes for homosexuality. Both men are normal, social, and highly masculine. Their relationship is the primary plot point of the movie rather than a comedy punchline. Furthermore, the portrayal of homosexuality as an authentic and human desire with the same emotions and struggles as seen in heterosexual romance films makes this movie a first of its kind.
Accuracy of Portrayal
The film portrays the search for sexual identity and homosexuality accurately for the culture of the time and setting in the plot. Jack and Ennis, both being masculine cowboys living in rural, conservative America, it is evident that they struggle to comprehend and accept their feelings. One of the first scenes in the movie is when Jack attempts to make a pass at Ennis and gets rejected. Both of them feel tension and fear at the possibility of their attraction to each other. The movie does not attempt to show dramatic gestures of passion but instead highlights the first intimate and awkward instances of love that are common in real life. When Jack returns the next summer to seek work, he is rejected because Joe had observed the men and suspected a romantic relationship between them. This is an accurate portrayal of social perspectives on homosexuality when service and employment are often denied on the grounds of homophobia.
However, when Jack and Ennis meet again years later, there is tension amongst them. They still have feelings for each other, but Ennis is afraid of being found out, fearing social judgment and repercussion. Meanwhile, Jack cannot let go of his yearning for Ennis, and it tortures him inside. As a result, they get into a confrontation which ends in a loving embrace. This is an accurate portrayal of the sexual and romantic tension between two people who cannot be together. They struggle with personal and societal pressures but still care deeply for each other. It is evident that this tears them apart inside and the scenes result in a climactic display of raw emotion. The struggle that the characters display reflects on their marriages as well, as both evidently struggle and Ennis eventually divorces his wife. In real life, many gay men continue to live in heterosexual marriages to cover their identity, and as a result, their marriages are often unfulfilling, particularly from a sexual perspective. Finally, Ennis coming to terms with his sexuality and realization that he loved Jack all along. It is an aspect that is accurate but at the same time dramatized to an extent that makes it seem improbable. While dramatic events, such as the death of an old friend, may cause catharsis, it was a cinematic element in the movie that would rarely occur in real life. Grief and love are complex emotions that develop over an extended period.
Although I maintain a favorable view of the film, similar to many critics, I believe that the relationship and interaction between Jack and Ennis were not explored to the core. As many have pointed out, the casting choice of Heath Ledger and Jack Gyllenhaal was not the best. Although excellent actors, both were heterosexual Hollywood machos. Therefore, they were unsuccessful in portraying the chemistry and bond that the plot deserved. The passion lacked the spark and seemed staged, which strongly intervened with the film’s overall focus on queer sexuality. While the film most likely wanted mainstream recognition through the use of big-name actors, it might have been better to use actors who identify as gay or bisexual. Recent movies have shown that even with the use of unknown actors, more authentic performance still garnishes critical and box-office success.
Messages in the Movie
One of the main messages in the movie is that societal discrimination of non-traditional sexual orientations is detrimental to the love and happiness of people’s lives. Both characters are forced to live a secret private life and never finding their true place because of that fear. Another tremendously positive message is that homosexuality is a natural human feeling that does not anyhow differ from heterosexual attraction except in the gender of the partners. People should not be afraid to show their genuine sexual attraction in fear that it might be unnatural because it is a non-traditional sexual orientation. Another positive message building off that theme is that anyone, even the most masculine of men, can have these urges. Physical appearance, social status, or stereotypes do not dictate who a person is or to whom he/she may be attracted.
Brokeback Mountain. Directed by Ang Lee, performance by Heath Ledger, Focus Features, 2005.
Bermudez, Pilar A. The Social Impact of “Brokeback Mountain:” A Reception Study. 2008, Web.
“Queer Representation in Film and Television.” MediaSmarts, n.d., Web.