The Society for the Psychological Study of Masculinity and Men, Division 51, American Psychological Association
volume 10
number 4
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  SPSMM Bulletin: Special Focus Section

Men and Masculinity: Lessons from Brokeback Mountain

David H. Whitcomb

University of North Dakota

As society’s conceptualization of masculinity gradually transforms, some changes seem to occur invisibly. Every once in a while, however, something comes along that inspires, unsettles, or shocks us enough to recognize that a force of change is stirring. Brokeback Mountain appears to possess such power and I am honored to head up this special section of the SPSMM Bulletin. The essays that follow are deeply personal, heartfelt, and, I believe, thought provoking. As authors, we represent diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity, and career stage (from doctoral student to senior scholars). Still, this collection should not be regarded as the final word on Brokeback Mountain from psychologists and graduate students interested in men’s studies. Absent are the perspectives of a woman, a bisexual man, a young man, a closeted gay man, a person of color, and many other points of view that could deepen our understanding of this provocative film. Neither the psychological literature nor works within queer theory are cited here, so there is ample opportunity for others to expand upon or divert from the viewpoints offered.

Works of art have the potential to connect with us at the deepest emotional and spiritual levels. As a counseling psychologist, I seldom have the opportunity to explore the relationship between art and psyche to the extent that I would like. Through its emotional power, Brokeback Mountain can lead us to think about the various forms that friendship and love between men can take, commitment in relationships (heterosexual and homosexual), and the constraints that society places on the expression of masculinity and sexuality. This project has presented an enjoyable opportunity for me and I hope that these essays will inspire readers to go see the film (or see it again), read the original short story by Annie Proulx, and use the temporary escape of film and fiction as a catalyst for reflection.

Brokeback Mountain and Fears about Homosexuality

Ronald Levant

The University of Akron

At the recent Immigration Summit and Division 51 Board Meeting and Annual Men’s Retreat, I had an opportunity to spend a day with my good friend Gary Brooks. Gary suggested that we see the movie Brokeback Mountain together.

A unique and powerful feature of this film is the way that it gets around the front-line defense mechanisms that are conventionally used for dealing with love between men, namely by labeling it as “gay,” thus creating social distance between the viewer and the subject matter of the film. It does this by not being a self-proclaimed gay movie, in contrast to a film like In and Out, starring Kevin Kline. It is rather more of a love story. Neither of the male lead characters are gay-identified, and, as sheep-herders, they look like those icons of rugged masculinity, the “Marlboro men.” They simply fall into love, albeit a rough, conflicted love. Ennis Del Mar, the epitome of the strong silent male of the 1950s, never considered it possible to have anything other than a furtive, though long-term, affair; whereas Jack Twist, the dreamer, was ready for a committed relationship early on. Jack’s greater willingness to accept the idea of love between men led to his taking risks that proved very costly. The relationship itself destroyed each man’s marriage and caused considerable damage to their families. And thus as a love story it is a tragedy, in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet.

Despite our conscious views, nearly all of us grew up in environments that were suffused with heterosexism. Many boys grew up witnessing other boys being punished by being called “faggot,” which was experienced as the worst thing a boy could ever be called. Childhood experiences like this are likely to have left an indelible trace.

The film is subversive. Not being a gay-identified film, it was able to attract audiences who might not be emotionally ready to accept the idea of love between men, due to these early childhood experiences. As a result, significant anxiety about the film emerged early on, as reflected in the immediate and massive parodying on the internet of the poster showing the two male leads facing each other against the backdrop of Brokeback Mountain. Some parodies displayed George Bush and Dick Cheney, Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay, and even Gumby and Pokie.

Hopefully the film will help people examine deeper attitudes and emotions about homosexuality.

Two Straight Guys Watching a “Gay Cowboy” Movie

Gary R. Brooks

Baylor University

In some ways getting there was as interesting as being there. Brokeback Mountain had been in theatres (with considerable critical acclaim) for several weeks before I found my way into a seat. I have some feel for why I had avoided Roots, Dances with Wolves, and Schindler’s List; i.e.,Who needs more guilt and depression? Besides, I’ve never been a big fan of the Western movie genre. I assumed I would eventually see this movie – probably on DVD at home with my wife Patti. Therefore, when my good friend Ron and I found ourselves with free time in San Antonio before the annual men’s retreat, an unanticipated opportunity presented itself. What would it be like to experience this “gay” movie with a close heterosexual friend?

I’m sure that across the US thousands of straight male friends have gone in pairs to see this movie. None of these pairs, however, were in attendance that afternoon (actually, there were two guys together who hurriedly exited the theatre immediately after the first love/sex scene). Sitting with another guy to watch two men making love would be, I had assumed, pretty terrifying. It wasn’t. Even the anticipated embarrassment from the presumptions of others seemed pretty irrelevant. Frankly, my myriad homophobic anxieties quickly faded when the intense beauty, poignancy, and tragedy of the film overtook me. Of the many powerful reactions evoked by this film, I’d like to note a few of the deeply meaningful ways that this movie altered my sense of gay experience.

Foremost, I was profoundly affected by the stark reality of danger in these men’s lives. Long before any overt violence, these men could not be free of a pervading sense of fear and threat. I have often heard gay men talk about issues of “safety.” This movie spared nothing in its portrayal of the potential horror faced daily by gay men. While it made me acutely aware that as a heterosexual man I have enjoyed a psychological luxury not available to gay men in many locations, it also made me ashamed that I have been so oblivious to this issue.

This movie caused me to think about the immense burden our culture places on gay men as they recognize the implications of gay identity. The relationship between Jack and Ennis was as violent as it was tender. Ennis hated Jack for “what you have done to my life.” He hated himself for his love of Jack. Neither man understood the origins of their feelings, placing them outside themselves as alien and unnatural. Vividly, this film demonstrated the dearth of “space” for these men to live, both psychologically and culturally.

As a father of two daughters, I was deeply pained by the toll paid by Ennis and his daughters. A variety of oppressions, both in broader culture and internalized in Ennis’ psyche, seemed to have contributed to their estrangement. In a time and place completely void of support or compassion for gay men, Ennis had few coping options beyond complete emotional cut-off. Far removed form the insights and emotional support of PFLAG (Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays), the daughter rose above her own social oppression and courageously sought out a relationship with her father. As committed as this film is to the telling of honest and bitter truth, I was deeply moved and relieved that it allowed a note of optimism in its suggestion of possible rapprochement between Ennis and his older daughter. Although this fictionalized reconnection was encouraging, such outcomes probably remain far too uncommon in the lives of many gay fathers. I am once again made aware of an unrecognized “privilege” I have been granted.

At its conclusion of this film, I found myself deeply moved and stimulated to think far more compassionately about anguished issues in the lives of gay men negotiating homophobic culture. But what about the original theme of “straight guy watching a gay cowboy movie?”

For several years, I have focused energy on countering my internalized homophobia and can now readily endure some its more straightforward discomforts. I’m generally beyond homosexual panic to the point I can hug another man and perhaps even endure questions others might have of the “real truth” of any close male friendships. At a personal level, I was delighted to have a “date” with my close friend Ron. I will confess a degree of anxiety in using that phrase, as well as a fall-back reassurance that we were “on assignment,” i.e., an intellectual project. Nevertheless, we are now closer friends from our afternoon together. Finally, I am once again impressed by the irony of how gay’s men’s willingness to tell their stories creates opportunities for growth in the lives in all of us men. In return for their courage and vulnerability, it only seems just that we “straight” men commit ourselves to working more avidly to counter all forms of oppression of gay and bisexual men.

The Secret of Brokeback Mountain

lore m. dickey

University of North Dakota

Living, as I do, in the northern prairies of the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised when the film Brokeback Mountain opened at my local movie theatre. Over 20 years ago I sat mountainside with my Girl Scout camp director in any area that looked much the same as Brokeback Mountain. It was in the fading twilight that I finally came out both to my director and to myself. I was cautioned by this well-meaning woman to never talk to my parents about my sexual orientation. Jack and Ennis suffered from the same sense of internalized homophobia. As a female-to-male transsexual who identifies as a gay man, I was entertained by the movie, moved by the scenery and story line, and disturbed by the ending. Why couldn’t Jack and Ennis have ridden off in the sunset together?

Throughout the movie, Jack and Ennis come together. Their most intimate moments are colored by violence. From the forceful sex scene, to the bloody fight, and finally to the verbal display of hatred, they seem to me unable to connect with one another from a place of love. Is this simply a characterization of men in the 1960s, or is this a way to make watching these two men more palatable? To be intimate with another person is to allow them to be close, to become familiar, or to develop closeness through a long association. It is generally implied that intimacy is characterized by loving and concern for one another. I believe that Jack and Ennis only knew how to come together in a discordant manner.

Jack and Ennis did what many gay men, such as my father, did during this time period. They walked away from one another toward an unhappy heterosexual relationship. Over the years, Jack and Ennis found ways to meet up to share a secret weekend. At my father’s death, I met the man who he had been meeting for these secret weekends for over 16 years. The tragedy of this movie is the reality with which it describes the devastating impact of internalized homophobia. Secrets are the ingredients for dysfunction and misunderstanding. For Jack and Ennis, as in my own family, they involved deceit, substance abuse, and dishonesty.

Homophobia, unfortunately, is still imminently present in our society. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that members of the gay community finally stood up to say “Enough!” The Stonewall Riots and the annual celebration of Gay Pride Day are important reminders of the ways that this community has been and continues to be treated as second class citizens. It is difficult in our society to find people who have unconditional respect for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. I fear that people walked away from the movie thinking that Jack got what he deserved. Sadly, his wife wasn’t able to be honest about Jack’s fate and Ennis must have been left feeling guilty on many levels. Ennis’ final verbal threat to Jack, from my perspective, did not rise out of jealousy but rather internalized homophobia. If Jack was really having sex with other men, then he must be gay. And, if Jack is gay, then Ennis is surely guilty by association.

As I think back on the movie, which I have seen three times, I think about the message I would like people to take from it. Certainly one theme is to hold onto love. I can only imagine the ways they could have built a life together. Another theme is about the secrets that harm them. Jack is not able to be honest with Ennis about the affair he is having back home. Ennis is never able to be honest with Jack about how he truly feels about him.

If I were to see clients who identified with either of these characters, I would want them to see how self-hatred and secrecy can be damaging to their lives. I would want them to understand how short life is. We don’t always get the chance to say good-bye to the people we love. It isn’t necessary for you to be a member of the LGBT community to suffer from the effects of self-hatred and secrecy. These issues are alive our own lives today.

Pondering the Power of Brokeback Mountain for Heterosexual Men

David H. Whitcomb

University of North Dakota

A privilege I have in being a gay academic is the luxury to watch movies like Brokeback Mountain, read the reviews of the film, watch the media coverage, discuss all of the above with friends and colleagues, write a column like this, and feel that doing much of this is part of my job. There are so many angles from which I could approach this essay, but will have to forego most of them. For example, some gay men are put off by thinking about how two heterosexual men, in a film directed by another heterosexual man, are portraying two men in a gay relationship. Even the screenwriters are heterosexually identified (a man and a woman). Where is the gay voice in the most intriguing GLBT box office hit since A Crying Game a decade ago? Should we even call it a gay film? Is it more centrally a tragic love story?

I will not delve further down that path, but will acknowledge some progress in U.S. cinema (and, by extension, society at large) by the very fact that two young heterosexual actors were prepared to risk their careers playing characters that would be labeled as gay. These actors risked being perceived as gay “in real life” and typecast as gay men in future roles, yet early signs indicate that their careers and public image are intact, even thriving.

Instead of remaining within my comfort zone of a gay man’s perspective, I will attempt in the remainder of this essay to think through what a few heterosexual perspectives on Brokeback Mountain might be. Thus, I imagine that most heterosexual women will initially feel attracted to the masculine characters of Jack and Ennis. After all, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are, among other things, Hollywood sex symbols. How heterosexual women feel when the men fall in love is an interesting question, but I wonder more about how most heterosexual men would react to these cowboys. Imagine, if you will, a heterosexual man attending the film, somehow having missed all of the hype about it. Would he like these guys at first and feel betrayed or disgusted when their relationship became sexual? The phenomenon known as homosexual panic might explain such a reaction. This alleged brief psychotic disorder is not found in the DSM-IV but has been used as a “gay panic defense” in legal cases on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly a century.

Two such cases were highly publicized in the 1990s. In the first, a young man was set up as a guest on the Jenny Jones talk show when a male friend disclosed his sexual attraction to him in front of a studio audience. Incensed and humiliated, the object of the gay man’s attraction tracked down and murdered his admirer after the show. The gay panic defense was used in court to explain the accused man’s rage at being the target of gay affection (and, one is led to believe, at the implication that he too was gay). A few years later, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay Wyoming college student, was murdered by two reportedly heterosexual men who testified in court that they were enraged when Shepard made a sexual proposition to them. Although judges and juries rarely acquit accused murderers in cases like these, it is common to feel sympathy on be lenient on men whose masculinity is perceived to have been threatened by gay men. An educated perspective on the logic of the accused is something like “if that guy is into me, what am I doing to turn him on? Am I giving him signals that I’m gay too? Might I even be gay? No, that would be horrible! This man is a threat to who I am and what I believe in. I must annihilate him!”

I would not suggest that the typical heterosexual man would have nearly so strong a reaction if he were unprepared to watch the R-rated sexual encounter between Jack and Ennis, but I suspect that milder feelings of discomfort and self-doubt would often emerge. Being gay or bisexual is still such a stigma in most parts of U.S. society that the majority of men are constantly on guard, to some degree, to protect themselves from any suspicion from self or others that they might also be gay, bisexual, or even questioning their sexual orientation. Watching the traditionally masculine Ennis and Jack fall in love, express their love sexually (though sometimes violently), and struggle to maintain their closeness through the years would challenge some men who identify as heterosexual to feel secure in their own sexuality. As an openly gay man, I applaud any heterosexual, questioning, or closeted gay or bisexual man who can watch Brokeback Mountain, move past the feelings of being threatened by the sexual and romantic love of two men, and appreciate the beauty and tragedy of their relationship. Although their story is a reflection of the times and places they lived in, those times are not so different from today and Brokeback Mountain is closer to our own backyard than we may care to believe.


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  Edited by: Christopher Kilmartin, Ph.D.