Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reconsidering Brokeback

So last week with all the hoopla about The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s posthumous performance as the Joker, a friend and I landed on the topic of Brokeback Mountain.

“So how do you feel about Brokeback?”

I confessed that I actually owned the film on DVD and enjoyed it quite a bit when I first saw it. I still think that the film has some of the most breathtaking cinematography I have seen in a long time. What I hated about Brokeback was the hyped up mainstream celebration of the film and the lack of critical race and sexuality analysis. For me, seeing the film in a theater packed with gay white men in Chelsea, I noticed the film became a collective moment for the predominantly Anglo audience to share their despair at the fact that there was no happy ending for the two white male protagonists.

In April I attended the Race, Sex, Power: New Movements in Black and Latino/a Sexualities Conference at UIC and heard a presentation by Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr. entitled “Brokeback Ain’t Black. The paper McCune presented spoke about the ways in which Brokeback reified the idea of coming out as necessary and the only route to freedom from the oppression of the closet (as if queers face no oppression outside of the closet). The film leaves you feeling that if Jack and Ennis had come out to themselves and others they would have been able to live an honest and open life with each other, ensuring their happy ending. McCune argued that because the two protagonist were white they were able to escape the stigmatization of the “Down Low” label. While Jack and Ennis see their secret moments at Brokeback as precious and their silence as necessary, contemporary audiences are provided cues in order to recognize their relationship as from another era. Because the film is set in the American West from 1963- 1983 their relationship is seen as quaint and antiquated. The film is historicized in such a way that it positions the timeframe of the film as a distant time where discretion and silence were the norms and violently enforced (as if that is still not the case for many queers of color and gender non-conforming queers). This allows contemporary audiences, and by extension society, to congratulate themselves on how far gay rights have come.

Check out this excerpt from "Probing the 'Brokeback Syndrome'":

One label Jack and Ennis rarely, if ever, get tagged with is “men on the down low,” even though they are married and have children, but still secretly sleep with men. Boykin, who is black and co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition, a black gay rights group, says this represents a “racial double standard” since the relationship between Jack and Ennis is heralded as an epic love story instead of a threat to other people.

“It’s not really the term [down low] that matters, it’s what the term implies—and when you hear ‘down low,’ you don’t think good things, you think evil and deceptive,” Boykin says. “We’re more willing to consider the nuances of why [Jack and Ennis] are doing this, instead of seeing them as pathological the way we do with black men.”

For the full article click here

Brokeback succeeds in reinforcing the idea that the down low is unnecessary, antiquated, and ultimately wrong in contemporary mainstream gay culture. Black and Latino/a queer culture's attempt to embrace terms like “Down Low,” “MSM” (men who have sex with men), and “women who love women” as identities and markers are seen as aberrations rather than strategic attempts to redefine both mainstream gay culture and Black/Latino/a culture.

While I am set in the idea that Brokeback enforces and celebrates hegemonic mainstream gay male culture, my friend made me consider something positive about the way that white masculinity is dealt with in the film. He told me that what he really appreciated about the film was the way that Brokeback shows the way that hegemonic masculinity and heteropatriarchial society can crush a person. He cited the scene at the end of the film when Ennis is almost dancing with Jack’s bloodied denim shirt as a moment when the devastating effects of heteropatriarchy are made real. I agree with him that the film does show the brutality of normative hegemony, and succeeds in doing so through sparse dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and intense images of isolation which are more accessible to mainstream audiences.

I like Brokeback, and I think it is an important cultural artifact, but I also applaud academics and politicos like Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr., Keith Boykin, and others who are bringing critical race theory to the table in order for us to consider the impact of the film on the entire queer community.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting this.

as a side note: i remember the brokeback cast episode on oprah and oprah remarked to heath "but that is really living on the 'down low' before there was 'the down low'"