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That’s so ‘Brokeback’

Mary Squillace | Tuesday, April 11, 2006

While “Brokeback Mountain” has generated significant media buzz even preceding its release, the film recently received a different kind of national attention when Gonzaga basketball fans chanted ‘Brokeback’ at the opposing team.

As it turns out, these were not rallying cries in support of gay rights and inclusion, nor were these students simply voicing their enthusiasm for Ang Lee’s film. This incident cannot even be attributed to a rare, collective case of basketball-induced tourettes.

Instead the ‘brokeback’ chant in the Gonzaga basketball arena was a taunt meant to suggest that members of the opposing team were gay.

However, louder than these students’ shouts is a message about our society. From this event it is important to acknowledge that even in a social atmosphere that allows a progressive film like “Brokeback Mountain” to enjoy critical and commercial success, Americans still harbor dangerous predispositions and apprehensions regarding homosexuality.

Even after the critics’ acclaim marched across newspapers, film awards were distributed, and media coverage began to die down, “Brokeback Mountain” continues to hold a distinct place among college students’ vernacular, with a decidedly negative connotation. The term ‘brokeback’ has now replaced the slang use of ‘gay,’ or refers to something of “questionable masculinity,” as it is defined at urbandictionary.com.

Although the success of the film allowed many Americans to collectively pat themselves on the back for producing and consuming such a progressive piece of art, the extremely hostile way in which a word closely tied to homosexuality is wielded requires a reevaluation about what the reception of “Brokeback Mountain” really reveals about our society. Simply because it exists in the mainstream does not mean that our culture has evolved passed biases and close-mindedness.

One common reaction to the film is disassociation. In other words, people are quick to separate themselves from having seen the film or even desiring to see the film as if making this distinction reaffirms their ultimate heterosexuality and masculinity.

The primary fear appears to be is that watching “Brokeback Mountain” is either a glaring indication of one’s own sexuality and masculinity, as if somehow the 134 minutes spent in the theatre will, second-by-second, drain one’s heterosexuality.

However, it’s not as if American audiences have never seen homosexuality portrayed in art or the media. The problem for most people seems to stem from the fact that in this film homosexuality creeps outside of its socially sanctioned world of stereotypes. As soon as representations of gay men stop being limited to the characters with impeccable fashion sense that we typically see in media representations, they suddenly become threatening.

Instead of subsequent variations of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s” Fab Five picking out a new wardrobe for some clueless bachelor or “Will and Grace’s” Jack’s affinity for Cher, “Brokeback Mountain” presents its viewers with a depiction of gay men that not only runs contrary to the images that are most prevalent, but associates homosexuality with America’s ultimate guy’s guy – the cowboy.

While this appears to be one of the most disconcerting aspects of the film for people who cannot reconcile homosexuality with a lifestyle outside of the stereotypes typically portrayed in the mass media, it is also the most important precisely because it challenges this notion society has about homosexuality.

Even among other films with prominent gay or lesbian storylines, “Brokeback Mountain” appears to be the most progressive in its ability to pull homosexuality out from under stereotypes, as well as put it in the context of an extremely passionate and tender romance. Within the film world similar movies have been limited to independent films that don’t gain a large following.

Like television representations, the depiction of homosexuality among mainstream films is often limited to stereotypes of both gay men and lesbians. Additionally, typically homosexuality is represented just by one person – relationships outside of one-night-stands and college phases have not yet had a significant role in Hollywood films.

All this considered, ‘brokeback’ is more than just a slang term for homosexuality or a barb. Instead ‘brokeback’ represents an outlet for constructing representations of homosexuality away from stereotypes and a way to keep our own predispositions about it in check.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Mary Squillace at msquilla@nd.edu