- Brokeback:The Parody
Perhaps because it's such a relentlessly humorless film, the release of Brokeback Mountain immediately generated a rapidly escalating number of jokes and parodies (soon followed by news reports on the spoofs). Whatever grim resonance "brokeback" once evoked was diffused by snicker-inducing mutilations such as "bareback mountin.'" Video mashups ("Brokeback to the Future," "The Empire Breaks Back") have literally undercut the film's somber trailer, and altered posters (including the New Yorker's "Watch Your Back Mountain" cover with Bush and Cheney) are the now familiar results of software-facilitated media collage. Before the film was in wide release, the Broadway star Nathan Lane previewed the inevitable stage adaptation "Brokeback! The Musical" on David Letterman's show (which also offered the Top 10 Signs You Are a Gay Cowboy: "8. You enjoy ridin', ropin' and redecoratin'"). The parody featured prancing cowboys unintentionally invoking Aaron Copland and Agnes de Mille's 1942 ballet Rodeo and double entendre lyrics set to familiar show tunes, including Oklahoma! which [End Page 105] the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate refused to allow Atlanta's Actor's Express to stage in an all-male version in 1997. Lane's romp was at once funny, vulgar, and full of self-loathing. Incorporating one of the film's taglines ("You know I ain't queer") before moving toward a comic reversal ("Oh my God, I'm gay!"), the parody indulged in both the disavowal and outrageous stereotyping at the heart of popular humor. Seemingly despite itself, Brokeback Mountain has sanctioned the widespread revival of the publicly spoken fag joke.
"When you call me that, smile!" demanded Owen Wister's Virginian in 1902, and our own insults to cowboys still include a grin.1 The early decision that Brokeback Mountain could be summarized as a "gay cowboy" movie established the basis for all subsequent jokes. Whatever oxymoronic terms might be juxtaposed, few could be more absurd than these. The challenge that homosexuality may have posed to the ideology of the Western genre was gutted by the emphatic assertion of how hilarious the gay cowboy must be: the jokes are thus more effective at affirming the Western's essential heterosexuality than humorless denunciations of the "rape" of the traditional cowboy. None of the parodies recall Brokeback Mountain's own reminder of the power of jokes: both Annie Proulx's story and Ang Lee's film include Ennis's cautionary tale of the older couple Earl and Rich: "They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds." That joke has a zinger of a punch line: Ennis's father makes sure his son sees that Earl has been killed by the locals who "drug him around by his dick until it pulled off." But we haven't let such rural pranks (with echoes of Matthew Shepard) spoil our fun, and so we have, like good Freudians, persistently defended ourselves against the story's grim elements through naughty one-liners.
The celebration of Brokeback Mountain (whatever its real virtues) as a radical breakthrough is almost as troubling as the comic license for homophobia. Played for laughs, the Oscar montage of ambiguously gay moments from the history of the Hollywood Western suggested that locating genuine homoeroticism at the heart of the genre would be sheer folly. But a persistently gay reception of the Western can be traced back to at least March 1887, when Oscar Wilde reviewed Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in London: "Though one can dine in New York one could not dwell there. Better the Far West with its grizzly bears and its untamed cowboys, its free open-air life and its free open-air manners," Wilde wrote in an uncanny preview of the film.2 Viewing Brokeback Mountain as a novelty or anomaly relies on forgetting the comic sissies in silent Westerns, or Wyatt Earp first seeing Doc Holliday ("nice lookin' fella") in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1967) or Western-theme "physique" photos from the 1950s must also be repressed. Amid the forgetting of the Village [End Page 106] People's cowboy, or of gay rodeo, one of the smartest...