- Brokeback Mountain DossierIntroduction
Why single out Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain for critique? Why now? In a busy year that saw the release of queer films such as Capote, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Transamerica, Breakfast on Pluto, House of Wax, Mysterious Skin, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Gay Sex in the 70s, and Inside Deep Throat as well as numerous LGBTQ festival standouts such as Small Town Gay Bar, The Aggressives, and Search for Her, Brokeback Mountain was everywhere. Along with the film's countless awards and its prominent Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay wins at the 2006 Oscars, it was featured repeatedly in mainstream media such as CNN.com, USA Today, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Show with David Letterman, People, Entertainment Weekly, and Details, to name but a few. Alongside these universalizing mass public spheres, the film dominated discussion forums in minoritizing literary arenas such as the urban-oriented queer nightlife rag Homo Xtra (HX) as well as myriad online lesbian and gay chat rooms like The DataLounge.
Given the surplus of its mainstream exposure, we could champion the film for furthering a traditional politics of sexual visibility and sexual recognition, and for promoting a certain strain of late modern U.S. sexual identity consumed by high-, middle-, and lowbrows alike. In the vernacular that Brokeback Mountain's promoters adopt, we might call this a force of nature, the power of love to move audiences both red state and blue eager to see what the hype is all about. The shorthand for this would be "it's about time." [End Page 93]
Talking about, however, is sometimes just talking around. More cynically, we could view Brokeback's media exposure as yet another minoritizing promotion of what Lisa Duggan has memorably termed homonormativity. Or we might even be a bit more paranoid and read all this Brokeback buzz—all this mass public and counterpublic talk—as symptomatic, as a way to sidestep far more unsettling political issues in favor of the transhistorical spectacle of two gay white men unable to properly domesticate their same-sex attraction. Put differently: Brokeback Mountain appears to be a phenomenal instance of a particular paradox in how contemporary U.S. popular cultures and contemporary mainstream U.S. sexual politics now interrelate. It offers itself up as a socially conscious "issue" film that invites nothing but pure escapism. And this prosthetic politicization is, I think, what some people meant (and what many people wanted) when they called the film "revolutionary" and then remembered to throw away their popcorn bags before exiting.
The following essays address this odd phenomenon, which may go down as the Brokeback Mountain noncontroversy of 2005 and 2006. They are each intersectional—and they intersect with each other—in the best senses of the word. As these writings return to the doubled shirts, the catch-lines, the Marlboro country, and the quickie side trip to Mexico, they begin to trouble the film's smooth historical amnesias by situating it back in the very occasions that it tries so hard not to acknowledge, namely, recent U.S. sex panics. To do so, these essays ask you to think hard about how the reams of discourse surrounding Brokeback Mountain provoke considerations of racialization and the down low, melodrama, materiality, and class privilege, lukewarm responses by the Christian Right that still add fuel to their ideological fires, the place of the homophobic joke in mainstream U.S. culture, and an ongoing rural versus urban divide in the contemporary U.S. imaginary. I'll bet big money that these matters will outlast the brouhaha. But nevertheless, attention must be paid when a film—despite how it dismisses its contemporaneous social reality with a certain oceanic feeling—finds a way to provoke these matters with the wizardry of a postcard pinup and a hundred or so well-choreographed sheep.
Scott Herring is assistant professor of English and women's studies at Penn State University. His essays have been published in African American Review, Arizona Quarterly, PMLA, Modern Fiction Studies, Literature Compass, Southern Quarterly, and GLQ. His...