Published: July 2, 2009 By

[1] The recent film, Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee and based on Annie Proulx’s short story, received an overwhelmingly admiring response from newspaper and magazine film critics, won a series of prominent film awards, and roused a large, fervent fan base.  Several large on-line discussion forums created in the months following the film’s release analyze every scene, symbol, and character, and remain to this day communities with interests that have expanded beyond the film.  Coinciding with the emergence of You Tube and a new amateur video culture, fan enthusiasm created both lyrical tributes and hilarious parodies on video websites.  A mini-Brokeback tourist industry emerged, with one website devoting itself to mapping and photographing every shooting location for every scene.  These web-based responses culminated in net-generated cultural activism and even the popular naming of a new syndrome, “Brokeback Mountain Fever.”

[2] Such exuberant responses to the film appeared in the midst of a politically treacherous period for sexuality in public life.  In the years before the film’s appearance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional in their 2003 decision Lawrence v. Texas, five U.S. states enacted civil union or domestic partnership legislation while a handful of others recognized some spousal rights, and Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. On the other hand, during the 2004 election season, eleven states passed amendments or laws effectively barring same-sex marriage, and the red and blue state divide has largely formed around such prominent issues of sexuality and marriage.  Political events after the appearance of the film were similarly ambivalent:  Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, four other states enacted some form of civil union or domestic partnership laws, and New York now recognizes all marriages contracted in other states.  Pulling in the opposite direction, the rush to exclude gays and lesbians from marrying continued with eight more states in 2006 and three in 2008.  The last group included the stunning reversal through popular ballot of the California Supreme Court’s approval of gay marriage. Remarkably, although politics have been dominated by a sharp backlash against the early victories for gay rights, over the same period, popular support nationwide for gay marriage has been slowly increasing (Campo-Flores 38). Just this year, in the space of a week, legislators in Vermont and the courts in Iowa legalized same-sex marriage.

[3] To explain this growing support, cultural studies scholar David Shumway has argued that we should understand the changing social and narrative context for heterosexual relationships.  In particular, Shumway claims that a new class of intimacy narratives in literature and film, in which people expect multiple relationships requiring intensive communicative work, has prepared the straight world to accept gay unions.  However, unlike the intimacy narratives Shumway discusses, no single narrative work in the late twentieth century has so broadly appealed to both gays and straights.  Although the approval has hardly been universal, popular gay websites and magazines were enthusiastic.  For example,’s list of 50 greatest gay movies begins with Brokeback as number one, and The Advocatefeatured several Brokeback themed covers.  In addition, the film won numerous awards, including MTV’s Best Kiss award and the Academy Award for Best Director (if not for Best Picture), and it continues to appear in popular newspaper and magazine lists of the most romantic movies.  The studio, Focus Features, understood these possibilities and worked to broaden the film’s appeal beyond GLBT and art house audiences principally by marketing the film to women, and particularly by branding it as romance (Lippman).  This wide embrace is significant since Brokeback Mountain encompasses a classical romantic love narrative, not an intimacy narrative.

[4] In fact, the film arrived at a particularly strange, uncertain moment in the cultural course of love.  Some have argued that romantic love emerged in the West in the milieu surrounding the production of French troubadour poetry of the twelfth century, gained widespread popularization in the nineteenth and twentieth century, but lately has been successfully challenged by new modes of heterosexual relations (Shumway,Modern Love; Bloch).  In response to this historical thesis, a new debate has emerged on the cultural universality of such a love (Cheung; Janowiak; Gottschall and Nordlund).   Others argue that romantic love as currently practiced has undergone a dangerous intensification (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim), while others examine how it has been infiltrated by consumerist desires (Illouz).  More recently, some sociologists and historians have reemphasized the historical and psychic disjunction of love and marriage (Coontz), how marriage was traditionally not based on love, and how the effort to link the two has destabilized marriage.  Feminist conversations, which in the second wave often critiqued both marriage and love (Beauvoir; Firestone), more recently turned to examining sexual desire and marriage in the midst of the politics surrounding gay and lesbian unions.  This new conversation in feminist theory has been relatively silent on romantic love (Card; Josephson; Ferguson; Shanley).  Those early second generation feminists had often seen romantic love as a velvet trap for women, but their analysis was rightly devoted to this trap, and they often ended on a utopian hope for a transformed love.  It is time to reconsider the socio-political effect of romantic love narratives, particularly because Brokeback and the emergence of online communities enable us to reexamine both a new iteration of this orthodox tale and its contemporary reception.

[5] Much of the work on romantic love has depended on reading the record of cultural production, whether found in poetry, novels, or films.  But here there are at least two major forms of romantic love narratives: the classical narrative originating with the Tristan poems, which might be called the tragic love narrative, and the romance novel variety, which might be called the happy love narrative.  A few feminist literary theorists have looked intensely at recognizing some beneficial aspects of the happy love narrative (Modelski; Radway).  More recently, other scholars have found little to like in the chick lit transformations of these narratives (Gill and Herdieckerhoff).  The arrival and reception of Brokeback allows us to study the development and effect of tragic love narratives and to see how such narratives, rather than being superseded in power by intimacy narratives or being inherently flawed and conservative, are in fact still powerful resources for rebellion for both gays and straights.  The lost social and political power of romantic love, its traditional transgressions against patriarchal control of familial alliances and reproduction, and its fervent individualism all emerge from the film reenergized.  The film invigorates romantic love as a political force both in its view of non-heterosexual men and in its spur to cultural activism.  Through online fan forums, the film encourages a communal participation in the effects of tragic romantic love stories enabled by access to new forms of sociability on the internet.  Romantic love, not intimacy discourse, emerges as the more powerful cultural authority necessary to consecrate gay couples.  At the same time, the film intensifies romantic love tropes in three ways: through the pity it evokes for two young, isolated, lower working-class men; through its portrayal of nurturance; and finally, through its emotional explicitness, even about psychic repression. All of this works intentionally to muddle heterodox conceptions of masculinity and the gendered positions of romantic love narratives.  Through the creators of Brokeback and its communicative audience, this most malleable of narratives, now classical yet rewritten, re-politicizes love.  Love recovers rebellion.

Love’s History

[6] In recent years, the renewed attention to emotion, affect, and passion from diverse fields including gender studies, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and neuroscience has resulted in rich accounts detailing the social and cultural valences of emotion (Damasio; Harre; Koziak; Lewis; Lutz; Nussbaum).  Scholarly treatments of love found an early start with Denis de Rougemont’sLove in the Western World, originally translated in 1940, in which he traced the origin of romantic love to medieval troubadour poetry (Rougemont).  David Shumway’s more recent account is particularly useful because he categorizes how we understand heterosexual pairings into three historical stages, and he has extended his analysis to the contemporary issue of gay marriage, thereby taking the first step in constructing a similar history for same-sex couplings. Here I look in more detail at Shumway’s account in order to apply it to the case of Brokebackand to identify some of its limitations.  Shumway will help in understanding the place of the film in the tradition of romance narratives; conversely, my reading of the film will challenge how Shumway looks at the cultural context of gay marriage debates.

[7] Modern Love begins with the well-known historical place of marriage as the chief pattern for heterosexual pairing and emotionality.  As the first of three historical discourses governing our relation to love, traditional marriage constitutes marriage as primarily an economic and social arrangement between families wanting to advance their material interest rather than as a symbolic ritual between individuals seeking emotional fulfillment. When this discourse dominates, arranged marriages are the norm, and love is not the reason for union, nor is its decline a justification for dissolution.  Since the union’s purpose is property accumulation and perpetuation, the emotional experience of love, and certainly passionate love, is not the reason for or the goal of the contract.  Women themselves are objects of exchange between males.  In fact, it is likely that within traditional marriage what might be called love is more the gentle affection that comes from sustained common concerns and experiences.

[8] While marriage discourse centers on familial and property arrangements and marginalizes emotion, romantic love discourse emerged among elite societies in which successful marriage alliances were closed to all but the oldest son, and it spread to contest marriage itself.  As we will see, it was only in the twentieth century when love won the struggle with property for the initial raison d’être of marriage (Campbell).   For Shumway, as for de Rougemont, this second discourse originates in medieval poetry which narrates a love occurring outside of marriage, usually during adultery.   In the first written version of the narrative, composed in the twelfth century, Tristan, a knight and nephew to the Cornish King Mark, escorts the Irish princess Isolde (or Iseult or Yseult) to Cornwall to marry Mark.  During their voyage, they mistakenly drink a love potion that Isolde’s mother had prepared for her marriage day.  Immediately and deeply in love, they nevertheless continue to Cornwall, where Isolde marries Mark and where the two lovers also continue to meet surreptitiously.  After being discovered and nearly burned alive in punishment, they escape and live alone in the forest for a time.  At the end of the tale, after Tristan has fled the frustration of trying to love and has married a woman without loving her, he is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and although he sends for Isolde, he is tricked by his wife into thinking Isolde has abandoned him, and he immediately dies.  Isolde does in fact arrive, but her grief is such that she lies down beside Tristan and dies.

[9] Like Tristan, all true romantic love stories have five key elements, the first three of which Shumway expressly lists, the others he implicitly uses (Shumway, Modern Love, 21):

  1. The characters form a “triadic” structure: a pair of subjects and an excluded third subject.
  2. The union is thwarted by an obstacle, most commonly the marriage of one subject to another.
  3. The married life of the romantic pair is never represented.
  4. Love is an overwhelming, natural passion.
  5. Narrative usually ends with the death of one of the lovers.

In other words, adultery creates romantic love, and this demonstrates how the original conception of romantic love is centrally a rebellious, counter-marital practice.  Indeed romantic love gets its intensity and spark from such transgression.  While such a practice of romantic love undermines and resists the social and psychological ties of marriage, it depends on marriage for its appeal.  Yet the apparent joy and euphoria of romantic love are also suffused with a sense of painful longing and grieving—first because of the obstacle, second because of a sense of affliction by love, and third because of the eventual death of one lover.  A mood of melancholy therefore hangs over the lovers.  Although most contemporary popular stories we now commonly associate with romance, particularly what Shumway calls “women’s romance novels,” are defined by happy endings, this melancholia still resides in our idioms of romantic love (Modern Love, 33).  For example, our conventional phrase, “falling in love,” suggests something out of our control, an accident or fate.  In fact, in this discourse love is mostly suffered rather than enjoyed; it is a “passionate love, not rational or moderate but obsessive and painful” (Shumway, Modern Love, 76).  According to Lawrence Stone, although such an afflicting love may have originated in the twelfth-century elite culture, it was only during the nineteenth century that romantic love became widely expected in the normal course of a life and expected, moreover, as a prelude to marriage.  As Shumway writes, “In the nineteenth century, romance became grafted onto marriage, but it has never become entirely at ease with the union.  The combination produced a tension within the discourse because its essential characteristics derive from adulterous love . . . narratives written in the discourse of romance contain in some form, however repressed or vestigial what Luhman called ‘the old thesis’ of love’s incompatibility with marriage” (Modern Love , 26; Cott; Coontz; Illouz).

[10] In a bid to reconcile the tension between marriage and romantic love, the third discourse, which first appeared in U.S. culture during the 1960s and achieved prominence in the 1970s, replaces fantasies of overwhelming romantic love with aspirations for “intimacy” in “relationships” that require “communication” and “work.”   Neither romantic love, nor friendship or companionship (though these are entailed), intimacy is instead some kind of “deep communication,” especially but not exclusively consisting of talk about one’s inner self, revealing what it is like to be oneself, everyday details, and private feelings (Shumway, Modern Love,142).  Self-help literature, such as Maggie Scharf’s Intimate Partners, and Barbara De Angelis’s How to Make Love All the Time, with its case histories, provides its most “characteristic expression” (Modern Love, 136).  Although the discourse can often lead one to long for a soul mate, serial relationships are expected.  Its origins are in a diffused psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology, as well as in feminism, whose writers often argue that a healthy relationship must be a relationship between equals in which power and psychic exposure is mutually shared.  This quality is something these self-help writers tend also to assume, even if they neglect to discuss gender dynamics or if they reinforce gender differences in personal psychology.  However widely intimacy discourse has spread, it did not simply displace marriage and romantic love discourse; instead marriage surfaces as just one out of many kinds of possible relationships, and romance emerges as a stage on the way to intimacy.

[11] Shumway traces the interplay among the three discourses through a variety of cultural texts, including advice writing, film, and literary novels.  Focusing on the romancing of marriage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, particularly in the United States, and then the emergence of intimacy in the 1970s, he begins by reading popular novels from the late nineteenth century.  Books such as Winston Churchill’s The Crisis popularize a new approach to the conflict between romance and marriage—using romance as a prelude to marriage, not as resistance to marriage.  Just a bit later, beginning with early Hollywood, film succeeds as the primary purveyor of this new dream of reconciliation.  Romance, Shumway argues, works ideologically through the genre of screwball comedies dominant in the 1930s.  Films such as It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story “mystify” marriage by imagining it as romantic adultery (Modern Love, 82).  In the latter film’s twenty-four hour period, Katherine Hepburn’s character, divorced from her charming first husband and on the way to marrying a dull second husband, has a brief entanglement with a third man, but the film ends with her marrying her first husband again. In the process, both her father and ex-husband denounce her as an unapproachable ice goddess who must melt to accept romance and marriage.  Yet the American films considered the most romantic,Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, depict stories of unhappy love.  While neither ends with the death of either partner, their characters suffer love, never achieving a stable union and instead continuing to love around and outside of the confines of marriage.  In the last development, the move to intimacy, popular psychology books, films such as Woody Allen’sManhattan and Annie Hall, and the “marriage fiction” of Alison Lurie and John Updike together trace the disillusion with marriage and romance, replacing them with a new modus vivendiof shifting alliances.

[12] If Shumway is right that cultural production and actual lived experience have shifted to a mode of new uncertain relationships to which one must commit and for which one must labor, then romantic love narratives should be falling out of favor.  In fact, some observers of the film industry have worried about whether romance sells as a film genre any longer (Kit; Luscombe).  Although another tragic love movie,Titanic (1997), earned over six hundred million dollars domestically, many other recent movies have failed. Brokeback Mountain alone may not represent the revival of the genre as a whole, but its cultural success and particularly its online reception represents a unique opportunity to reexamine the slumbering potency of romantic love narratives.

Brokeback’s Romance

[13] Mostly through its story and partly through its marketing,Brokeback replicates classical romance discourse, beginning with its most essential characteristic, an adulterous triangle—in this case, two triangles.  The pairing begins as two young men are thrown together by their jobs as seasonal sheepherders.  One is already planning to marry, therefore their growing friendship and then sexual union are partly adulterous from the start, and once they reunite after four years, they are betraying two wives and three children.  The pathos of their affection, like all couples within romance discourse, comes from the obstacles to their love, and in the film these range widely, from one character’s fear of homosexuality cruelly ingrained in him from childhood by his father, to violent hatred suggested in the beating death of Jack, to the simple incomprehension of others for same-sex unions.  After that first summer, they share only secretive, semiannual trips, purportedly fishing trips, during which they camp in mountain terrains but never return to Brokeback Mountain.  One character, Jack, will dream of ways to settle down together, but their “marriage” and domesticity will never be consummated, much less attempted.  The one moment when it may have been possible, after Ennis and his wife Alma are divorced, is stifled by Ennis’s pervasive, consuming fear of being seen as queer.

[14] Another element of romance discourse, the presentation of love as a natural passion, trumpets from the film’s advertising tagline, “Love is a force of nature,” but is also suggested by the scenery and is later confirmed when the characters try to understand their fate.  The film’s first establishing shot through a powerful long-range lens of misty blue hills with the distant headlights of a single truck already sets a mood of melancholy and laborious isolation.  As though we were reverting to some previous state of the universe, an almost identical scene appears at the end of the movie as Ennis drives away from Jack’s parents’ house.  Yet it is the lyrical expanse of the high mountain range that links love to the solidity and danger of mountainous nature—the rushing rivers, the craggy mountain peaks, the rolling meadows, the rivers of sheep, and the singularity of two people alone in this expanse. Lee organizes the journey into the mountains as a montage with flowing rivers of sheep and the still moments of contemplation—Jack gazing down off the mountain at the small light of Ennis’s campfire, Ennis looking up at Jack barely visible on the mountain slope riding among the sheep, and in later scenes, the increasingly turbulent rivers during their recurring “fishing” trips.

[15] The presentation of their reunion likewise invokes love as an urgent, passionate force.  When, after four years, Jack arrives for a visit, Ennis dives down the steps and they embrace in a strong hug.  While Jack’s gaze lingers on his lips, Ennis looks around, pushes Jack against a wall, and Jack reciprocates for the most memorable kiss of the movie.  Jack is left stunned.  The sequence replicates a turbulent wave, a sudden canyon flood, with Ennis’s movement across the apartment, down the stairs, into Jack, against the walls, ending in a spent whirlpool.  This kiss sequence is interrupted and intensified by a reaction sequence of Ennis’s wife.  Later, Jack whispers in the motel, “Old Brokeback got us good, don’t it? What are we going to do now?” (McMurtry and Ossana, 49).  After Ennis tells Alma they are off for a fishing trip, the next scene has them return to the mountains, although not to Brokeback itself.  At night, under the third full moon of the film, they recapture their idyll as they sit by a rushing river that is at once fierce and soothing.  Jack says, “You know. It could be like this.  Just like this, always” (McMurtry and Ossana, 52).  But the spell is almost immediately broken.  For Ennis, whose father once took him to see the corpse of a murdered gay rancher, the stakes are mortal: “Bottom line, we’re around each other and this thing grabs on to us again in the wrong place, wrong time, we’ll be dead” (McMurtry and Ossana, 52).  Unachieved union must be suffered, and that love is an unsaddled horse:  “If you can’t fix it, Jack . . .  you gotta stand it.”   “How long?” an exasperated Jack asks.  “Long as we can ride it.  Ain’t no reins on this one” (McMurtry and Ossana, 54). Ennis’s prediction is right, as their ride ends with death.  Jack has an accident, or more likely is beaten to death on a lonely roadside, and Ennis at midlife lives in a trailer alone with a few pieces of furniture and some closeted mementoes of the summer on Brokeback.

[16] Yet another feature of its classical romantic love narrative is its jaded view of married life and marital ideology.  After a simple country wedding scene and a scene of happy honeymoon sledding, the Ennis-Alma marriage is populated with sick, crying children, household clutter, and betrayal.  In that context, who wouldn’t prefer Brokeback Mountain?  While the story told us little about the women and their families, the film deftly embroiders their own losses and disbelief.  Marriage is a problem; its heterosexual normalcy has ensnared all four.  Its attempt to channel and contain desire both in the anticipation of marriage and in its consummation have failed.  Romantic love has once again broken its bounds.  At the same time, the men fail their marriages not just in their love and desire for each other, but also in their failure to meet the ideology of masculine head of household.
[18] For example, neither turns out to be a good provider.  Ennis marries first, fathers two children, and poorly performs his bread-winning part.  After his time on Brokeback, we first see him sweaty and sooty working on road construction, only later finding the seasonal ranch jobs he favors.  But Alma, dissatisfied living in the rural isolation of ranches, convinces him to move to town, and she takes a grocery store job.  Their apartments testify to a kind of lower class disorder: the colors are overwhelmingly browns and dirty greens, the water heater sits in the living room, the children cry while Alma launders on a plank.  Ennis refuses Alma’s proposal for a steady indoor job at a utility company, instead preferring a succession of temporary ranching jobs.  Ultimately their marriage dissolves as much for economic reasons as for sexual and psychological ones.  He may have not been able to develop a real friendship with Alma or a nurturing, involved father’s care for his daughters, but he also fails to provide an adequate family income.  “As far behind as we are on the bills,” Alma interjects during sex, “it makes me nervous not to take no precautions . . . .” (McMurtry and Ossana, 60).  In the next scene a judge finalizes their divorce.

[17] Jack’s marriage looks more like a traditional marriage—an economic arrangement—but it is Jack who joins Lureen’s family and Jack who is the stud needed for a child but who himself lacks much power within the family.  Here Lureen through her father and her own ability contributes the family business and financial savvy.  Jack is marginalized early in the marriage.  In the scene where Lureen’s parents visit after the birth of their son, Jack’s mother-in-law exclaims how much their grandchild looks like grandpa, and grandpa sends Jack out on an errand with, “Rodeo can get ’em” (McMurtry and Ossana, 43).  Only toward the end of the film in the paired scenes of two Thanksgiving dinners does Jack temporarily reclaim control over the household, ironically by siding with his wife and turning off the football game his son is watching despite his father-in-law’s claims that watching the game trains Bobby to be a man.  The revolt is against the fathers, not against the wives.

[18] Therefore the film expertly reproduces the conventional motifs of romance narratives.  It features an adulterous relationship, it likens love to the placidity and the fierceness of nature, and it ends with the death of one partner, leaving the other lover (and the audience) immersed in unrequited love.  Such orthodoxy might have seemed musty if not for the thrill of two apparently straight young actors playing gay, or at least bisexual, men. The obstacles to this romantic love, although in some ways ordinary, are obviously new.  Is it just Tristan and Isolde with two masculine chests and cowboy hats?   YetBrokeback does more than reproduce romantic discourse with a new twist.  In at least three ways, the film deepens and rewrites romantic narratives: in the abjectness of its characters, in its presentations of caring and emotionality, and, because of these presentations, in its interrogation of masculinity.

Rewriting Classical Romance

[19] Brokeback Mountain is romance for the downtrodden—lonely, near-poor, with distant fathers or dead parents.  The two principal characters, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, are young, lost, and needy.  Years ago, Ennis’s parents died in a sudden single car crash, and although his older sister and brother took care of him, after their marriages, he has to find a place of his own.  Jack’s father is neglectful and cruel, and his mother is powerless.  The first scene involving both men in front of Aguirre’s trailer office hints at their equal vulnerability.  Ennis, having arrived early in the morning with a paper bag as his only luggage, leans against the trailer, hat covering his face, seemingly asleep.  Suddenly he takes a drag on a cigarette and shyly looks side to side with awkward, barely open eyes, as though afraid to interact with the world.  Jack arrives in an old backfiring truck, kicks the wheel in frustration, and then for the first time sees Ennis.  Neither says a word.  Two young men, one with a small paper bag, the other with a backfiring truck.  Their material circumstances reflect their familial isolation and are reestablished in their offering themselves for the temporary summer work of shepherding.

[20] While they may dream cowboy with their hats and belt buckles, Jack’s rodeos, and Ennis’s occasional ranching, this summer their job of shepherding is both lowly and stigmatized.  On the mountain, the terms of their job force them to violate national park service rules and to suffer in concealing it.  One man must sleep with the sheep at night to defend them against wolves and coyotes and return each day to the campsite in the valley to eat breakfast and dinner.   “I’m commuting four hours a day,” Jack complains early on (McMurtry and Ossana, 12).  Their provisions are scanty—mostly potatoes, beans, and whiskey.  They eat poorly and shiver in the cold, so they kill an elk and share a tent.  Their hardship draws them together.  In fact, it is Ennis’s shivering in the cold by a dying campfire which leads to their first night in the tent together.  While that first night looks like lust with only quick, sudden sex, the background is their essential loneliness, poverty, and low status, and their emerging friendship.  They are neither rich, nor royal, nor successful, nor the envied life of the party.  Their familial isolation is mirrored by the natural isolation.  That they give solace to one another is confirmed by adding the second night in the tent, a scene which does not appear in Proulx’s story.  Here the theme of tenderness and care enters the story, something both characters are missing.

[21] The movie also deepens romance narratives through the repetition of maternal or caring gestures and words.  In most romance narratives, tenderness might be present but incidental.  Here in Brokeback, gestures anchor the film, making the love and longing tangible and believable; they also exceed gender expectations.  The first gesture comes when Ennis returns after dark to their camp, his brow bloody and pulpy from a fall off his horse after an encounter with a bear.  At first, Jack glares, annoyed that dinner is not ready, and then suddenly he notices the wound, wets his bandanna in warm water, and carefully dabs the blood.  Although Ennis interrupts the gesture by grabbing the cloth, the camera catches Jack as his concerned gaze lingers on the brow for a moment longer.  As the time on the mountain passes, these caring personal gestures are also supplemented by the ongoing impersonal acts of care.  At first Ennis cooks for both, then Jack does the cooking, and at first Ennis washes clothes in the river, and then Jack washes the clothes.  As the relationship progresses, Jack’s acts of soothing, embracing, and comforting sustain Ennis.

[22] Perhaps the most iconic image from the film is the “dozy embrace,” seen in a flashback as Ennis drives away from their last unsatisfying meeting.  The moment stands as the quintessence of their high altitude utopia.  In the short story, Proulx describes it this way:

What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger . . . . Later, the dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. (Proulx, 22)

In the film we see two men with cowboy hats and a saddled horse to their left.  Eyes closed, the dark-hatted Jack barely stands in front of the fire; Ennis encircles his chest and head with one arm, and in response Jack’s head slowly rolls into the crook.  When a man caresses a woman, it is expected, as we are used to seeing a woman needing protection and comfort; the power structure expects it.  If a man caresses a man, the power structure is confused.  Traditionally, men are all bluster and posing, and in our expectations, if not in reality, they never truly care for each other except in the extremities of war.  In the story, Ennis hums to Jack, “dredging up a rusty but still useable phrase from the childhood time before his mother died, said, ‘Time to hit the hay, cowboy’” (Proulx, 22).   In the film, this is so subtle, so momentary, and so soft that in many cases only a second or third viewing would prompt one to catch the words.  Thus the model for Ennis’s care is his own mother’s love.  The maternal is never far away, even though Ennis’s care for his own children is marginal.  As Ennis rides away to return to the sheep for the night, the film focuses on Jack’s face, his heavy eyes trailing Ennis with a look of sainted love.

[23] These caring maternal gestures culminate in scenes after Jack dies, at the end of the final film sequence.  In one of those scenes, Ennis visits Jack’s parents and finds the two shirts in a small hidden alcove of a bedroom closet:  “the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.  He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly . . . .” (Proulx, 26).   We see him embrace the two shirts, still on their common hanger, as though he were about to dance a waltz, but then he buries his face in the shirts in a gut-wrenching embrace.  This enveloping gesture is again precipitated by a mother’s hand.  When he first comes to the house, Jack’s mother welcomes him, and as he sits morosely listening to the cruel father, her hand settles on his shoulder and she invites him to visit Jack’s bedroom.  As he leaves, she brings him a paper bag to carry the shirts, looking up to him with eyes of benediction.

[24] In the final scene of the film, when Ennis’s daughter comes to visit him, she accidentally leaves her sweater behind.  Ennis picks it up and carefully folds it, and in order to put it away, he opens his own closet revealing the two shirts with his white plaid now covering Jack’s dark denim.  He carefully buttons Jack’s shirt and then closes the closet, revealing the view out a small window into the yellow fields beyond.  Folding and buttoning and focusing on clothes are a mother’s work.  Uncannily, Jack’s gift for real caring has reappeared in Ennis.

[25] This long sequence of maternal gestures most consistently given by Jack and then finally transferred fully to Ennis is but one thread that interrogates masculinity in the film.  At times Ennis tries to recapture a domineering, violent masculinity as a balm for his repression.  During a Fourth of July celebration in a park with his wife and infant daughters, he challenges two bikers who intrude on the family with loud, raunchy innuendos about finding women in the crowd.  After he succeeds in chasing them off, a low-angle shot silhouettes him against a black night sky alight with red bursts of fireworks.  The image is ambiguous.  Does it celebrate Ennis’s victory or suggest the incoherence of socially acceptable portraits of lower and middle-class masculinity?  The man who defeats the marginal but still macho characters represents the forces of middle-class respectability which dictate that men protect women, but he is also the man who is tortured by his inability to fully love a man.   To use R.W. Connell’s terms, he looks to act out a “hegemonic masculinity” against the marginalized masculinity of the bikers, though we know he lives a subordinated masculinity through his love of Jack (Connell; Connell and Messerschmidt).  Hegemonic masculinity, especially its violence, seems to be constructed by a desire to deaden the pain of subordinated masculinity.  After the Thanksgiving dinner, when his former wife yelling “Jack Nasty!” confronts Ennis with her knowledge of his homosexual transgression, Ennis grabs her in a effort to silence her, but when her new husband appears, he angrily runs out of house to a bar, where he needlessly confronts a man in front of whose truck he had almost walked.  This time he loses and is left lying beaten and wounded in the street.

[26] In addition to its portrayal of abject men and of the acts of maternal tenderness, a third element of the film, its explicit but subtle emotionality, defies expectations and interrogates masculinity.  Yet this emotionality is neither melodrama nor sentimentalism, nor is it contained merely in the film’s characters, but also in its background score, the silence, sounds, and music.  In fact, it is silence and wind that dominate the movie, and, along with the spare musical score, create an emotional undertow of lonely lament.  Almost the entire sequence after they arrive in the mountains until Ennis says, “I haven’t had a chance to sin before” is silent—a month in real time—opening an immense space for the film to show the two men looking, joking, smiling, and conversing.  Their interaction is minutely observed and skillfully wrought, with the smallest expressions and gestures carrying intimate weight.  Their first meeting outside the Aguirre’s trailer is followed by a conversation in a local bar where Jack recounts last summer’s mishaps while shepherding on Brokeback and Ennis mentions his parents’ accidental death.  Once they reach the mountains, this initial conversation is followed by a sequence of small slice of life conversations about the rodeo, about their shepherding arrangements, and about their families.  During one campfire scene, after Ennis tells him more about his family history, his dropping out of high school, and leaving his brother’s household after his marriage, Jack’s eyes express a gentle bemusement, which Ennis only just catches, and then in reaction, with his eyes self-conscious and his mouth held stiffly, he asks, “What?”   To which Jack replies, “Friend, that’s the most words you’ve spoke in the past two weeks” (McMurtry and Ossana, 15).  There are other more obvious scenes-–Jack crying while driving away from a surprise visit to Ennis after getting a postcard about the divorce, the two sex scenes, the reunion kiss, the motel scene, their last meeting by the lake, the last scene of the movie with Ennis alone—and while some of these orchestrate larger emotions, all of them are constructed in a precise, economical manner which reveals a perilous emotionality.

[27] Most surprisingly, the repression of emotion becomes itself an emotive effort.  At the end of that first summer on Brokeback, in a scene back on the town road in front of the trailer where they met, Ennis must use self-inflicted anger and disgust to suppress his grief at leaving Jack.  Walking away from their laconic goodbye, he darts into an alley to vomit and pound the wall.  One reviewer astutely if theatrically callsBrokeback, “emotional pornography for women” (Daum).   This quality of emotional explicitness sets the film apart from other romances, but really only insofar as it involves men longing and suffering for each other.  The barriers of male distance, of male coolness, and of competition are broken not just by jocund camaraderie, so common in contemporary popular culture, but also by male smiles and male tears.

[28] While the film uses key elements of romance narratives, it complicates that traditional narrative through its portrayal of economically and socially marginal men, of maternal-like care, and of explicit but subtle emotionality.  To see how these elements rewrite classical romantic love narratives, including the more derivative modern romance novel narratives, consider the common emotional position of men and women in such stories:  a woman moves from reluctance to yielding to tremulous waiting until an adventurous, assertive man overcomes social obstacles and the woman’s reluctance.  Neither Ennis nor Jack fully embodies these abstracted character roles.  While Ennis is reluctant, both wait; while Jack is assertive, Ennis can be brutal and violent, and neither role requires the kind of care Jack gives Ennis.  Neither speaks an expressive verbal language of love: the word “love” is not spoken until the very end, when Ennis asks his daughter if her boyfriend loves her. Brokeback Mountain disrupts the normal emotional placements within a love narrative precisely because love narratives depend on an opposition between masculinity and femininity.

[29] Thus romance is refocused in the midst of a story that defies gendered positions and rewrites masculine ideals.  Marginalized masculine figures such as cowboys and bikers have functioned as aspirations for hegemonic men.  But here is a romance that works not though seduction and submission between “opposite” genders, one active, the other passive, but through a progression from needy, vulnerable men, to friendship, and then to erotic passion and love.  Therefore, if one asks if the film merely uses the cultural authority of romance narratives with the presentation of love as illicit, sweeping, passionate, and uncontrollable, the answer is yes, but that is not the whole story.

Contesting Received Romance

[30] Some have criticized the way Focus Features marketed the film as a universal love story while suppressing its overtly same-sex elements in print and television advertisements and press materials.  Daniel Mendelsohn, for example, wants us to acknowledge the film as a gay story, not a love story, specifically:

Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the ‘closet’—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it . . . the tragedy of gay lovers like Ennis and Jack is only secondarily a social tragedy.  Their tragedy . . . is primarily a psychological tragedy . . . So much, at any rate, for the movie being a love story like any other, even a tragic one.” (Mendelsohn)

In an even more critical vein, Film Quarterly‘s special issue onBrokeback featured two significant animadversions of the film, both from a position of avant-garde art.  Ara Osterweil judges that “by presenting this story through the established codes of Hollywood melodrama, Brokeback ultimately contains the radicalism of its subject matter through generic conservatism” (38).  D.A. Miller declaims the film as “a middling piece of Hollywood product” with a “nostalgically tragic view,” which de-eroticizes homosexuality through a heavily promoted “craft” (50).  Both of these views suffer from failing to consider the audience reaction as I do in this section, and from a sharp divide between Hollywood and avant-garde, as though no melodrama has ever challenged social placidity.  Finally, the movie speaks not just to the condition of the homosexuality, as Miller believes, but also to the cultural politics of romantic love in general.

[31] Still, Mendelsohn has hit on something very important here, but it is not that we should not watch it as love story.  Rather, as I have argued, the film’s power comes from its revision of the formula’s constraints, especially through its precise delineation of character and minute observation of character interaction, features that arise precisely from the aspects of the story that Mendelsohn emphasizes—men caught in a network of legal and cultural but especially psychic constraints, including self-loathing.  Yet even the tragedy of these constraints does not make it a uniquely gay story.  Consider that such self-repression is not exclusive to gays and lesbians, since both women and people of color have had to live with and sort through internalized misogyny and racism.  A woman’s own sexual pleasure may often be thwarted in similar ways if, for example, she does not know much about or, even no longer has, a clitoris, or if the standards of sexual performance are drawn from hypermasculinized pornography.  One other problem with Mendelsohn’s analysis is that he does not take into account the ambiguity of sexuality and the historical creation of sexual identities.  Some have insisted Ennis and Jack are bisexual, or that only Jack is truly homosexual.  What is clear is that both sleep with and marry women, but their greatest pleasure comes from each other, even if they sleep with other men.  The actor Heath Ledger has described the relationship this way:  “But I think it’s just purely a story of one soul falling in love with another. And it’s just the other soul happens to come in the form of another man. You know, I mean, that’s the story of Ennis. Essentially he’s, you know, he is a homophobic man in love with another man.”  While we now have categories, mostly gay and straight, and, if we do not forget, bisexual, this labeling was certainly not true in 1963 when the characters met, and not much changes over the course of their meetings.   We can view the film as more than a gay story, as there is enough overlap with the experience of other social groups and since our categories are only rough guides to these men’s psycho-sexual lives.  Nevertheless, it is still a story of two men.  By de-emphasizing it as a love story, Mendelsohn risks failing to understand its power—its play with romantic tropes and its deep appeal to a fervent group of fans with varying sexualities.

[32] Given the film’s work on and through romantic love narratives and that romantic love narratives are both replicated and then rewritten, how might his film affect the political discussion of homosexuality and marriage?  A few years ago, drawing on his book, David Shumway published an article arguing that the discourse of intimacy was making same-sex marriage more acceptable to two-sex couples (Shumway, “Same-Sex”).  For Shumway, heterosexual and homosexual practices have moved toward each other in their interpretation of marriage—even without the benefit of marriage, same-sex couples are having commitment ceremonies, which is pretty much what marriage has become—except it also includes vast of amounts of conspicuous consumption.  Marriage as commitment ceremony is part of the discourse and practice of intimacy, as Shumway sees it, and this makes support for same-sex marriage more prevalent.  By contrast, “Romance on the whole tends to be less tolerant of homosexual practices, perhaps because it defines the emotional roles of men and women so distinctly.  While romance lends itself easily to narratives of illicit homosexual love, its original opposition of love and marriage does not support same-sex marriage as a desirable alternative” (“Same-Sex,” 80-81).  So in other words, intimacy discourse allows us to see the two participants in a relationship more abstractly, more interchangeably, as needing commitment and labor to produce an ongoing successful relationship of love.  Romance, in contrast, had typecast its lovers, and had set the scene as an escape from the boring obligations of marriage.  It is therefore all the more fascinating that it is this film that rewinds the cultural clock to use romance to make the case for the dignity of same-sex couples.  Yet it could easily have been comical with two men in those typecast roles of assertive, adventurous man and waiting woman, even if the latter role sometimes allowed for the kick of a spirited woman.

[33] In its most obvious achievement, the film harnesses the cultural status of “romantic love” to this same-sex desire.  The labels of homosexual or gay have been about sex, not love.  The word itself tells who is having sex with whom, not who loves whom.  The sexual act is the focus; after all, states banned sodomy, not love.  Of course, it would be absurd for a state to ban love, as though it could be enforced, but that could almost be said about sodomy.  And a state can make love difficult.  However, this just means that the labels we use means we comprehend people through their sex acts.  The words “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” highlight that.  But withBrokeback, “homosexuals” get to recap part of the history of heterosexuals—start with romance, yearn for intimacy.  The issue here is not sex but the nature of the emotion and the terms on which two people associate.

[34] In the end, what has elicited so many fans is certainly the deliberately etched romance narrative, and the density of the characterization, locale, and geography, that repay extensive interpretation and analysis.  It is also that combination of longing and grief, a communal experience of grief for two characters, which has affected viewers. Many people reported being sleepless the night after first seeing the film, going back to see it again and again, with each viewing revealing different dimensions, and for weeks finding themselves tossed by waves of grief as though they themselves were unrequitedly in love. The desire to understand the experience drove many to seek out forums to share the experience.  “Brokeback got us good,” Jack’s line to Ennis, would be the byline for the forums.  The heart of the “Ultimate Brokeback Forum” community (, the largest forum, with over 7,000 registered members, resides in the topic threads devoted to every imaginable aspect of the film—every significant scene has its own topic; separate threads are devoted to, for example, symbolism, music, to every actor, and to “Brokeback Mountain Fever Support” and “How Brokeback Affected Me.”   Although other forums exist, including, with more than 4,000 members,, principally a slash forum for posting new writing that incorporates the original characters, with more than 2,000 members, and, with 1200 members.  The David Cullen forum is the largest and the most active on a variety of fronts.  The community this forum created engaged in varied actions to recognize and disseminate the power of Brokeback, first by using small donations to pay for an advertisement run in the trade newspaper, Variety, reminding readers that even after the surprise Oscar loss, it was the most honored movie of the year.  Next, a campaign was launched to have members donate copies of the DVD to U.S. public libraries, especially rural libraries.  Finally, with volunteer editors, the group recently published Beyond Brokeback, a book compilation of the best forum posts about the personal effects of the film (Ultimate Brokeback Forum).

[35] The book in particular evinces the impact of the film as a romantic love story, but also as a galvanizer of personal and political action.  While forum participants are a self-selected group and their posts were further selected by volunteer editors, the book’s pieces reflect the extraordinary combination of personal, emotional, and political transformation and engagement incited by the film.  The effect crossed sexualities of gay, straight, bisexual, or ambiguous, and some were inspired to search out old friends and lovers while others were inspired to quit jobs or seek therapy.  The most common general understanding of the film viewed it as a warning to those who had lost, or never found, courage or hope in various spheres of life—a warning about the half-life Ennis tried to live—but of course the most persistently noted loss was of transcending love.

[36] Many posters emphatically write about the place of romantic love in their own lives.  Some straight posters were newly dissatisfied with their marriages or, conversely, realized they had been taking their partners for granted; others took the step to leave their straight relationships and commit to same-sex partners.  For some gay men, the movie was a revelation of the possibilities of romantic love against the constrictions experienced even with a gay male culture of multiple short-term partners or else just an unexplained emotional constriction.  A gay, thirty-six-year-old journalist, for example, realized he had understood heterosexual love stories only intellectually, but with Brokeback he could finally feel the paradigm:  “Is this what mainstream love stories . . . feel like for heterosexuals?” (93). Similarly, a sixty-one-year-old man writes, “They’ve allowed me to feel what real love must feel like.  I was straight and married for seven years; after I had a gay partner for fifteen years, but no love, just settling.  Now I feel that I deserve to know what real love is” (210).  A forty-three-year-old man who in his youth engaged in an intense friendship with a male roommate writes, “I thought that coming out would remove the unseen obstacles and make finding love easier, but now . . . I see that hasn’t been the case.  I’ve found plenty of this and that, but never anything approximating the heart-binder that started it all” (81).  Another gay man, happy enough in a secure, comfortable relationship, fell into a passionate love affair, eventually ending it to avoid hurting his partner.  Now, after seeing the film, he questions whether he made the right decision (82).  Thus some men were actually introduced for the first time to the paradigm scenario of romantic love.  Previously, they had been unable to identify with heterosexual stories, and the scenario was missing from their experience of gay culture.  Others who had experienced passionate love now had the transcendent value of love affirmed by the experience of the film.  At the same time, some straight viewers were reminded of the same paradigm but were able to identify or care for same-sex characters.  Thus, that old model of romantic love was resuscitated but in a communal context; people were talking about movie, and therefore often about love, en mass.

[37] The forum participants talked about love but seemed to come to the forum through a shared emotive experience.  These discussions were incited by a complex and multi-layered communal sharing of grief, longing, and joy, a potent mix of emotion dubbed “Brokeback Mountain Fever.”  One poster described leaving the theater stunned and pulling off the road to cry (10). Another wrote that she “would wake up in the middle of the night with scenes and music from the movie in my head, weeping uncontrollably” (181).  The grief seemed to be both directed at the characters themselves, as many viewers felt a maternal affection for the two young lovers, or even a vicarious state of unrequited love for a character or the film as a whole, but this was also entangled with surprise grief from their own lives.  One poster describes a broad, encompassing grief that crosses demographic lines, saying the film “opened a bottomless well of sadness in them that they didn’t know existed” (54).  In fact, as the poster notes, Annie Proulx thought that because of the recent death of his father, Ang Lee could evoke the dirge-like quality of the story.  At the same time, an erotic longing was mixed into this grief and precisely set the grounds for grief.  Probably the best articulation of this fever was posted by “Valkyrie:”  “After I saw the movie for the first time, I was stunned and could barely talk.  Images and scenes flashed through my mind.  I could hardly sleep.  And then it started: waves of pleasure rolled over me, sometimes like lightning flashes sizzling through my body, again and again . . . I kept seeing the love scenes repeatedly with my inner eyes.  And I started feeling aroused most of the time.  Sometimes I cried from grief and pain, but then the pleasure waves started again” (205).  Thus the film portrays not only the hoary romantic love narrative, but through its reconfiguration of elements, particularly I believe through its reconstitution of masculinity and its challenge to the heteronormativity of love, evokes a common audience response that recaptures the vicarious emotional feel of orthodox romantic love.  A significant audience, in other words, fell in love, passionately and bodily with the film, with the characters, and with the actors.  In the early days there was a rush to see the film over and over again, and the forum posters confessed or boasted of the number of their visits to the theater, some seeing the movie ten to twenty times.  A similar upsurge in viewings and interpretative dissections came with the release of the DVD in 2006 and the added bonus of being able to stop, rewind, capture, and manipulate images from the film.  Now posters are able to delve into the question of, for example, what Ennis and Jack whispered to each other at the start of the second tent scene (consensual answer:  Ennis: “I’m sorry.”  Jack: “It’s alright, it’s alright.”).  The obsession, the grief, and the longing, all components of “Brokeback Mountain Fever,” perfectly encapsulate the emotional experience of classical romantic love.


[38] The fever and the personal stories of transformation linked to the forum’s various campaigns show how the film succeeds in reinvigorating romantic love as a political force.  Long ago, romantic love was revolutionary, a protest against the control of marriage alliances by fathers and in-laws and patriarchal arrangements and a protest in the interests of expressive individualism (Coontz).  Yet a common result of successful romantic love might be social alienation: while cutting the power of the fathers and mothers over sons and daughters, romance loosens social networks, and it may also contribute to depoliticizing those immersed in romantic quests and fantasies.

[39] Romantic love destabilized marriage, and marriage has attempted to fight back and reintegrate romantic love.  While the fantasy of romantic love linked to the reality of marriage may have disseminated disappointment more widely, it seems crucial to a long modern history of social transformation that led precisely to the conditions for men’s and women’s liberation.  That is, romantic love paved the way to a move from traditional patriarchy to bourgeois patriarchy and finally to more diffused cultural patriarchies in developed states.  Rather than resisting marriage because it hides domestic violence or because it was association with women’s civil and legal oppression or because without legalized gay marriage it is grossly discriminatory, we should nourish extra-marital romantic love as opposition to traditional marriage and especially to the mystification of love and marriage.

[40] Heterosexual romantic love may have gotten a bad name, but inBrokeback the gendered positions of romance are shed, redefining the paradigm scenario of romantic love.  This story of romantic love covers its subjects in the dignity of those who can feel.  Few films have elicited so much cultural activism; the cultural politics of love, then, have a new episode.  The film also addresses the question about the future of love and marriage. In part it advances the crisis of marriage by encouraging those wrongly heterosexually married to end their marriages, and it uses the motifs of romantic love to suggest the superiority of romantic passion, the union of two uniquely fated individuals over in-laws, marriage, and children.  In other ways it represents the greatest justification for same-sex marriage by replaying how passion leads to a desire for domesticity—the “sweet life,” a “little cow and calf operation,” as Jack had once proposed.  But of course we never see this domesticity; we are left only with that perpetual longing.  The film’s effect is to both rewrite this classic justification for marriage, and at the same time to give romantic love a new serenity and dignity, taking love away from the favored to bestow it on the forlorn.


I would like to thank Christina Tarnopolsky, Sarah Winter, Trent Hamann, Cheryl Hall, Robyn Marasco and the anonymous readers for their insightful and challenging comments on earlier versions.

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