Brokering Brokeback Mountain — a local reception study
by Harry M. Benshoff
By almost anyone’s calculations, Brokeback Mountain was the movie event of 2005/2006. Based on a story by Annie Proulx, this “gay cowboy movie” (a misnomer, as I shall argue below) generated considerable box office revenue, multiple interpretations, and a fair amount of controversy, as pundits of every ideological stripe weighed in on its cultural significance. As one of the few popular movies dealing with issues surrounding male homosexual desire and identity, the reception of Brokeback Mountain makes for an interesting case study. Not only does its reception support various concepts of contemporary cultural theory (such as the necessarily negotiated decoding of polysemous, heteroglossic media texts), it also underscores the many interpretive meanings of (male) homosexuality that exist within contemporary culture-at-large. As will be shown, by challenging the ideological foundations of heteronormative patriarchy, Brokeback Mountain generated a large amount of fear, anger, delight, disappointment, and/or moral outrage among diverse groups of filmgoers.
The following analysis also draws upon queer theory, an array of ideas about human sexuality that critiques “normalising ways of knowing and of being.” Queer theory is informed by many of the same poststructuralist and postmodern ideas that shape third wave feminism, postcolonial theory, and other contemporary ways of thinking about the politics, practice, and production of social identities. Like much of that thinking, queer theory postulates that human sexuality is not an essentialized or biological given, but is rather a fluid construct that is shaped by the various discourses within which it is spoken. In its broadest terms, queer theory insists that there is a general overlap between all forms of human sexuality — that there are multifarious human sexualities situated between the essentialist poles of homosexuality and heterosexuality. As such, one of queer theory’s central goals is to deconstruct and complicate Western culture’s illusory straight-gay binary. Other aspects of queer theory investigate the multiple meanings of male homosocial desire and explore its relationship to masculinity, (homo)sexuality, patriarchy, and the so-called “closet” within which homosexual desire has been said to hide.
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