The (De-)Construction of the Western Genre and the Expression of Masculinity in “Brokeback Mountain”

Term Paper, 2013

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Context (GLTB Activism in the 1960s to 1980s)

3. Brokeback Mountain
3.1 (De) construction of the Western Genre
3.2 Depiction of Homosexuality and Expression of Masculinity

4. Conclusion

5. References

6. Honesty Declaration

1. Introduction

The movie Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee and published in the year 2005, tells the story of two young men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, who are hired to look after a flock of sheep on 'Brokeback Mountain'. The two discover an intense sexual attraction. But because of social limitations, the two have to maintain their heterosexual facade. Ennis marries Alma and Jack marries Lureen. However, over a period of twenty years, Ennis and Jack contrive to meet periodically for trips to 'Brokeback Mountain'. Brokeback Mountain is often depicted as the first gay cowboy movie or gay western movie.

In this term paper we firstly constitute the historical background of Brokeback Mountain. For the recapitulation of the GLTB history we will use the book Queer America. A GLBT History of the 20th century by Vicki Eaklor which is interesting as it precisely describes how queer activism developed from 1890 to 2005. The years in which the story of Brokeback Mountain is set (1963- 1983) homosexual or queer activists began to fight for their civil rights. Homophile organizations were formed and GLBT's fought actively against discrimination. The so- called 'Stonewall Riots' in June 1969 marked a first highlight in the queer activists' history and was often associated with the birth of the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement. In a next step we glance at what one can call the beginnings of queer theory- the 'real' queer theory develops since the 1990s- and more specific at the theory of sexual essentialism and the new scholarship on sex prominent by Michel Foucault. For the new scholarship Foucault's work The History of Sexuality is essential.

Afterwards, we take a closer look at the western genre and examine whether Brokeback Mountain is a classical western movie, or rather a movie which deconstructs the western genre and the Mythical American cowboy. Therefore, we firstly look at the definition of Western in the online version of the Encyclopædia Britannica to have a base for discussing the Western genre. For the discussion we look at essays you can find in different databases like Jstor, MLA International Bibliography or Questia. Other sources you can either find in Bibliography’s or by searching in book databases of universities. We look at the essays and works of White, Kitses, Johnson, Needham, Brauner, Grundmann, Bush, Osterweil and Packard to show multicolored views on whether Brokeback Mountain can be defined as a western movie or rather as a deconstruction of the genre. The topic of Western and cowboys is closely intertwined with the topic of masculinity, the cowboy figure stands for masculinity par excellence.

Therefore, in a further step we detect in which way the topic of homosexuality is depicted in Ang Lee's movie. In doing so, we take a closer look at the exposure of the protagonists’ expression of masculinity and figure out whether the protagonists are depicted as strong masculine men or not and how the masculine expression is linked to their homosexuality. We especially analyze key scenes in the movie which support or do not assist the expression of the masculinity of the protagonists.

2. Historical Context (GLTB Activism in the 1960s to 1980s)

In the aftermath of World War II the people were disaffected and settled in towns with a chance for employment, social opportunities, etc. Just as these 'normal' people, queer people met each other and began a life in cities with a good quality of life (cf. Eaklor 94). From the late 1940s to 1960s, “erotic communities whose activities did not fit the postwar American dream drew intense persecution” (Rubin 5). Homosexual people lost their jobs and the FBI created a systematic surveillance of homosexuals (Rubin 5). For the extreme social and cultural changes between the 1960s and 1970s in the western society, frequently the term “sexual revolution” is used. The sexual revolution is also connected to the counter culture, in which “young people and hippies rejected middle-class values and the sexual hypocrisy of earlier generations” (Benshoff 329/330).

Bars played an important role in the GLBT history, because these meeting points of gays and lesbians were meaningful “locales for forming and expressing identities” (Eaklor 95). The first homophile organization was called Mattachine, which existed from 1951 to 1953 as Mattachine Foundation, and later under the name Mattachine Society (from 1953 to 1961) (cf. Eaklor 96). Their stated goals were “to unify”, “to educate”, “to lead”, and to promote “political action” (Katz 412). In the beginning of the year 1963 a new association was created by members of New York and Washington Dc's Mattachine and other groups which founded ECHO, the East Coast Homophile Organization (cf. Eaklor 102).

In the west of the United States, San Francisco was somehow a Mecca for 'queer' people, because the queer subculture met there. San Fransico is important for two milestones in the seventies as well: The foundation of the CRH (Council on Religion and the Homosexual) is relevant and the events in Compton's cafeteria in 1966 (cf. Eaklor 118). In 1966 the CRH organized a New Year's Ball at which the police arrived and arrested four queer people. That treatment was familiar to queer people, because the police often raided gay and lesbian bars and events, but this time the CRH members protested at a press conference against the procedure of the police and managed that the four arrested people were discharged (cf. Eaklor 118). Another interesting event in the year 1966 was the police raid in Compton's Cafeteria, “an all-hours coffee shop popular with 'gay hustlers, hair fairies, queens, and street kids'” (Armstrong 732). But this time the people in the bar did not submit themselves to the police and they fought back. Therefore this “event is considered a turning point in transgender activism” (Armstrong 733). Outside of San Francisco the situation in the United States was similar and “bar owners and patrons were subjected to periodic police harassment” (Eaklor 118).

Though protests and civil rights demonstrations in favor of gay rights were not rare, “the birth of the modern gay and lesbian civil rights movement is often associated with the “Stonewall Riots” (Benshoff 331). On June 27, 1969 New York Police raided the Stonewall Inn, which was a bar where homosexual people met. In that night the guests of the bar fought back and a five day rebellion took its course, which was reported by the locals press, the TV and radio (cf. Eaklor 122/123). The media response was immense, within months newspapers, etc. reported the birth of a new activism group, like those by women, African Americans, Native Americans and others (cf. Benshoff 331). After the Stonewall Riots a great queer activism formed: “Whereas 50 gay organizations had existed in 1969, there were more than 800 just four years later, and tens of thousands of gays and lesbians became actively involved in the gay rights movement” (Hall 657). In July 1969 queer activists founded the Gay Liberation Front and began to emphasize the coming out, often associated with coming out of the closet- to state that someone is homosexual- as a political and a personal act (Eaklor 124): “'If we are liberated, we are open with our sexuality [...] Being open is the foundation of freedom” (qtd. in Hall 669). The activists “worked to challenge the medical model that defined homosexuality as a 'sickness', provided social services to gay men and women, challenged discrimination, and helped foster a vibrant gay cultural life in many of America's major cities” (Hall 656). In 1974 the queer activists achieved an essential victory, when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from their mental disorders list (cf. Benshoff 331).

In 1981 the AIDS crisis began to make its way. The New York Times reported about a new disease which afflicted gay men. The society was at first indifferent, because the people believe only “undesirables such as homosexuals and intravenous drug users were contracting the syndrome” (Benshoff 336). When it was discovered that the virus transmitted through sexual intercourse, also through heterosexual sex, panic, hysteria and homophobia as well broke out (cf. Benshoff 336/337).

Lesbian and gay activists began to use the word 'queer' to “designate a community of difference” (Benshoff 339). This term does not only include gays and lesbians, but also “bisexuals, crossdressers, transgendered people, interracial couples […] homosexual or heterosexual, disabled sexualities, sadomasochistic sexualities […] homosexual or heterosexual” (Benshoff 339). The queer activists wanted to be seen as a big group and fought for their concerns and needs. A famous queer activist protest chant in this context was: “We're here, we're queer, get used to it!” (Benshoff 342). In the meantime when the activists fought on the streets, Universities in The USA, Canada and Europe began to sit down and discuss what was later known as queer theory: “queer thinkers began to theorize on the fluid and socially constructed nature of homosexuality” (Benshoff 342).

In this context we take a closer look at the theory of “Sexual essentialism”. It has the idea that “sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions” (Rubin 9). Supporters of the theory see sexuality as property of the individual which “may reside in their hormones or their psyches” (Rubin 9), therefore, sex has no own history. “Sexual essentialism” means that sex is “eternally unchanging, asocial, and transhistorical” (Rubin 11). Essentialists point out that people's sexuality shows a reality which is unchangeable. This reality exists for all cultures and societies in history, therefore, the person's sexuality denotes an unalterable essence rather than a socially constructed shape. Defenders of the theory like Jeffrey Weeks and Judith Walkowitz believe that sexuality is a “modern constitutional complex” (Rubin 9). Michael Foucault's work The history of sexuality is one of the most powerful works of this new scholarship on sex (cf. Rubin 10). In The History of Sexuality at the development of sexuality and focuses on how sexuality constructs the individual. In the year 1870 Carl Westphal was one of the first professionals who acknowledged homosexuality. His medical article followed Victorian standards and therefore he condemns homosexual behavior. From Westphal's work, Foucault oversimplifies to declare that 1879 was the precise birth date of the modern homosexuality (cf.

Foucault 43). He states that: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (Foucault 43). Before the 19th century, Foucault points out, homosexuality was no marker for one's own identity: “The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology” (Foucault 44). Furthermore, he states that same- sex relationships threatened the social and economic structure, which had at its basis patriarchy, marriage and monogamous households. Therefore, gay people were condemned as criminals or madmen for whom it was necessary to find a cure (cf. Foucault 26). The new scholarship question the classical understanding of homosexuality. They believe that “desires are not preexisting biological entities, but rather, constituted” (Rubin 10). Sexuality now have its own history, “sexuality is constituted in society and history, not biologically ordained” (Rubin 10). Within the Christian tradition sex is “presumed guilty until proven innocent” (Rubin 10). Sex is only acceptable when it takes place within a heterosexual monogamous relationship for the reason of proliferation. According to the “charmed circle”, which shows a hierarchical system of the value of sex, the “martial, reproductive heterosexuals” stand on the top, they are followed by “unmarried monogamous heterosexuals in couples”, then all other heterosexuals’ follow- up. Homosexuals are not at the bottom of the circle, but “transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex workers […] those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries” (Rubin 11- 12).

3.1 (De)construction of the Western Genre

Brokeback Mountain is often called the western gay cowboy movie. The question we are going to investigate in this chapter is whether the movie Brokeback Mountain is a Western or rather a movie which deconstruct the Western genre.


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The (De-)Construction of the Western Genre and the Expression of Masculinity in “Brokeback Mountain”
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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hollywood, movie, brokeback, mountain, construction, western, genre, expression, masculinity
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Sabrina Langanke (Author), 2013, The (De-)Construction of the Western Genre and the Expression of Masculinity in “Brokeback Mountain”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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