The Depiction of Homosexuality in US-American Movies and Its Reception in Society

Seminar Paper, 2012

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Hollywood’s “Gay History”

3. The Western: Where Homosexuality Did Not Exist
3.1.Of Masculinity and Other Values
3.2.The Depiction of Male Relations

4. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain: An “Anti-Western” Western
4.1 A Western or Not?
4.2 The Depiction of Homosexuality
4.3 Societal Reception

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at - or something to pity - or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people and gay people what to think about themselves. (Epstein and Friedman 00:02:38)

According to Epstein and Friedman, the engagement of America’s film industry with homosexuality in general has always been a sensitive issue and still is up to today. Although quite a few people working in Hollywood, “in all aspects of moviemaking, from producing to performing”, are openly homosexual, the industry’s main players are still reluctant to intensively approach this “prime phobia in Hollywood” (Hilliard 9).

From the first signs of homosexuality in Dickson’s “Dickson Experimental Sound film” (1895) over to the restrictive Hays Code in the 30s on to influential modern movies such as Demme’s Philadelphia (1993) or Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), there are plenty of examples of Hollywood’s varying engagement with homosexual issues.

In the course of this paper, I will not only analyze the depiction of homosexuality in these movies, but also describe society’s reactions to these works. Of course, there have been harsh reactions to movies presenting homosexuality not as something to be feared of. Especially Christian groups have always blamed respective movies for depicting “deviant” behavior, as well as conservative politicians and media.

Besides looking in detail at Brokeback Mountain and trying to point out its depiction of a male homosexual relationship, I also want to examine a genre where homosexuality has always been non-existent: the Western. Even though love between men has never been portrayed therein, it might be interesting to exemplarily analyze the general depiction of male relationships in the genre.

The aim of this paper is to survey how ambivalent Hollywood’s engagement with homosexuality has been over the years and how harsh and influencing societal reactions to respective movies have been. Besides analyzing the depiction of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain, this paper will furthermore expose the conservative values which are inherent to the Western genre as a counter draft, but nevertheless clarify how much of the classical Western can be found in Lee’s work.

It has further to be clarified how exactly homosexuality has been depicted and which focus was laid on. Moreover, it will be necessary to analyze the interplay between film and society.

2. Hollywood’s “Gay History”

In American cinema, the first signs of homosexuality appeared in Dickson’s Dickson Experimental Sound film in 1895, which was used as a test movie for the Kinetophone, the first device to actually view motion pictures (cf. Russo 6). In fact, we can see two men dancing together a waltz while a third plays the fiddle. Although this scene might appear as an obvious romantic act between two men (6), it remains unclear if it really was intended to be such since men used to dance together at that time lacking any sexual intentions (cf. Waugh 19).

During the first decades of the 20th century, comedies often used “queer” behavior as a joke (cf. Russo 36). In Drew’s A Florida Enchantment in 1914, the female main character takes a magic pill transforming her sexual behavior into that of a man’s without altering her outer appearance. Thus feeling attached to her own sex, she soon becomes a serious rival to other men. Completing the turmoil, she also makes her fiancé take a pill, which causes serious trouble as an angry mob pursues the man due to him wearing a dress. Drew’s silent film cannot only be seen as the first representation of homosexuality in Hol- lywood, but it was also the first time cross-dressing emerged. Movies made in the early 20th century contained plenty of stereotypes and clichés on homosexuality. As can be seen from a scene of Chaplin’s Behind the Screen (1916), in which a man kisses a woman dressed as a man, for what a male character mocks at him acting effeminately, these stereo- types were absolutely common in society. According to film historian Richard Dyer, “those stereotypes were so completely in place that a mainstream popular film could as- sume that the audience would know what this swishy man was all about” (qtd. in Epstein and Friedman 00:07:25). There are plenty of other examples supporting this view including Warren’s Algie, the Miner (1912), where an obviously gay character in a ridiculously ef- feminate way refuses to use a gun, one of the most significant symbols of manhood. Tak- ing into account subsequent movies such as Williamson’s and Zivelli’s A Wanderer of the West (1927) or Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934), one might conclude that Hollywood’s first gay stock character was born: “the Sissy”1. As mentioned above, this character has always been a joke in the movies, nothing to be taken seriously or even politically. Due to the Sissy’s nonspecific sexuality, “Hollywood allowed him to thrive” and thus the Sissy “made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between” (Epstein and Friedman 00:08:00). Actress Marlene Dietrich caused attention in von Stern- berg’s 1930 Morocco, when she, dressed as a male nightclub singer, kissed a female au- dience member on the lips. Nevertheless, the scene was not meant to generally appear ho- mosexual, as Russo points out: “In Morocco, Dietrich's intentions are clearly heterosexual; the brief hint of lesbianism she exhibits serves only to make her more exotic, to whet Gary Cooper's appetite for her and to further challenge his maleness” (14). In other movies at the time, possible clear homosexual occurrences were only to be perceived by a “covert gay audience”, while the vast majority could just laugh at those scenes (Lugowski 7). Even though the original plot of Mamoulian’s 1933 Queen Christina was rewritten in order to transform the Queen’s actual homosexual orientation into a heterosexual one, there still remained hints of lesbianism. Being aware of the latter, the press refused to openly men- tion it and tried to condemn respective overtones (cf. Russo 58-59). Another example of these subtle occurrences can be found in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Davies and Callow suggest that the movie “both perpetuated and subverted homosexual stereotyping”, con- cluding that Hitchcock has been “a master of sneaking gay-shaded content past the cen- sors” (19).

In the meantime, there were also plenty of events taking place off the screen. Staying in memory as America’s first gay liberation group (and the only one until after World War II), the Society for Human Rights was founded in Chicago in 1924 and was even chartered by the State of Illinois (cf. Russo 5). After less than a year of existence, these first begin- nings of establishing some kind of gay lobbyism in American society had to be dropped soon due to doubtful accusations of the organization’s leading members and resultant pros- ecution by conservative police forces and authorities. Not only did a pro-homosexuality movement emerge, but there have also been influential forces such as religious or women’s groups at progress during the years, aiming to erase everything to do with the movies’ up- coming permissiveness and further demanding federal censorship (cf. Bianco 77). Holly- wood then had to react to these claims not only in order to reassure the groups mentioned above, but also to restore its rather desolate reputation in society due to several scandals which took place in the 20s (79). While authorities reacted as well and “censorship laws were becoming more specific” (Russo 30), the film industry decided to respond in 1922 by implementing Will H. Hays, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and US Postmaster General, as the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) new leader. In the years that followed, Hays took care of Hollywood’s self-censorship and thus made sure the industry’s reputation began to recover again (31). In 1930 Hays established the Motion Picture Production Code (also Hays Code), in which several regulations were set up aiming to keep American movies clean of e.g. any kind of (homo-)sexual content, drugs, miscegenation or blasphemy and further exercising caution on e.g. the depiction of the flag, crime, children or “Man and woman in bed together” (Lewis 302).

In the years right after the code’s introduction, directors did not mind the code too much (Lugowski 9). As a result, civic and religious groups (especially the Catholic Church in the form of the National Legion of Decency) put enormous pressure on the industry urging to strengthen the code distinctly. As a consequence, the MPAA installed Joseph Breen as their new chief censor, who clarified his position as follows:

Our American people are a pretty homely and wholesome crowd. Cockeyed philosophies of life, ugly sex situations, cheap jokes and dirty dialogues are not wanted. Decent people don’t like this sort of stuff and it is our job to seek to it that they get none of it. (qtd. in Epstein and Friedman 00:10:46)

In the period until the code’s abolition in 1967, the consequences were ambivalent. On the one hand, many scenes had to be cut (e.g. nude scenes in Gibbons’ 1934 Tarzan and His Mate and Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus or homosexual occurrences in Brooks’ 1958 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and thus made it hard sometimes for directors to keep their movies logical. Regarding this, screenwriter Gore Vidal resumes that he “must have had five meetings with him [Breen]: ‘You can’t say this, you can’t say that.’ By the time we started to cut it, it was making no sense at all” (qtd. in Epstein and Friedman 00:43:41). On the other hand, homosexuality did everything but to disappear from the screen. Directors of course had to be even more careful than before, but authors had learned “to write movies between the lines” as well as parts of the audience had become able “to watch them that way” (Epstein and Friedman 00:31:32). For instance, one might mention Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) starring conservative Charles Heston (who later became the National Rifles Association’s presi- dent). There are distinct hints for Messala’s strong feelings for Ben-Hur. According to screenwriter Gore Vidal, Heston was not aware of this intention and thus became furious when realizing what the scene was actually meant to show (cf. Russo 76-77).

During the 60s, movies tended to become less strict on explicit topics and so it was im- possible to further enforce the Code, which resulted in its abolishment in 1967. While the film industry became more liberal concerning homosexuality, society did not. America had harsh legal punishments for homosexuals and so many of the riots taking place in the 60s were quelled brutally by police forces. Visitors of gay and lesbian bars were arrested and homosexuality was still declared a mental illness (Bianco 81).

Even though the Code was abolished, Hollywood had means to control who was (not) allowed to watch a certain movie and still has today. The MPAA therefore employed a rating system, which for instance resulted in giving an X-rating (only suitable for people over 18) for Schlesinger’s 1969 Midnight Cowboy due to fearing “the adverse effect of the homosexual frame of reference on youngsters” (Balio 291). Emphasizing the contemporary existence of fear towards homosexual love and its positive promotion, Making Love (1982) screenwriter Barry Sandler witnessed one of the movie’s first screenings claiming that the audience “[grew] more and more uncomfortable […] when they had the first kiss you thought there was an explosion, people panicked. There was pandemonium, people started storming up the aisles” (qtd. in Epstein and Friedman 00:18:10). The movie has been the first one to actually show love between two men directly and it failed financially. Never- theless, quite a few movies in the 80s had a rather positive overtone on homosexuality, further including Bogart’s Torch Song Trilogy (1988).

In the 90s and 00s, Hollywood’s engagement with homosexuality became more distinct and precise. Nevertheless, Verhoeven’s 1992 Basic Instinct infuriated homosexual rights activists who claimed the movie would depict both lesbian and bisexual characters as vil- lains (Fox and Rosenthal). In 1993, Demme’s Philadelphia has been the first film focusing on AIDS and homophobia directly. While naturally facing enormous protest of Christian groups objecting the film’s positive depiction of homosexuals, the movie has also been criticized by homosexual rights activists claiming it would lack a precise depiction of ho- mosexual matters and instead concentrate on a heterosexual perspective cutting “every visual representation of gay love”, which indeed existed in the original script (Sluhovsky 1267-68). After some films dealing more openly with homosexuality in the 00s (e.g. Mil- ler’s 2005 Capote), Lee’s 2005 Brokeback Mountain can well be regarded as an important landmark in the film industry’s “gay history” and will be further analyzed in the fourth chapter.

It remains to be seen how Hollywood will handle this sensitive subject in future; wheth- er it will follow its course towards an open engagement with homosexuality or fall back to the subtle and negative depiction in the past. Concluding with Dyer’s words, it can be said that Hollywood’s engagement with homosexuality has always been indirect and was also strongly dependent on contemporary society and its values:

Most expressions of homosexuality in most of movies are indirect. […] that is, of course, what it was like to express homosexuality in life, that we could only express ourselves indirectly just as people on the screen could only express themselves indirectly. And the sense in which the characters are in the closet, the movies are in the closet and we are in the closet. (qtd. in Epstein and Friedman 00:33:40)

3. The Western: Where Homosexuality Did Not Exist

The Western genre can be regarded apart from Hollywood’s general “gay history”. In- deed, it has never occurred that love between two men was shown or even mentioned, it just did not exist until Brokeback Mountain furiously challenged traditions. Instead, a dis- tinct pattern of manhood and male relationship can be found which the following chapter will further examine. In addition, the Western served as means of symbolizing its inherent values in political process. For example, actor John Wayne was known both for being a staunch Republican and in particular for his vigorous support of former President Ronald Reagan, which he stated in a Playboy interview. Not only did Wayne embody conservative values inherent to the genre in his movies, but he also showed them in political discus- sions, e.g. claiming that stealing Native Americans’ land has been “just a matter of surviv- al” due to their selfishness to keep the country for themselves (8). Further stating that he “believe[s] in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility” (7), Wayne also spoke against homosexuality and its depiction in movies calling it “perverted” done by “fags” (3).

3.1 Of Masculinity and Other Values

As Bell writes, “The Western [...] has been a key genre through which [...] filmmakers have established standards of American masculinity and male identity” (489) and thus made its major symbol, the cowboy, become an “inescapable referent of American man- hood” (Fernández 27). Indeed, the classical Western has always been dominated by the presence of men while women mostly performed minor roles (cf. Althen 230; Bell 489). The absence of strong female characters considerably put emphasis on the omnipresence of strong male characters and their respective attitudes and behavior.


1 The term “sissy“ describes “a boy that other men or boys laugh at because they think he is weak and frightened, or only interested in the sort of things girls like” and is considered to be disapproving (“sissy”).

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The Depiction of Homosexuality in US-American Movies and Its Reception in Society
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Simon Brandl (Author), 2012, The Depiction of Homosexuality in US-American Movies and Its Reception in Society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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