The Revision of the Western Genre in "Brokeback Mountain"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

26 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The American West
2.1 Myth and Self-Identification
2.2 The West(ern) and its Cultural Significance
2.3 Gay Cowboys: Homosexuality and the Western

3.Brokeback Mountain: Establishing the West
3.1 The Wilderness-Civilization Dichotomy
3.1.1 The Nature of Desire: Brokeback Mountain
3.1.2 Urban Spaces: Painful Domestication

4. Gender Constructions and Homosexuality
4.1 The Cowboy Image as a Sacred Icon and Embodiment of Masculinity
4.2 The Legitimization of Violence: The Regeneration of Male Dominance

5. Brokeback Mountainand Homophobia: “You know, I ain’t queer”

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

8. Illustration Index

1. Introduction

Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Annie Proux’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’is one of the most noticeable and successful movies of the years 2005/2006. It not only won three Academy Awards[1], it was also was highly praised in terms of quality and sensibility in dealing with the complexity of human emotions. As the issue of homosexuality in the context of the Western has never been so openly expressed as inBrokeback Mountain,it seems not surprising that the movie on the other hand also evoked highly critical and often homophobic voices. Such responses included for instance David Kupelian, a conservative journalist, callingBrokeback Mountain“The Rape of the Marlboro Man”[2]. Statements like this purport that the film struck America right at the heart and put highly praised and sacred American values into question. It also proves that the genre of the Western contains archetypical and conservative constructions of gender and sexual expression. As the documentary filmThe Celluloid Closet(1995) conveys, the subject matter of homosexuality indeed has a relatively long tradition in Hollywood cinema, but mostly could not manage to depict gays in an equal and appropriate way. Often the movie’s gay characters were portrayed as either exaggerated versions of what heterosexuals imagined as ‘gay’, as comic characters like ‘the gay best friend’[3]or the seductive villain, that gets sanctioned in the end.

But director Ang Lee thematises the issue of queerness without putting it into thematically related contexts of, for example, the Gay Rights Movement or the Aids crisis. Also, the two gay protagonists Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are not depicted as caricatures of stereotyped gay images, what gives the subject matter a whole new dimension. Gayness combined with classical Western motifs is groundbreaking, because it on the one hand rises mainstream Hollywood cinema on a new level, but on the other hand touches the audience by humanizing gay love for the very first time in that manner.Brokeback Mountaingoes without categorizations and stereotypes, it rather sets the focus on true human emotions: the story of two young men, who unexpectedly fall in love with each other in Wyoming’s wilderness and in the end ultimately fail.

Beyond the aspects of heteronormativity and in connection with it homophobia, the film reshapes or at least challenges imaginings of American national identity. In this paper I want to outline ideological concepts which are closely connected to the imagination of the American West and the impact they have on America’s self-understanding. Furthermore my essay will focus onBrokeback Mountain’scinematographic language to portray Western landscapes, in what way the movie can be connected with classical conventions of the Western genre, to what extent it depicts iconic images like the cowboy and, on the other hand, how gender identities are constructed out of it. The focus of my argumentation is thereby to illustrate thatBrokeback Mountaincritically exposes questions of American identity as such by revealing inherent ambiguities in the conceptualization of the American West.

2. The American West

On the 4th of July 1776 Thomas Jefferson signed America’sDeclaration of Independence. 28 years later, America’s third president assigned Capitan Meriwether Lewis and his partner William Clark to undertake an expedition in order to explore America’s West. Thomas Jefferson was the main supporter of the so-called ‘Manifest Destiny’, the belief of America’s god-given fortune to expand westward (see illustration 1). John Gast’s painting portrays the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ as it pictures Columbia, personifying America, who leads the settlers into the uncharted, unenlightened territory of the West. In her hands she holds a telegraph cable as well as a schoolbook, both markers of civilization and knowledge.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Illustration 1:American Progressby John Gast (ca. 1872)

As the explorers, pioneers and settlers arrived at the transition zone, the frontier, unlimited free land was available and consequently offered also the psychological sense of endless opportunity and future orientation. As Frederick Jackson Turner, the founder of the ‘Frontier Thesis’, explains: “[…] American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development" (1). So those early settlements and the drive for colonizing the West’s wilderness demonstrate a comprehensive ideology which proves that America’s westward orientation had a major impact on America’s understanding of its own history and future.

2.1 Myth and Self-Identification

Jim Kitses, a Professor of Cinema at the San Francisco State University, says that “[the American West] is the world of the pioneer and the nomad, of adventure and adversity, the vessel that shaped American character.” (25) The American West and the imaginings which are associated with it, still have a major impact on today’s American society and culture concerning its self-understanding. The imagination of an unspoiled and open land is closely connected to higher national values like freedom, individualism and progress. Hence, the American West is a promising place full of hope, where anything is possible as long as one fights for it. In reverse, it is also the place shaped by those who arrived there first and not by those who already have been there. This contradiction unifies two main characteristics that are still connected to America’s ideological perception: progressiveness and the concept of ‘The American Dream’, but also superiority and the legitimization of violent colonization.

Moreover, the American West and its specific connotations and ideological notions often appear in political terms as well. President John F. Kennedy used the term “The New Frontier”[4]as a symbol for political and ideological progress (Slotkin 2-3) and Ronald Reagan used the idea of the iconic cowboy as a part of his political identity. Those examples show that notions of the American West are ever since omnipresent and serve as a collective mindset for the US.

But the West and the myths surrounding it also have their downside: they create their own history and often sophisticate and whitewash actual historical events. The fact that the frontier also was a place of cruel murderers and massacres often stays in the background. The conquest of the West has ever since been legitimized, even if it included the killings of numerous Indian tribes. The mystification of a place where all those atrocities have taken place also make a clear statement about America’s self-perception in terms of its claim for power expansion.

The American West functions as a semiotically reinforced space because it conveys notions of hope, progress and freedom. On those principles the greatest nation of the world has been built and since then they have remained the most significant values of its people.

2.2 The West(ern) and its Cultural Significance

The land of the free and independent: America’s West. It is a place surrounded by myths and legends hardly like any other. Ever since tales have been told and stories have been written about the great prairie, endless freedom and thrilling adventures, the American West fascinated children as well as adults. Across the borders of the United States authors like Karl May made Wild West novels popular in Europe and therefore also shaped our imagination of America.

The Western Genre isthe‘American’ film genre per se. Within the depicted world of Western movies lies a fundamental overall ideology that tells us about American cultural roots. But the Western “[…] not only glowingly recalls a key period in American history, but in effect summarizes America as a whole and being American as a national identity.” (Creekmur 397) The depicted world of Westerns not only evokes the audience’s imagination, moreover the American viewer is also able to find himself in it. The transported set of values, concepts and ideologies function as a platform for individual as well as collective identification. So Westerns are not just movies about cowboys and Indians, about the great prairie and gunfights. Underneath the surface of those plotlines one can find a more abstract and complex structure, which remains valid for almost all Western movies and qualify themselves to […] employ a rigid iconographic and chronotopic code, a generic cinematic language, in a combination of setting, landscape, costumes, props, narrative patterns and themes, to picture the mythic foundation of American society and at the same time to metaphorically reflect on current political or social issues. (Holtz 55)

But that also means that Westerns not only transmit an idea of the way we imagine America in times of the frontier, they also reflect on problems and social disparities in modern days.[5]According to the Western’s function to portray and question such issues one has to ask in what wayBrokeback Mountaindoes so. Certainly, the main focus is set on homophobia, which raises the question how traditional Western gender roles combined with concepts of heteronormativity and, on the other hand, same-sex love and homosexual desire both find their place in the Western.

2.3 Gay Cowboys: Homosexuality and the Western

Clearly, the most striking difference to classic Westerns is that the two protagonists ofBrokeback MountainJack Twist and Ennis del Mar are queer lovers. At first sight this concept of a same-sex emotional relationship is so far not explored in Western movies. Nevertheless, there is a great number of journal articles, essays and academic publications, which agree on the idea that homoeroticism has ever since been part of the logic and structure of classical Westerns. The romantic notion of the Western wilderness does not only function as a place for personal freedom and individual fulfillment, it can also stand for companionship and therefore the need to be together in order not to be alone. According to that, the kind of relationship the Western hero forms in the wilderness with his companion or sidekick, has an underlying homoerotic tone. Another indicator for this theory is the symbolic meaning of the gun. A prime example for the underlying homoerotic connotations of the gun is Howard Hawks’sRed River(1948). In one scene, Matt (played by Montgomery Clift) and Cherry (played by John Ireland) compare their guns, followed by a shooting contest. The two young cowboys touch and seize each other’s guns accompanied by a short dialogue:

CHERRY. That’s a good gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it?

MATT. And you’d like to see mine?

CHERRY. Nice. Awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?

MATT. Go ahead, try it!

CHERRY. Hey, that’s very good.

MATT. Hey, hey! That’s good too! Go on! Keep it going!

Both of them swap their guns with distinctive excitement and by shooting tin cans with each other’s guns the audience might associate the scene with mutual sexual satisfaction followed by the climax represented by the shoot-out: the pistol gets metaphorically replaced by the phallus. Cherry’s comment about a Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere sounds like a hurried excuse or defense for what is obviously there: homosexuality. Gary Needham explains this impression as follows: “The elision of what is obvious (homosexuality) actually elaborates more emphatically on its very absence.” (64) According to this, the homosexual connotation of the movie scene is omnipresent even if it is not openly expressed. Even if homosexual expressions on screen certainly is the exception rather than the rule, the example shows that if we look closely enough we indeed can find underlying homosexual desires in the Western which so far was considered to be the most ‘masculine’ genre of all.

3.Brokeback Mountain: Establishing the West

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Illustration 2 (0:01:06)

Brokeback Mountain’sinitiating scene (see Illustration 2), picturing blue-ridge mountains, spanning over the wide landscape at dawn light, creates a romantic atmosphere, which reminds the audience of a cinematic code established in the Western genre. The viewer is tempted to imagine a lonesome cowboy riding off into the sunset, free and independent in a vast environment, which does not provide any boundaries. From the very beginning the movie visually establishes Western notions which constitute a crucial aspect for the overall narrative. The geographical and with it cultural setting determines what the audience connects with the American West - ideologically and emotionally. As Camille Johnson-Yale, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois, argues, “[o]ur relationships with place can be both deeply nostalgic and elusive. But our emotional relationships with place we identify with, long to experience, and claim as our own are the fictionalized places we see in film” (890). Through its opening scene, the movie clearly sets a focus on place and location. The depicted landscape does no longer stand for itself, it moreover transports a superordinated set of meanings.

Shortly after the initial shot we see a truck moving from left to right through the landscape (0:01:15). The truck as a symbol for modernity and civilization cuts through the untouched wilderness and signifies that the two opposing spheres do no longer exist apart from each other. The wilderness is no longer the ‘Virgin Land’[6]civilization made its way through and hence permeates it: the lines between the two spheres got blurred.

Through that the audience notices that the setting admittedly first appears as traditionally Western but then turns out to be different from the classical genre-specific motifs. This assumption gets validated in the next scene as the caption, which announces the year ‘1963’, gets cut in. Evidently, this is not a movie set in the times of the frontier, it is rather an untraditional Western, temporarily not as remote and therefore easier to understand for a modern audience.

The modern atmosphere already hints from the very beginning of the movie at an unconventional interpretation of traditional Western notions. Hence,Brokeback Mountainestablishes a dichotomy which is crucial for the plotline: the wilderness-civilization opposition. As I will point out in the following, the tension between the two spaces creates the movie’s general potential for conflict even if both of them are not constituted as static and separate as in classical Western films. As the next chapter will show, the two opposing spheres distinguish themselves through a complex set of meanings and connotations.

3.1 The Wilderness-Civilization Dichotomy

The most significant feature of the Western is the opposition of wilderness and civilization. From this dichotomy “other subsumed oppositions commence” (38), as Gary Needham suggests. Those antimonies would be:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Illustration 3 (Needham 38)


[1]Brokeback Mountainwon the 2006 Academy Awards in the categories Best Original Score, Best Director and Best Adapted Screen Play

[2]David Kupelian published his online article “Brokeback Mountain: The Rape of The Marlboro Man” shortly after the movie was released and interpreted it as a straight-up attack on American moral values

[3]For instance, the role of the gay best friend can be found in movies likeMrs. Doubtfire(1993), My Best Friend’s Wedding(1997) orThe Object of My Affection(1998)

[4]President Kennedy used the term of „The New Frontier“ in conjunction with the discovery of space.

[5]Quentin Tarantino’s latest BlockbusterDjango Unchainedis a great example how movies explore current social problems by depicting a world, which is culturally and historically remote from ours.

[6]The term Virgin Land is borrowed from Henry Nash Smith’s bookVirgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


The Revision of the Western Genre in "Brokeback Mountain"
University of Passau  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Literatur und Kultur)
Queering American Culture in Fiction and Film
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1439 KB
revision, western, genre, brokeback, mountain
Quote paper
Bachelor of Arts Christina Keppeler (Author), 2013, The Revision of the Western Genre in "Brokeback Mountain", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Revision of the Western Genre in "Brokeback Mountain"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free