Brokeback Mountain and Societal Boundaries: a Culture Clash

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B. Ruby Rich stated in an article; “Every once in a while, a film comes along that changes our perceptions so much that cinema history thereafter has to arrange itself around it… to signal a new era” (Rich, 2005). Hollywood, like many other aspects of pop culture has had to conform to the ever-changing society in which we live in. As our world becomes more open to ideas of gender, sexuality and love, the representation of these things must be accurately shown to their audiences. With queer-centric movies from recent years such as Moonlight and The Danish Girl garnering immaculate success in todays society, the direction Hollywood is moving towards, and how audiences perceive homosexuality seems positive, however it wasn’t always like this.

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In 2005, director Ang Lee released his film Brokeback Mountain starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. The film portrays two cowboys from Wyoming during the 60s who fall in love despite their love being forbidden during that time, and for that occupation. The film became one of the most controversial films of the year for a number of reasons. First of all, having gay characters was not uncommon in film at this time, however having them be the main characters rather than side characters was seen as wrong and abnormal due to this putting them (and in turn their sexuality) in the spotlight. The films biggest controversy was caused by the depictions of love seen throughout the film; audiences would not only see the two men kiss, but also see them have sex quite graphically. This ‘real’ and raw portrayal of gay sex was something that had not been done before in Hollywood’s mainstream scene and caused an array of emotions to arise from viewers.

The reception from the homosexual community was quite positive as they felt as though they finally were represented accurately in a blockbuster film. The reception from the heterosexual community was mixed, with some positivity and a lot of negativity. The majority of the negativity came from the graphic portrayals of gay sex and the association of cowboys being gay. In Hollywood, when one thinks of cowboys, they think of people like John Wayne who are the epitome of masculine and fulfill heterosexual norms. With Ang Lee deciding to make his gay characters cowboys, he rejected the pre-conceived notions that cowboys are heterosexual and that gay men are feminine as seen throughout all of pop culture history. Lee must have known he was taking a risk with this film, with breaking so many of the boundaries that are imposed on film-makers and the biases that resided in society at the time. Despite the controversies and backlash, the film managed to win three Oscars including best director and was recently placed into the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.

This clash of homosexual representation in film, and the constraints of Hollywood and society in the past is interesting because of how much we have moved forward since. In just over a decade, the world of film and representation in our society has completely changed. Hollywood has now embraced the idea of properly representing the LGBT community in the same way in which the heterosexual communities have always been depicted, and audiences are now far more accepting. My father used to always express his distaste for the film and claimed he would never be caught watching a movie about gay cowboys. Despite his comments, I wanted to form my own opinion and can happily say its one of my favourite movies that never fails to make me cry. I think it’s important to look at controversial films of the past like this, because they were the predecessor for a lot of the popular films today.

In conclusion, despite the more accepting nature present in both Hollywood and our society today when talking about gender, sexuality and their depictions, it is important to remember how it used to be and to understand our journey to todays society. Brokeback Mountain challenged audiences and filmmakers preconceived notions about gays and even cowboys, and led to the more accurate representation of LGBT love in films that is flourishing today. 

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