"I Ain't Queer": Love, Masculinity and History in Brokeback Mountain

Article excerpt

In late 2005 and early 2006, the motion picture Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, was unleashed upon the world. As a sympathetic story about "gay cowboys" in love in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Brokeback Mountain signaled an apparent break from Hollywood narrative conventions. It depicted the doomed love between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two cowboys (of, more precisely, rural itinerant workers) who met while herding sheep in Wyoming. A beautiful and powerful film, it opened with Jack and Ennis spending the summer of 1963 shepherding on Brokeback Mountain. Prompted largely by Jack, the homosocial intimacy of this rural setting slipped violently into the homoerotic. As Ennis said of the sex on the mountain: "This is a one-shot thing we got going on here. You know I ain't queer." Although at the end of the summer they both returned to their "normal" lives--Ennis to his fiance Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack to the rodeo that eventually led him to a fiance of his own (Lureen, Anne Hathaway)--the love founded and found "on Brokeback" remained with them for the rest of their lives. This tension between their love and their everyday lives drove the film's narrative, making any such return to normalcy impossible and providing an explanatory schema for each character's ultimately tragic trajectory. Although they met sporadically over the film's 20-year period, "for Ennis," as Australian critic Clark Forbes noted, the "love that dare[d] not speak its name [would] never be possible" (Forbes, 2006, p. E9). By film's end, it became clear that Ennis was the central character, left to grapple with the loss of Jack, a victim of a homophobic attack in 1983. (1) The film positioned its viewers to experience this moment as a profound and tragic loss.

On January 26, 2006--"Australia Day," a day celebrating this nation's frontiered beginnings--Brokeback Mountain was released to critical acclaim in Australia (Craven, 2006a; Lusetich, 2006b; Ryan, 2006; Stratton, 2006b). As one of the more eagerly anticipated Hollywood film productions of recent years, the screening of the famous (of possibly infamous) "'gay cowboy movie" prompted an explosion of conversations in the Australian public domain. Australian media commentators, film critics, and social analysts waxed lyrical about this "groundbreaking" historical film. The presence of Australian actor Heath Ledger, together with the apparent national and historical resonances of the subject matter--namely rural, horse-loving, "'manly" men on the frontier--produced a space where appeals to socio-historical connection were both possible and prevalent. As a consequence, Brokeback Mountain "could easily [have been] set in outback Queensland," as David commented on the film's website (Share Your Stories, 2006). While Brokeback Mountain was undoubtedly a transnationally distributed story of Americana, there was something specific about the event that was "Brokeback" in Australia in 2006. (2) Indeed, a series of specifically Australian cultural, political and social events were prompted by the film's release; that these events occurred within national boundaries thus produced and were productive of specifically Australian meanings. Within these events and conversations, Brokeback Mountain tended to be understood as evidence of "our" collective sexual and social liberation.

With this in mind, our key question in this article is: what did it mean to tell this historical story about love between American gay men in contemporary Australia? As historians interested in the possibilities of historical film, our analysis is directed by dual concerns. On the one hand, we seek to historicize the film--to situate it in a specific time and place; on the other, we would also like to consider the political ways in which it historicized--to interrogate how it temporalized particular sexualities, loves and oppressions. The meaning of films such as Brokeback Mountain is never finite or fixed. …