Why Conservatives Should Love Brokeback Mountain
Right-wingers cheer the Oscar loss for a film that says everything they want.
Film, Bryan Collinsworth, Mar. 7, 2006
Right-wingers cheer the Oscar loss for a film that says everything they want.
By Bryan Collinsworth
The loudly self-proclaimed leaders of the American right are in a bit of a pickle after Oscar night. Their predictions that Hollywood would trip over itself to pile Academy Awards on Brokeback Mountain didn’t pan out; but can they really applaud a bunch of out-of-touch left-coast elitists for taking their advice and spurning the film?
One other option they might consider is actually seeing the movie. In January, Media Matters for America compiled quotes from Bill O’Reilly, John Gibson and countless other conservative screaming heads simultaneously declaring their total unwillingness to view the film and their limitless insight into every twist and turn of its plot.
First, they trumpeted their willful ignorance. “Gay cowboy doesn’t interest me,” announced Bill Donahue, head of the Christianist Catholic League. “I am going to go see King Kong.”
Then came the expertly-uninformed analysis: Brokeback was nothing more than pro-gay propaganda.
“[A]t some point, Hollywood should give up its mission as a kind of, you know, evangelist for a political persuasion and just shut up and make the movie,” declared Tucker Carlson, himself unwilling to shut up and see the movie.
“I suspect the people who make these kind of movies, though—like gay cowboy—would go to see a movie called ‘The Gay Gorilla,’” continued Donahue, with all the wit of a third-grade playground debater.
Bill O’Reilly, not to be outdone, tried his hand at prophecy. “[Y]ou’re going to see, over the next month, this movie being pushed and pushed and pushed by every media you can imagine. Why? Because they want to mainstream homosexual conduct.”
I think Oscar night made clear that if there’s anyone who fits the stereotype of “flaming Hollywood liberal intent on mainstreaming homosexual conduct,” it’s Brokeback and one-time Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee. (Wasn’t it bad enough when he tried to shove the “alternative lifestyle” of flying Chinese warriors down our throats?)
But the real problem with all of this preemptive film criticism from the right is that it’s too politically correct.
Yes, you read that right. For ages, conservatives have railed against the alleged left-wing thought police who unhesitatingly cast all unsuccessful women and minorities as victims, automatically assume that all criminals are just misunderstood, or dismiss offhand any defense of white European culture as necessarily racist.
But leading right-wing opinion-makers have happily settled into a PC regime of their own, and their response to Brokeback Mountain is the latest example. I don’t know how many liberals actually bought tickets to this movie just because they thought it was the politically correct thing to do, but how are the conservatives who loudly refuse to see it solely because of its subject matter any different?
The PC right dismisses Brokeback Mountain not because they’ve tested the movie and found it lacking, but because that’s what good conservatives are supposed to do. It’s a damn shame, though, because there’s a heck of a lot in Brokeback Mountain for our friends on the right to like.
Even for me, the most striking aspect of this film wasn’t actually its frank, sympathetic portrayal of a gay relationship—it was its frank, sympathetic portrayal of a certain style of Midwestern life.
When Hollywood films take on the Midwest, they almost always do so from an outsider’s perspective: the city folks passing through, finding anything from laughs to horror in the backwardness of their less-urban neighbors; the country kid who leaves it all behind for real adventures in the big city. On occasion, more daring directors will focus their dramas on the rustbelt working-class (think “Rudy”).
I know of few films, though, that drop you into that cultural space between wild west and suburban subdivision quite like Brokeback Mountain. I can’t claim full heartland bona-fides, but I spent almost every summer of my childhood hiking and camping with my family under the big skies and big mountains of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Idaho—and Brokeback’s visions of dusty roads, sleepy towns and vast wildernesses in between summoned more than one memory of those trips.
The trucks, the rodeos, the hats, the few words—the film, whatever one thinks of its primary subject matter, doesn’t mock these things. It presents them as a life, and a life worth living. Those who see something in this existence that not even the hippest of New York urban life can offer should be thanking Ang Lee for putting their world on the map.
Perhaps, though, conservatives ought to be praising Brokeback’s portrayal of gay relationships as well.
While righty after righty lined up to denounce the film, the smartest were careful to couch their knee-jerk rejections in a veneer of tolerance and enlightenment. “ [H]ey, I know people who are gay,” said FOX News commentator John Gibson. (Let me guess, he knows people who are black, too, right?) “I have nothing against them, but I don’t want to see this movie.”
Bill O’Reilly has been voicing a similar view since long before Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist were wishing they knew how to quit each other on the big screen. “Consenting adults in the privacy of their homes should not have sexual activity monitored,” he declared in June 2003 after the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas. “But, and here comes the no spin, this ruling should not give militant gays the right to flaunt their alternative lifestyle in the faces of American children.”
Gibson and O’Reilly want us to believe they’re fine with gay people, as long as they keep their “gayness” to themselves. But if that’s really the case, why aren’t they hounding everyone and their mothers to go see Brokeback Mountain? After all, if O’Reilly actually saw the movie, he’d realize it’s a perfect portrayal of what he considers “proper” gay relationships.
Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s characters follow to a ‘T’ Bill’s 2003 Talking Points Memo that advised “all Americans to shut up about your sexual preference. It’s nobody’s business.” They sure as hell don’t spend any time hunting for American children in front of whom to flaunt their alternative lifestyle. On the contrary, the mountain of the film’s title is an isolated patch of wilderness to which the two men always retreat to make sure the world never knows what they share.
What’s more, even the Bill Donahues and James Dobsons of the world might find something to like in these two. Jack and Ennis may have a bit of trouble suppressing their homosexual urges, but they do go ahead and get married to women, settle down, and raise kids—just the way God supposedly intended.
Of course, any conservative who started to think these two cowpokes were doing everything just right would be in for a rude shock by the end of the film. That’s because the final lesson of Brokeback is one that we actually learned long before homosexuality was a topic of national debate. It’s a truth we had to come to grips with during the struggles over women’s rights, and again in the battles over segregation in the civil rights era.
That message is that there’s no such thing as separate but equal, and there’s no such thing as freedom behind closed doors. There’s certainly no such thing as a free society in which some members are legally compelled to keep a major part of their everyday lives limited or even totally secret simply because it causes others a bit of discomfort.
When Bill O’Reilly blusters about gays flaunting their lifestyle, what he’s really upset about is the possibility that homosexuals might embrace the full promise of American freedom. He’s afraid of the day when the gay community makes clear that liberty and justice for all means more than meekly loving even when you have no legal right to love; more than serving your country while it tells you that you are not worthy to serve; more than standing by while the defenders of injustice decide that one major film about gay love in almost a century of Hollywood love stories is one film too many.
The right can shout themselves hoarse about gays keeping it in the bedroom, but no one has ever loved America because it’s the place where one is free to be whatever one wants, as long as the neighbors don’t find out.
Real American freedom is letting Jack and Ennis come down from Brokeback Mountain.