Analysis Of 'My Own Private Idaho', 'Brokeback Mountain' And 'Boys Don’t Cry'

Living in the 21st century, diversity in sexuality has become better acknowledged and widely accepted in society. One of the constituting factors is the increasing display of sexuality in cinema. In the past, a non-heterosexual relationship is seen as a taboo. With the growing visibility of non-heterosexual representations in cinemas, societies have been less conservative. This paper focuses on the cross-analysis of My Own Private Idaho (1991), Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Themes such as the display of intimacy and emotion, self-gender exploration, use of symbolism in portraying homosexual relationships, and the importance of changing cinematic and social atmosphere in affecting our viewing and perception will be discussed. Besides, the films’ montage, in particular, the way movies communicate with their audience and how viewers respond to it. In this essay, I will argue that to a large extent, display of sexuality in American films is a catalyst in promoting and encouraging acceptance towards sexual diversity in the United States.

Increasing display of intimacy and emotion in cinemas have raised public awareness towards the situation and well-being of the sexual minorities. Brokeback Mountain is a mainstream Hollywood Western film illustrating a love story of two cowboys, Ennis and Jack, in rural Wyoming. Although both returns to their ‘normal’ lives afterwards, the love they developed on Brokeback remains with them forever (Boucher & Pinto 312). Sexuality is one of the fundamental beliefs when constructing society (Sumerau, Grollman & Cragun 2). When delivering intimate or emotional scenes, Barounis (64) argues that the aggression and competition of gay male sexuality displayed challenges societal beliefs towards cowboys as heterosexuals. For example, Ennis insists sleeping in the wild despite the harsh weather as he knows he would put himself to a possible homosexual encounter if he sleeps with Jack (Barounis 64). Knowing that homosexuality or queerness is a concept not fully embraced by the cowboy community at that time, Ennis’s recognition, yet denial of feeling present a sense of self-violence under the expectation of cowboy masculinity. This is also reflected when Ennis says that “I ain’t no queer,” and Jack responds with “Me neither”, suggesting the wild West is not necessarily to be tough but also tender. It is further highlighted at the final scene when Ennis looks at the postcard of Brokeback Mountain and the wilderness outside the hut. By subtly saying “Jack, I swear…”, it suggests tenderness for someone who loved him deeply. Through illustrating the constant struggle with the expected cowboy masculinity, the intimate and emotional depictions in the film have undoubtedly linked to the audience’s reflection on how people interpretation of sexuality and gender expectation construct social norms (Sumerau, Grollman & Cragun 2). Thus, Brokeback Mountain becomes and remains as influential forces in reshaping the public’s views and acceptance towards sexual diversity in the States.

My Own Private Idaho promotes sexual diversity by illustrating the protagonist’s gender exploration. Prevailing gender and sexual expectations have unconsciously shaped who we can or cannot be within society (Sumerau, Grollman & Cragun 2). The presentation of the socially constructed human sexuality as well as identity in the film enlightens viewers to treat sexuality and identity as more fluid and interchangeable. This engages the viewers by creating a sense of naturalness and vulnerability. For example, the viewing of sex as a trade affects the protagonist’s perception of his real sexual identity. However, when he opens his heart to Scott, it hints a gentle confession that he is romantically attracted to his friend. Just as Brokeback Mountain, both film directors depict the protagonists’ emotional changes and exploration of their sexuality as a sense of self-awareness. For example, Ennis masculinity slowly evolves to weakness after Jack’s death; and Mike’s asexuality to queerness after realizing his true feelings for Scott. Nevertheless, My Own Private Idaho enables viewers to see that men could also not to conform to their ‘usual’ behavior as men or heterosexuals. Through portraying a complicated and dynamic image of the sexual minorities, it brings about queerness to its viewers as a choice, not a subject (Dean 374). Hence, the more sexually fluid representation displayed through scenes of self-gender exploration in films has significantly impacted the community, again encourages greater acceptance towards sexual diversity in the United States.

Symbolism is used in Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don’t Cry to promote a fuller acceptance towards non-heterosexual expressions. The Hollywood Western genre usually defines itself with the image of the West’s landscape, implying “freedom, openness, redemption, reinvention” in America (Todd 3). Brokeback Mountain’s setting in the wild West subverts viewers’ expectations about the landscape in terms of genre and queerness (Todd 2). Majestic view of the wilderness signifies both the timelessness of love and the idea of intimacy (Manalansan 98). Brokeback Mountain introduces queer sexuality into the wild, which is a place embraces freedom away from societal constraints that allow Ennis and Jack’s romance to exist (Todd 3). It is noticeable that neither Ennis nor Jack has ever said “I love you”, and the movie’s last line, “Jack, I swear…”, is left unfinished, hinting ambiguity. However, the audience could find the strong and powerful love founded in their youth is still thriving. Thus, the hiding suggests both protagonists as queer and an act of breaking ‘normative’ sexuality boundary of cowboys for being out of the ‘closet’ (Todd 4). It is generally believed that men should not publicly express their feelings and desires for one another. However, Brokeback Mountain normalizes sexual diversity by comparing the ‘closeted’ situation and forbidden love with the freedom in the wild West. For instance, returning to the protagonists’ ‘normal’ lives, in a sense, is their attempt to bury the love founded on Brokeback Mountain. Knowing that the landscape resembles freedom, the film breaks the idea of gender conformity. It pushes its viewers to accept that the freedom associated with the wilderness includes sexual expression and identity. Hence, the landscape’s symbolic meaning inspires viewers to reflect on the societal viewings towards non-conforming sexualities and accept the growing sexual diversity.

Similarly, Boys Don’t Cry uses mirrors to introduce sexuality by contrasting the characters’ appearances and reality. For example, when Brandon tries to reestablish his masculine image in his bathroom, viewers could not see the image reflected. By using a “queer or non-dominant perspective”, viewers would find that the mirrors embody both the images Brandon identifies himself with and the hidden part of himself (Raymond 99). This is similar to Ennis and Jack’s ‘closeted’ situation in Brokeback Mountain, of not wanting to be found out of their true sexuality. The prevailing culture of homophobia and heterosexism prevents viewers from understanding the cultural sub-contexts of sexual minorities (Raymond 99). Symbolism then acts as a powerful means to increase the visibility of different sexualities’ backgrounds, hinting a variation from their stigmatized representations (Dean 366). Furthermore, it projects sexualities with respect and recognition, thus inspires the public to learn and understand about the cultural contexts of the sexual minorities (Dean 366).

Moreover, the gradual shift in the cinematic and social atmosphere also encourages acceptance towards sexual diversity in the States. Media is a viable and effective way of shaping the public’s, in particular, adolescents’ views about sexual diversity (Werner-Wilson, Fitzharris & Morrissey 307). Growing display of non-heterosexual images in movies increases their visibility in society and slowly affect the public’s views and perception for sexual diversities. For example, Brokeback Mountain normalizes queerness and calls attention to the inclusion of homosexuals; while Boys Don’t Cry highlights the stigmatization of men due to socially constructed expectations and standards (Grozelle 2). The U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1964 further acts as an anti-discrimination model in offering protection on the race and sexuality basis (Mercat-Bruns 66). Together with the annual Pride Parade that started at Manhattan in 1970, increasing visibility and community connection help to raise social inclusiveness, attention and recognition of sexual diversity as well as encouraging the reception of gay culture (McKinnon 348). With positive social and legal changes, the public would find it more comfortable in viewing and understanding sexuality-related issues. From this, we could argue that the change in social environment not only affects our viewing and perception towards sexualities but also constitute in the promotion and encouragement towards sexual diversity in the United States.

Montage is also crucial in portraying and highlighting sexual diversity to the public. In Brokeback Mountain, the camera masculinizes Ennis and feminizes Jack (Boucher & Pinto 324). For instance, Ennis is usually captured to be talking in a monosyllabic tone while Jack would optimistically talk about his vision; comparing to Jack, Ennis is more comfortable talking about the cowboy masculinity, such as hunting (Boucher & Pinto 324). Ennis’s masculinity is maintained in his tendency of conformity. It reflects his incapability of sharing his inner self, especially his sexual identity. Further on, the juxtaposition of the postcard and the Western landscape at the final scene proves and hints Ennis’s longing of being out of the ‘closet’ (Todd 10). The Western landscape symbolizes freedom while the town represents social order, including gender conformity. However, the discovery of freedom at the landscape also subtly hints the place itself is a closet for people to hide their secrets, such as Ennis’s queerness (Todd 10). Mapping of queerness with space reminds viewers of the boundaries and importance of expressing sexualities (Todd 11). Also, My Own Private Idaho uses the juxtaposition of spaces to portray a sophisticated sense of dream and reality through its camera movement. At the start, Mike dreams himself in the middle of an empty, endless road in Idaho, then images of his long-lost mother flash in, later with the image of a salmon swimming upstream before waking up. The background music is calm, soothing, and nostalgic. Together they expressively present Mike’s longing for home and comfort. The use of Mike’s narcolepsy as introduction allows the audience to recognize the hollow and confusing part of his life. This could successfully engage with the audience and encourage reflections on how a person’s upbringing and encounter could affect his or her sexual identity and character. Moreover, inspires them to question the current social system and atmosphere in affecting our perception and understanding towards sexual diversity, and how the community could support and introduce greater acceptance for such diversity.

Furthermore, all three movies end with an unhappy ending. Some scholars argue that it is a characteristic of art cinema to create a sense of realism and ambiguity (Bordwell 152). Taking Brokeback Mountain as an example, the protagonists are ‘disgusted’ or avoidant with the way they feel for each other as being a non-heterosexual is not widely accepted at that time, especially in rural Wyoming. Until the film’s final shot, Ennis finally confronts his love for Jack by showing a sense of regret when looking at the postcard of Brokeback Mountain. His sentiment engages and triggers viewers into thinking about how social norms have restricted and bounded our sexual and emotional expressions. Brokeback Mountain thus stands as the foundation for the expansion of the Hollywood Western genre image for America’s representation of freedom. The films act and remain as a strong and expressive force in challenging societal settings, making a significant push over the public’s acknowledgement and acceptance of sexual diversity in America.

My Own Private Idaho, Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain are three excellent movies in bringing attention towards sexualities in societies. The portrayal of freedom and individualism leads to the rethinking and exploration of the significance of America’s inclusivity and opportunity. Movie, as part of the mass media, takes up great responsibility in communicating and reflecting social expressions with its audiences. Through the rising display of sexualities in films, to a large extent, catalyzes acceptance towards sexual diversity in the United States. 

16 December 2021
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