men, masculinities and gender politics

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Broken Gaze

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Since the late 1960s, the result of a concerted effort on the part of a gay lobby to bring ‘equality’ to those involved in same-sex relationships has been the further eradication of possibilities of intimacy beyond the established heterosexual and homosexual models. Today, we live in a culture in which there is no room to explore the possibility of intimacy outside of these understandings. The culture demands that our intimate relationships—those that involve sex specifically—must define who we are. It demands that the kind of sex we have must signify the kind of person we will live as forever.

Brokeback Mountain exposes the despair and desperation of one intimate male-male relationship. The problem for the men involved—Jack and Ennis—is the demand that they continue to identify as ‘mates’ in a world that denies them any possibility of living out as ‘boyfriends.’ This film thereby locates their relationship very much in a post-gay liberationist context, in that it exposes with compassion the destruction and harm caused by the culture’s refusal to allow homosexuals to be. One of the central arguments of the gay liberation movement, after all, is that people should be allowed to live openly in same-sex relationships, but that such a freedom is currently denied to many. One of the central concessions of a contemporary liberal society is that such freedom should now be allowed.

In the post-gay liberationist era, intimacy between men cannot escape the pervasive gaze of homosexuality. Some condemn it for being so; others pity its failure. What is lost in this struggle for equality and right(eous)ness for straightness and gayness are moments of intimacy that don’t care about the why of sexual orientation. Such moments are intense because they are undefinable, spontaneous and new. This intensity is lost, however, when we start to surround these moments with definitions, reasons, and historical labels; when we start to discipline them with ‘truths’ of sexual identification that grant the superiorised mind control over the wayward actions of the inferiorised body.

There is certainly an incredible passion in the relationship between the two men in this film. We see fleeting moments of this when they stand embracing with only wide open spaces behind them, or when they wake in the tent to find pieces of their body touching. At the time of their first reunion, they kiss furiously and without restraint in full view of Ennis’ wife. This kiss signifies the sheer uncontrollability of their emotions and mutual attraction. Instead of nurturing these moments and producing a representation of a male-male relationship that is intense and challenging because of its incomprehensibility, however, the film encourages us to view their relationship as yet more evidence of the desperation of homosexuals and their desires.

The emphasis in this film on a desperate struggle for freedom reasserts that there is no room for male-male intimacy outside the culture’s demand that all same-sex affection be understood as homosexual in nature. We are given very little insight into how Jack and Ennis explore their intimate feelings while out on the mountain. Do we ever see them kiss? Do they even touch each other’s naked flesh, or have more than one quick rape-like fuck? Denied any real evidence of how the two men live out their mutual attraction corporeally, we are drawn instead into the politicisation of their relationship, as we are encouraged to contemplate what it means for them to be ‘gay’ in a ‘straight’ world. The result of this is that intimacy is once again understood intellectually within a discourse of sexuality rather than experienced as pleasure or as flesh. In sexualising the relationship between Ennis and Jack, the truth’ of the homosexual-heterosexual binary is reaffirmed, thereby naturalising the cultural discipline of all our moments of intimacy too.

Author’s Bio

Dean Durber’s doctoral thesis (Department of Communication and Cultural Studies, Curtin University, 2005) addresses the issue of intimacies between men in the post-gay liberationist era. He currently writes and lectures on issues relating to masculinities and sexual panics.