Brokeback Mountain – A story previously untold

“A raw, powerful story of two young men, a Wyoming ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy, who meet in the summer of 1963 sheepherding in the harsh, high grasslands of contemporary Wyoming and form an unorthodox yet life-long bond–by turns ecstatic, bitter and conflicted” (imdb.com).

In today’s blog post, I would like to take a look at the celebrated movie ‘Brokeback Mountain’ from 2005. The movie was very successful, received great reviews, attracted large audiences of movie goers and won 3 Academy awards.

First, let’s take a quick look at what some reviews had to say about the movie. In a review of the film the New York Times states:

“In a country that makes not just a virtue but a fetish of rugged individualism – and set against the big-sky backdrop most identified with that virtue – ‘Brokeback Mountain’ strikes a deep and haunting chord. It’s the story of people who, for no good reason, are not allowed to live their lives as they would like” (Durbin, 2005).

The Washington Post stated: “It’s a Hollywood romance with broad, universal themes”(Vargas, 2005).

 In an interview with the website gayinthemedia.com, Hollywood actress Anne Hathawat talks about why she decided to play a supporting role in ‘Brokeback Mountain”. “It’s very rare in Hollywood today to find a motion picture that tells a story that’s never been told before. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was not only such a movie, but it also was an incredibly poignant one that changed the thinking of many of the people who saw it” (Schweitzer, 2005).

Personally, I think ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was a very significant movie because it told a story that was pretty much untold before. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ brought a same-sex love story to the big screen and surprisingly it was not only successful among the gay or niche audience. The movie tells the story of two guys, two farm hands, who work together on a remote mountain in Wyoming in the summer of 1963. As time goes by, the two guys become intimate and realize that they developed feelings for each other. Nevertheless, during that time of U.S. history homosexuality was not accepted in society and commonly seen as a sickness. Hence, once the summer is over, the two guys separate and return home. They try to forget about their feelings and suppress their homosexuality.  A couple of years later, both of the guys are married by that time, they meet again and they notice that they still have strong feelings for each other. Nevertheless, because of the pressure in society one of them continues to try to fight against his homosexuality and denies his feelings. The movie doesn’t end with a happy ending and emphasizes the harsh reality of that time and the presence of homophobia in society. In the end, one of the two main characters gets killed by a group of homophobes because they find out about his sexual orientation.

Certainly, the movie sends some very important messages. One of them is that not all gay men fit into the stereotypes which are commonly held in society. The two main characters in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ are two very masculine and tough farm hands. Most people would probably not expect them to be gay. Their appereance is not what most people would expect from gay men.

“By the time Brokeback Mountain was released, the media had presented the public with two categories of stereotypically gay man. The first was a composite of the friends who gathered for the birthday party in The Boys in the Band – effeminated, narcissistic, promiscuous, and emotionally weak. The second came by way of Will & Grace and the parade of men who appeared in the high -profile gay films of the 1990s – handsome, charming succesful, and blessed with impeccable taste” (Streitmatter, 171).

In addition to the fact that the movie is challenging these commonly held stereotypes and inviting the audience to rethink their perception about homosexual men, the movie also addresses the issue of anti-gay violence. The movie sends a very strong message to the audience. It emphasizes that “gay men face the very real possibility of becoming victims of anti-gay violence, and, finally, the film makes a dramatic plea for American society to put an end to homophobia” (Streitmatter, 170).

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DURBIN, KAREN. “The New York Times.” 4 September 2005. Cowboys in Love . . . With Each Other . 1 May 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/04/movies/04durb.html?8hpib=&pagewanted=all.

Schweitzer, Noah. “Voices from Brokeback Mountain: Anne Hathaway,” Gays in the Media, December 12, 2005 (www.gaysinthemedia.com/interview/annehathaway).

Vargas, Antonio, “Gay Moviegoers Tip their Hats to a Love Story,” Washington Post, December 14, 2005, C1.”

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The L Word – “Lesbians Move into the Spotlight”

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, the depiction of gay men in the U.S. media increased steadily starting in the 1950s with the “Perverts on the Potomac” newspaper articles (Streitmatter, 146). Even though the early depiction of gay men was very negative and certainly helped to foster negative stereotypes in society, gay visibility increased tremendously in the decades to come. In particular, in the past 15 years or so, the media shifted to a much more positive depiction of gay men. Certainly, this change didn’t come out of nowhere and was influenced by a variety of different factors, a very prominent one was certainly the profit that could be made with gay or gay-friendly content. As pointed out by Streitmatter, the media started to realize that homosexuals men have in general a higher-than-average expendable incomce. Hence, by trying to target the gay audience specifically with the content of their programs, the opportunity for more profit was seen. Nevertheless, at the same time, lesbians didn’t receive as much media attention. According to Streitmatter, it is not easy to determine why that was the case, as a variety of complex factors come into play here. “One powerful concept that’s played a role in this phenomenon is stereotyping” (Streitmatter, 147). According to Streitmatter, a lot of the common stereotypes in society depicted homosexual women as “manly”, “unattrative” and “angry women”, this might be one of the explanations for the gap in  the media’s attention between gays and lesbians.  “Gay men are more likely to be embraced by the media, by contrast, because they’re often perceived as charming, witty, and fun-loving guys who know how to have a good time – and make sure the people around them do as well” (Streitmatter, 147).

 

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the TV sitcom “Ellen” which feautured the first lesbian lead character, after Ellen DeGeneres came out on screen and off. Unfortunately, the show was canceled shortly after because there was not big enough of an audience. In addition, leabian characters appeared in shows such as “Queer as Folk”, but certainly they didn’t play lead roles and “were overshadowed by all the boys” (Streitmatter, 149). Nevertheless, “gay women finally found a place in the spotlight in January 2004 when Showtime, after airing ‘Queer as Folk’ for four seasons, introduced ‘The L Word'” (Streitmatter, 148).  This show let us take part in the life of a group of lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders in Los Angeles, California, more specifically in the trendy neighborhood of West Hollywood. The show was very succesful right from the beginning, especially among homosexual women.  A total of 6 seasons were produced. No doubt, the show presented homosexual women in a completely different light than most of the commonly held stereotypes  did, which I mentioned above. “The two most prominent statements that ‘The L Word’  communicates are that lesbians can be stunningly beautiful and that they also can be obsessively sexual” (Streitmatter, 149). Similar to shows centered on gay men, ‘The L Word’ also emphasized that the lesbian community is racially diverse, inlcudes women from all walks of life and that not all lesbians fit into the negative stereotypes embedded in society. Nevertheless, the show also showed homosexual women in a negative light. For instance, one of the shows messages is “that lesbians have a tough time being sexually faithful” and are very promiscious(Streitmatter, 156). No doubt, the show certainly sent some very significant messages to the U.S. television audience, not only because it was the first popular show on U.S. televison that focused solely on the lifes of homosexual women.  

Nevertheless, in the eyes of many critics, the quality of  the show was not comparable to shows like “Queer as Folk” or “Will & Grace”. They consider the plot to be too shallow and too dramatic, almost like an early melodrama film (Streitmatte, 156- 158). In addition, they critique the fact that the show only seems to portray a certain type of homosexual women. The show focuses on the life of a group of women in West Hollywood who live a very glamorous life which certainly doesn’t represent the lifestyle of most homosexual women. Nevertheless, in my eyes, as being one of the first shows on U.S. television focusing solely on the life homosexual women, the show certainly had a certain social reponsibility. In particular for the heterosexual audience, the show certainly played an important role in forming their attitudes towards and ideas of the “lesbian lifestyle”.

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“For Gays Tolerance is a Prime-Time Fantasy”

In the last couple of weeks, I took a close look at the TV show “Ellen” and the popular show “Will & Grace”. Both of these shows feature lesbian or gay lead character. As I mentioned in last week’s post, before Ellen’s sitcom character came out of the closet in the fourth season of the show, there had not been a show with a lead lesbian character on U.S.  prime-time television. Another popular show which was based on a British TV show with the same title was “Queer As Folk”, a show about a group of gays and lesbians in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The show was very popular even though some scenes were very explicit, shocking for many and very sexual. 

In the following years, more and more shows and movies started to have homosexual characters in them at some point or another, for instance the prime-time sensation “Friends”. Surprisingly to many, even the heterosexual audience seemed to enjoy watching gay characters on the screen. Certainly, this begs the questions of whether Americans became more accepting towards homosexuals in real life, as well. Did the “popularity” of gay characters in the media pave the way for a more equal treatment of homosexuals in society, for more support for equal rights? 

Personally, I think, the fact that there seemed to be more and more gay visibility in the media, certainly helped to foster more acceptance towards homosexuality in society, nevertheless, that only happened slowly.

In the New York Times article titled “For Gays, Tolerance is a Prime-Time Fantasy”, Richard Goldstein examines how accepting the American public was indeed towards homosexuals at the peek of popularity of the shows mentioned above (Goldstein, 2000). Not surprisingly, he comes to the conclusion: “Not so much”.

In Nebraska, an initiative amending the state constitution to bar the recognition of gay marriage and domestic partnerships passed by a wide margin. In Nevada, a voter initiative barring the recognition of gay marriage also passed easily. In Maine, a measure that would have made it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in housing, employment and other spheres was narrowly defeated. In Oregon, a measure that would have denied state funds to schools teaching anything that sanctioned homosexuality was barely rejected.

Even in Vermont, where last year the Legislature enacted the nation’s first law granting same-sex couples many of the benefits and protections of marriage, Republicans tapped into a virulent backlash. Running in opposition to the law, they added more than a dozen seats in the state House of Representatives, overturning a Democratic majority. And Howard Dean, the popular Democratic governor who had signed the civil union law, prevailed only after a tough campaign in which the law was a central issue” (Goldstein, 2000).

Goldstein points out that the “fantasy tolerance” towards gays on TV can be rather dangerous and have an negative impact on the individuals involved. According to him, as more and more sitcoms start to portray gay characters in a “normal” and positive light, the heterosexual audience simply assumes that there is nothing to be done anymore. For many viewers, the gay characters seem to be happy and well incorporated in society, so why should they bother to think about supporting equal rights for gays?

Yet even as pop culture provokes this ambivalent response, it blunts the reality of oppression. If sitcoms show gays leading happy lives, why, some may ask, do they need protection against discrimination? Similar cinematic illusions once allowed many people to believe that African-Americans were content to be servants and that strong-minded women wanted nothing more than to decorate their menfolk’s lives” (Goldsteind, 2000).

Nevertheless, we should not forget that a variety of shows, “Queer As Folk” in particular, addressed a variety of important equal rights issues, as well as other crucial issues related to the gay community in their show.

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Richard, G. (2000, December 9). For Gays, Tolerance Is a Prime-Time Fantasy. New York Times. p. 23. Retrieved from EBSCOhost..

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“Will and Grace: The Biggest Gay Hit in TV History”

In this post, I will take a close look at another TV show fostering gay visibility on prime time television: Will & Grace. According to Streitmatter, Will & Grace was “the most visible gay media product of all time”, with almost 20 million people watching the show every week (115). The show was so popular that even lots of A-list celebreties, such as Madonna or Jennifer Lopez had guest appearances on the show. So what is this show about and what makes it special? – Will & Grace was a NBC sitcom produced in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2006. 

Will & Grace takes place in New York City and focuses on Will Truman, a gay lawyer, and his best friend Grace Adler, a Jewish woman who runs her own interior design firm. Also featured are their friends Karen Walker, a rich socialite, and Jack McFarland, a struggling actor/singer/dancer who also has had brief careers as an acting teacher, back-up dancer, cater-waiter, talk-show host and student nurse” (Wikipedia.com).

 Personally, I first heard about this show in 2003, when I got the chance, during a visit in Los Angeles to be part of the live audience during the filming of one episode. In addition, due to the fact that one of the producers of the show was the father of a friend of mine, I also got the chance to meet the lead characters of the show that day. Nevertheless, because I was just visiting from Germany and the show was not available in Germany yet, I had no idea of how popular the show actually was in the United States and what to expect in general.

One aspect that is significant about the show was that the 2 lead characters are very different personalities and the show plays with these differences. “The fact that fulfilled and emotionally stable gay men come in more than one variety – some steady and chaste, others flighty and promiscuous – is just one of the several statements that Will & Grace made during its triumphant time on the air” (Streitmatter, 124). There is Jack who is a more flamboyant and out-going type of gay man and on the other hand there is Will who is a more “straight-acting”, quite and less noticeable type of gay man. People would most probably not expect him to be gay when they first meet him. Hence, one character is acting more according to the stereotypes present in society, while the other character is not fulfilling these stereotypes. Certainly, this shows the audience that there are different types of gay man and especially Will’s character emphasized that it is not always easy to determine who is gay and who is not. More and more people started to realize slowly that being gay is nothing too much out of the ordinary and certainly nothing “bad” or “sick”. People in the audience might even personally know a homosexual individual, they simply might not know about it, because the homosexuals they know don’t fit in the popular stereotypes that exist in society.  In addition, another important theme of the show is the great relationships that exist between gay men and straight women. In the show, there is Will’s relationship with his best friend Grace and Jack’s very close relationship to Karen. The fact that Will & Grace is not just focusing on gay characters but a mixture between gay and heterosexual characters is seen by many as one of the shows secrets to success.

Streitmatter also points out that the show was subtly promoting gay rights (Streitmatter, 121). The show sent the message to the audience that gay people are not different than anyone else in society just because of their sexual orientation. Hence, they certainly deserve equal rights and should not be treated as second class citizen. Nevertheless, the show did not address these issues straightforward, but did so with a lot of comedy and a great sense of humor.  This might have been one of the reasons for the shows great popularity not only in the gay community. “The most substantive message, one that emerged only after the sitcom had become well-established, was that gay people deserve to be treated fairly, including having the right to legalize their relationships and adopt children” (Streitmatter, 124).

In my opinion, Will & Grace and the popularity of this prime time show certainly helped to increase the visibility of gays in U.S. society and exposed society to this important issue. During that time, it was still not common to see homosexual characters as leading characters in TV shows. Thanks to Will & Grace, now, every week millions and millions of people watched this popular show, welcomed the gay characters to their living room and were exposed to the shows subtle messages promoting equal rights for homosexuals.

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“Ellen – Coming Out, On Screen and Off…”

 In the early years of “gay visibility” in the U.S. media most stories were centered on homosexual men, homosexual women on the other hand were largely ignored. Nevertheless, this started to change. In today’s post, I would like to take a look at the coming-out story of comedian, TV host and actress Ellen DeGenerese, who came out to the public in 1997.

During the time of her coming out, Ellen DeGeneres played the character “Ellen Morgan” on the primetime ABC sitcom Ellen. In September of 1996, several of the countries news outlets covered stories speculating the main character in the show, “Ellen Morgan”, might come out as a lesbian in one of the up-coming episodes (Streitmatter, 104). For instance, the Los Angeles Times published a story on September 14, 1996, titled “Stepping Out?”, in which they speculate about the sitcoms main characters up-coming revelation (Snow, 1996). According to the Los Angeles Times article, insiders had confirmed that the possibility was being discussed but that no final decision had been made yet. In the following weeks, many of the other major news outlets in the country started to speculate about the up-coming changes on the show. The topic was so widely discussed and had great significance, because the coming out of “Ellen” in the show would make her the first lesbian main character on a primetime show on U.S. television. There had been gay characters on television before, but most of them had supporting or secondary roles only. “In March 1997, ABC announced that, yes, Ellen’s lead character would , indeed, come out as a gay woman during the episode scheduled to air at 9 p.M. on April 30 – at the end of sweeps month” (Streitmatter, 105). After the “mystery” was solved, the media now started to examine the reasons that were driving ABC to decide to have the lead character come out of the closet. As pointed out by Streitmatter in his book From Perverts to Fab Five, it was speculated that ABC tried to bring up the show’s ratings which went down significantly since season one (2009). This topic was so widely discussed in the media before the “coming out” episode aired, but lead actress Ellen DeGenres, seemed to avoid the media and didn’t talk much about the up-coming changes in the sitcom. Several magazines and newspapers started to speculate on the actress own sexuality and rumors of her personal coming out started to emerge.  

Time Magazin cover, 1997

Then the speculations finally came to an end when Ellen DeGenrese gave an exclusive interview to Time Magazine in 1997 which was published as the cover story. In the interview, DeGenerese publicly came out as a lesbian. In the following weeks, she gave lots of interviews. In one interview with Diane Sawyer for a segment of 20/20, DeGenerese said about her coming out experience:

This had been the most freeing experience of my professional life, I don’t have to worry anymore about some reporters trying to find out information. I don’t have anything to be scared of, which outweighs whatever elese happens in my career” (20/20, 1997).

Besides all the interview follwing her coming out, she also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she shared her very personal and emotional  story. Below is a short clip of the opening from this specific episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Some critics saw the whole coming-out story as driven solely by the interest to raise the ratings for the TV show, which had lost lots of viewers throughout its first 3 seasons. In addition, Ellen was publicly criticized by several church groups and other organization which are hostile towards homosexuals. Nevertheless, this could not diminish the positive and supportive  headlines following her comming and the growing support towards homosexuals in Hollywood and society in general.

After all the hype and exploitation surrounding the actress Ellen DeGeneres and Ellen Morgan, the woman she plays on television, it was easy to lose sight of what actually was taking place on ABC last night. The “coming out” of the title character on “Ellen” was accomplished with wit and poignancy, which should help defuse the antagonism toward homosexuals still prevalent in society” (New York Times, 1997).

As pointed out by Streitmatter, the coming out of “Ellen Morgan” in the TV show and Ellen DeGenerese can be considered to be a milestone in TV history, as Ellen was the first TV show with a lesbian as its lead character. In contrast to earlier coverage on gays and lesbians, the show portrayed homosexuals in a positive light and as being completely normal people. Certainly, the show played an important role in the growing support for gays and lesbians in society. According to Streitmatter, “a number of major Hollywood stars became gay activists by joining the cast of Ellen either for the coming-out episode or for later segments of the history-making series. Oprah Winfrey, Hellen Hunt, and Demi Moore were among the names on the impressive list of celebreties who steped up to the plate and did their part to adavance the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement” (Streitmatter, 114).

I thought it was very interesting to take a close look at Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out story. I have watched her current show before and I knew that she is a lesbian, but I had not idea about this significant story surrounding her public coming-out. Certainly, the fact that Ellen shared her story with the public helped to foster a more positive perception of homosexuals in society and emphasized that homosexuals are just “normal” people like everyone else in society. Her story also emphasized how difficult the coming-out process can be, especially if you are in the public eye like Ellen. As she stated in one of her interviews after the coming-out, she felt very relieved after it was out because she doesn’t have to hide her true-self anymore.

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Ellen and ‘Ellen’ Come Out. (1997, May 1). New York Times (1923-Current file),p. A26.  Retrieved April 9, 2011, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007). (Document ID: 117355538).
 Ellen DeGeneres interview by Diane Sawyer, 20/2, APril 25, 1997; Handy, “Roll Over,” 78.
  SNOW, S. (1996, September 14). Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 10, 2011, from Morning Report: http://articles.latimes.com/1996-09-14/entertainment/ca-43661_1_morning-report 
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DADT – “Gays in the Military” continued …

In last week’s post I talked in great detail about homosexuals in the military. As I mentioned last week, up until 1993, only 18 years ago, homosexuals were not able to join the U.S. military at all. In 1993, newly elected president Bill Clinton tried to challenge the ban of homosexuals in the military but the opposition was too strong. As some kind of compromise the “don’t ask- don’t tell” (DADT) policy was written and put into law. DADT gave homosexuals the opportunity to join the military, as long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret and didn’t talked to anyone else in the military about it. I talked a little bit about the reasoning behind DADT in last week’s post. Certainly, not everyone was satisfied with this compromise. No doubt, DADT discriminated against homosexuals in many ways and certainly had great implications on the everyday life of homosexuals in the military.

At this point I would like to share a personal story related to the discussion around DADT:

Two years ago, I went back home to Germany for Christmas to spent the holidays with my family and friends. On the second day of my stay I went to one of Germany’s traditional “Christmas markets”, similar to a big fair. I met up with one of my old friends from high school, her name is Tanja. I had not seen her in a while. Tanja is a lesbian and brought her girlfriend Brenda, who is a high-ranked officer in the U.S. military stationed in Germany. As we walked around the fair I noticed that the two women were very cautious not to show too much affection, for instance in form of holiding hands or standing to close together. If they were holding hands or hugging each other, they were very cautious about their surrounding and the people passing by. At that time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. After a while I asked my friend Tanja about it and she told me that they have to be really careful because of DADT, as Brenda is an officer in the U.S. military. There are lots of U.S. military bases in this area in Germany and it is very likely that another military member could have seen them together and report them. Hence, for Brenda the constant fear of being discharged for being a lesbian was always present, even when going out to have a great time with her girlfriend. Before this incident, I didn’t even know that DADT existed and what implications it had on the life of homosexuals serving in the U.S. military. After spending some time thinking about it, it didn’t seem like that well of a compromise anymore.

 

When researching DADT online, I found a lot of personal stories of individuals who got discharged from the military for being openly gay. The chart below shows the numbers of individuals discharged from the U.S. military between 1980 – 2008. The total number of people discharged reaches 30,050 in this 28 year period. Those people were not welcomed in the military anymore because of who they were, for being homosexuals, no matter of their rank in the military.

 

CQ Researcher 2011

 

 

Discharged Individuals

 

"Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated Iraq War veteran with more than 80 combat missions, could be discharged over his homosexuality" (CQ Researcher 2011).

 

"Army National Guard Lt. Daniel Choi symbolizes the debate over whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. The West Point graduate and Arabic language specialist faces discharge because he revealed he is gay, in violation of the “don't ask, don't tell” policy" (CQ Researcher 2011).

                                                                                                                  
Finally, in 2010, a bill was passed to repeal DADT. Nevertheless, the repeal of DADT is not effective immediately as the military sees the need to for training and certification of service members to guarantee a better transition and assure that the military’s tactical efficiency won’t suffer. At least the first step is done. In the near future, we will hopefully see a positive outcome and homosexual service members won’t be forced anymore to hide who they are.
 
 
 
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Back to the “Stonewall Rebellion”

I would like to go back to the “Stonewall Rebellion” for a quick moment, as I found a very relevant and great documentary dealing with the issue, which I would like to recommend. When going through Netflix yesterday, I discovered a documentary from 2010 dealing with the Stonewall Rebellion. The documentary features lots of archival footage from the incident, as well as interviews with people who were present on June 28, 1968 at the Stonewall Inn in New York. The film is titled “Stonewall Uprising” and is distributed by PBS.

“Through eyewitness interviews and archival footage, documentary filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner recapture a pivotal moment in time that mobilized a generation of gay activists and marked the dawn of the modern Gay Rights Movement. Much like Rosa Parks’s symbolic refusal to move to the back of the bus, gay bar patrons’ refusal to comply with a police raid at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn in 1969 would change the course of history” (Netflix.com).

–> http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2833581593/   (link to a short trailer on imdb.com).

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