By Leonard Pitts Jr.: Syndicated columnist
I went to see “Brokeback Mountain” last week, mainly to prove to myself that I could.
This was after reading a New York Times piece by Larry David of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame in which he wrote that, though he loves gay people and supports both gay marriage and gay divorce, he does not plan to see this critically praised movie about gay cowboys. David said he’s discomfited by the idea of watching two men fall in love and fears it might make him gay by osmosis.
“Not,” he added, “that there’s anything wrong with that.”
It strikes me that David’s essay amounted to the smiley-face liberal version of what is being said more bluntly in conservative circles. “Gay love story carries a high ‘ick’ factor” reads the headline of a story on the American Family Association Web site. It quotes a prediction that people will leave the theater vomiting.
How asinine, I think.
Yeah, says a little voice in my head, but if that’s how you feel, why haven’t YOU been to “Brokeback Mountain?”
Well, I protest, right now I’m teaching in this tiny college town in the middle of nowhere. I’d have to drive 90 miles.
Good point, says the voice. But didn’t you drive that far to see “Good Night, and Good Luck?”
Now look, I say, and suddenly there’s this wheedling tone to my voice, some of my best friends are gay. Heck, my own brother’s gay. But you know, we ARE talking about a love story between two guys, and they might be kissing and, you know, touching and … stuff.
The little voice falls silent. It is a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is silence.
So I went to see “Brokeback.” And I can report that it was as shattering and powerful as advertised. People were moved.
Nobody threw up.
Which brings me back to that ick factor.
I find myself wondering if this primeval revulsion doesn’t speak less to our antipathy toward homosexuality than to our fears about masculinity. I mean, while a movie about two women in love would surely be controversial, I doubt it would present the visceral threat “Brokeback Mountain” does for some of us. I doubt Larry David would be scared to see it.
Indeed, the idea of women who can’t keep their hands off each other is a staple of so-called men’s entertainment. Visit a magazine stand if you don’t believe me. In the ’80s, it seemed as if every Prince video had band members Lisa and Wendy groping each other.
Point being, when it’s women, we — meaning straight men — tend to find it titillating, exotic, arousing in its very forbiddance. When it’s men, we — meaning straight men AND women — tend to react as if somebody dropped a snake in the bed. Small wonder the FBI reports that while 902 men were reported victims of sexual orientation hate crimes in 2004, ONLY 212 women were.
We seem prone to find male homosexuality the more clear and present danger, the more urgent betrayal of some fundamental … something. Some will say it’s — and I will finesse this for a general audience — the nature of man-to-man sex some of us find off-putting. I think it’s more basic than that. I think gay men threaten our very conception of masculinity.
The amazing thing about “Brokeback Mountain” is its willingness to make that threat, directly and overtly. These are not cute gays, funny gays, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” gays. These are “cowboys,” and there is no figure in American lore more iconically male. Think Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, the Marlboro Man. The cowboy is our very embodiment of male virtues.
In offering us cowboys who are gay, then, “Brokeback Mountain” commits heresy, but it is knowing heresy, matter-of-fact heresy. Nor is it the sex (what little there is) that makes it heretical. Rather, it’s the emotion, the fact that the movie dares you to deny these men their humanity. Or their love.
Ultimately, I think, that’s what the Larry Davids among us sense. And why for them, “Brokeback Mountain” might be the most frightening movie ever made.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org