Brokeback bigotry

I’m stretched out in my easy chair getting ready to watch the Oscars this evening, when this horrid ‘news’ profile about Brokeback Mountain and middle America comes on. I found it offensive: they seem to have sought out the most narrow-minded representatives of this part of the country—your stereotypical Christian bigot, a clutch of white-haired geezers—who hadn’t seen the movie, who rejected it out of hand, who claimed Hollywood didn’t understand farmers, who thought a good movie was that treacly crap, The Sound of Music. If there is anyone who doesn’t understand this part of the world, it’s the patronizing yahoos at CNN who went out of their way to find people who fit their stereotypes.

I live in the rural midwest, in a town that sounds a bit like Lebanon, Kansas: one theater with one screen, a thin and graying population of farmers, most of us without a lot of money; we aren’t quite as dried up and dead, though. Middle America does contain liberals and college professors and people who think and are willing to see a movie before passing judgement on it. All of the movies nominated for best picture were shown here in town, except for Munich (I’m hoping it comes soon.) I’ve seen Syriana, Crash, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck (which is playing here right now), and Brokeback Mountain. In fact, Brokeback Mountain had the biggest crowd I’ve seen for any movie here—it was wonderfully well-received, and it wasn’t just the university clique attending.

I went in to Brokeback Mountain with some reservations. I wasn’t at all bothered by the gay themes, but I expected just a mushy love story, a kind of chick-flick with no leading lady. What surprised me, though, is that contra the uninformed opinion on that CNN spot, the movie did a fine job of capturing that hard ranch life.

When I was a young fellow, I would regularly visit my rancher aunt and uncle and my cousins in Eastern Washington state. When I saw Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the opening scenes, what struck me is how accurately they portrayed that life: the patience, the general competence, that laconic drawl, the lean dry leathery look (I admit, I always felt a bit damp and squidgy when I visited). I thought the movie did a first-rate job of respectfully portraying that difficult life, where people compensate for poverty with a stolid work ethic and proud independence. There are also lazy and destructive and dishonest and bigoted people in these communities, of course, but the movie was almost wholly sympathetic to the working people of small town America.

I do wish these news people would realize that the middle of America isn’t populated exclusively with hicks and fundamentalists. I am out here, I’m about as far from that cliche as you can get, and I’m not alone.

(And yeah, I’m hoping Brokeback Mountain wins best picture—it’s the best of the ones I’ve seen. It was an affecting tragedy, beautiful to watch.)


  1. says

    This has nothing to do with Brokeback Mountain. However, if you haven’t stumbled across it yet, you might want to check out Squid Gideon. Vastly amusing, and seems the sort of thing you’d like.

  2. Todd says


    The links in the RSS feed to “Read the entire post” are great, but there’s no difference in them between posts which do and do not continue beneath a fold. That kind of functionality would be really nice. In fact, I thought this post ended with the bit above the fold, and I only showed up to leave this comment.

  3. HCN says

    Okay, I did not want to be the first person to actually comment ON topic… especially since my pop-up blocker would not let the video run. I was willing read a newstory, but not really download a video.

    So here is my kind of ON topic comment. My family is also from Eastern Washington, so every so often I check out the newspaper of the Yakima Herald. Recently when I did this, I found this interesting commentary on the movie (which I have not seen, but that is mostly because I’m so cheap I watch movies by checking them out of the library!):
    They are NOT cowboys, they are sheepherders!

  4. says

    Strictly speaking, there aren’t any real cowboys left. My uncle raised cattle and horses on his ranch in Kittitas, but I doubt that he was ever on a real cattle drive, and cowboys have been replaced by truckers. In the movie Ennis and Jack are doing what most ‘cowboys’ do — getting by with whatever job they can get. They’re herding sheep on the mountain at the beginning, but later they’re also doing rodeo work and working as fieldhands and selling tractors.

    I remember some of my family making fun of Yakima, too — that’s a place full of fruit orchards and drug dealers, not cowboys!

  5. says

    What? The media can’t get past their prejudices to provide an accurate, multidimensional portrayal of middle America? Funny how their ability to get passed their opposition to the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and give an accurate portrayal of what is really going on in those countries is still considered by many to be trustworthy.

    But I post this comment not because I want to argue your view on this issue because I know these debates are fruitless. I just want to point out that your point on the media is not just applicable to those issues where their blind spots are glaring but to the very essence of that the media is. Newspapers and TV news programs and other forms of media are not in the business of providing information and facts but of presenting stories for our consumption; packages of facts and information and omissions and simplifications which make for an easily digestible serving. The owners will hirer the chefs (editors, anchors etc. if you’ll allow me to beat this analogy into the dust) who can serve up what their market wants not what is necessarily good for us. People of every political orientation should remember what we are consuming when we consume media. A large order of frys is not a potato even if some incidental potato matter is contained in it and the TV news, weekly documentary shows and newspapers are not information even if some information is contained in them.

  6. says

    Apesnake – The media (CNN) did not provide an accurate, multidimensional portrayal of middle America. But it seems to me that PZ is pointing out that the media (Hollywood) did provide and accurate and multidimensional, if fictional, one.

  7. HCN says


    I’ll just take your word for it. Some of my step-mother’s relatives are cattle auctioneers in Yakima (note: no one in my family lives there anymore), and I worked with an engineer who raised Angus as a sideline (he also commuted to work with his personal plane, riding his collapsible bike from King County Airport to the office).

    PLUS… my dad retired in Arizona. One evening while visiting during the holidays I sat and listened to one of the “cowboy” friends of my sister’s boyfriend tell me about rounding up cattle by helicopter.

    Things change.

    As an Army brat I lived in the Midwest (plus my mother and step-mother were from Wisconsin). It turns out that because a certain supercomputer company founder was from the same small town my grandfather lived in… they were originally made in the same town as Leinenkugal beer (though now they are in the city north of where you grew up in). PLUS… there was high tech in Minneapolis… SO my one year there provided a very good basis in math.

    But… then there was the year I suffered while my father was at the Command and Staff College in Ft. Leavenworth. Because of an on base housing shortage we lived in a small town in Missouri that “time forgot”. It had the distinction of being the home of the only legal distillary in the state. Not only that it was the largest tobacco growing area east of the Mississippi… plus in woods (and along our back fence) were the weeds left over from the crop they grew for the WWII effort: hemp. Oh, wow… bourbon, tobacco and hemp! What a great example of the midwest, esecially in the “Show me” state!

    Note: I am not a big fan of geographic stereotypes.

  8. says


    Yes but I was referring to the news media which I consider a different organism from Hollywood (though they both seem overly obsessed and occasionally enamored with suicide bombers). I wonder how many studios turned Brokeback Mountain down before it got made. They were pretty sure that their market wanted humanized terrorists not gay shepherds.

  9. HCN says

    Since I made an error after three glasses of wine… it is WEST of the Mississippi.


  10. HCN says

    Maybe I actually read the compass because of these rings I never ordered from Alex Chiu… Who promises you will live forever if you read them.

    Though a year in that small-minded town that time should have forgt felt like forever.


  11. Mike says

    It’s been amazing how the right-wingers have gone crazy over BBM. Ironically if you browse their message boards you will find much more explicit obscenity about the movie than there is in the movie itself. Somehow they seem to think that it’s okay to toss out good, clean family values when attacking something they perceive to be part of the “gay/liberal agenda”.

  12. says

    Never doubt the DaColbert Code.

    Middle America is made up of 75 year-old blue-haired women who miss “The Sound of Music?” Seriously? I doubt a whole lot of those folks went to see “Wedding Crashers” or “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” which were huge hits across this country.

    How do the righties account for such raunchy movies doing so well when they continually tell us that America really wants more “Passion of the Christ?”

    There is no middle America anymore, especially in we youths. We’re all so libertarian that I don’t know how the country will survive another 100 years.

  13. says

    I’m 59 now, and the father of a friend my age was the last of the old-time cowboys, sort of. The father was born in 1890 and married for the fourth time in 1945. By 1970 he knew that his way of life was just gone. My friend is a PhD sociologist and does not have happy memories of his time as a ranch hand.

    I think that I read the same article, and one thing that came up was in that town there were kid movies and old-people movies, and that very few people there, of any age, were involved in movies the way many young urban people are. People tend to leave those towns at age 18 if they want to see movies. Sometimes they come back later, sometimes not. That was the pattern when I grew up too.

    I thought the article was stupid and sort of mean-minded, and I think that the local response would have been similiar for most movies. Sensitive movies about relationships don’t go over there.

    Being a movie-lover is not an obligation of citizenship — at least I hope not, because I hardly ever watch any myself, and especially not sensitive movies about relationships.

  14. Simple Country Physicist says

    How much of the human population of the planet is relevant? As a biologiist I should expect you to be able to establish how many people we need to have an adequate gene pool. I suspect this number is considerably less (1-2 orders of magnitude at least) than we need to advance civilization, which may be our only claim as humans to relevance.
    In that regard, and dismissing any mystic superstition, is a film a form of art or merely of entertainment? Does it fall in with jokes and tall tales or does it rise to some higher level? And is this a matter of species or individual (or somewhere in between) viewpoint?

  15. says

    My favorite quote from one of the old church ladies?

    “Why waste your time [watching the Oscars]? We’ll come to bell choir practice!”

    I don’t think the CNN report is all that bad, except that it could use a little more ridicule directed at the Kansans. I grew up in rural northeast Missouri, and honestly I think the “gaggle of backwoods Christian hicks” portrayal is pretty accurate. Sure, there are some intellectuals and liberals in the mix, but they’re a minority, a marginalized subculture in those areas. The Upper Midwest (MN, WI, MI) is much better.

    In my high school, people used to run as fast as they could head-first into the sides of their pickup trucks for sport. Over and over and over. It’s called “truck-butting.” I’m not sure what the goal was, but the trucks seemed to win most times.

  16. says

    Errm, truck-butting? No wonder they grow up to be fundamentalists!

    I didn’t witness anything that stupid, but I do recall driving into Kittitas one afternoon to pick up my cousin when he got out of school, and it was the funniest sight, one that fit the cowboy stereotype. The bell rings, the front door opens, and instead of the usual mob of yelling kids spilling out, everyone ambles out the door. They’re all wearing jeans and Stetsons and sh*t-kicker boots, and all the guys stop for a moment on the steps, reach into the back pocket and pull out a can of Copenhagen, and stuff their lower lip with a big wad of chaw.

    It just wasn’t something you’d ever see over on my side of the Cascades.

  17. says

    I have not yet seen the film, but was disappointed that it failed to garner the big prize. I looked forward to watching the religious right completely lose its collective mind in an orgy of self-righteous anti-Hollywood gay bashing. They’re nuts, but I find them immensely entertaining when they’re motivated to find their most overwrought and strident inner selves.

  18. JayAckroyd says

    There was a great review in the NYRoB of the movie. The reviewer pointed out that the movie was not about star-crossed lovers (as the ad campaign and most reviews indicated). It was about the closet, and how the closet can destroy people’s lives. I saw the movie twice. It’s actually better the second time, because not having to worry about the very slowly developing plot, you can focus on the characters and on the nuances of the film.

    My favorite nuance, one I didn’t notice on first viewing [SPOILER ALERT] is when Ennis discovers his “lost” shirt in Jack’s boyhood closet(!) on a hanger inside Jack’s denim shirt–a remembrance from that first summer on Brokeback–he takes the shirts home. In the closing scene, when Ennis folds his daughter’s forgotten sweater and goes to put it in his own closet, you see the shirts, bloodstained on the cuffs, hanging from the closet door. Except now his shirt is on the outside, and Jack’s denim shirt is underneath, embraced by Ennis’s shirt.

    The collection of stories by Annie Proulx that this story is taken from is really quite good. Close Range: Wyoming Stories is the title.

  19. Michael Wells says

    Chris: “I looked forward to watching the religious right completely lose its collective mind in an orgy of self-righteous anti-Hollywood gay bashing.” That was in full swing well before the film was even released; see Mike’s 12:46 a.m. comment above, which accords with what I’ve noticed. Gotta love the contests on to see who can come up with the worst vulgar, middle school-level pun on the title.

    I sampled the right-wing blogosphere’s reaction to “Brokeback” the day after I saw the movie, and for some reason I was stunned. I never learn, I guess. I’d expected plenty of tut-tutting disapproval, generalizations by people who hadn’t seen it and never would, and the occasional gay-bashing comment, but not the general level of shrieking irrationality and the open obsession with sex and scatology.

    I barely even saw comments along the lines of, “so what if it’s a well-made, artful piece of work? – that only makes its message more insidious,” which used to be the standard conservative line with disapproved films, and is at least an intellectually consistent and logically defensible position. Instead, I saw a wide consensus that this movie they hadn’t seen was basically pornography (a word actually used several times) laced with propaganda, and that even the liberal media hyping the movie and giving it glowing reviews knew this and were just lying to further the homosexual agenda. It was claimed more than once that there was no way any straight viewer could find anything to relate to in such a story, usually followed by predictions of a quick box office death. These people honestly seem to believe that the vast majority of the population between the East and West coasts feels the same visceral loathing and fear of gays that they do (which I think is clearly not the case anymore).

    As someone whose first love is the flickers, not science and politics (despite my hanging out here), I was amused and perversely impressed by the way the paranoid fantasies of the Freepers and their ilk fit into the gaps left by their ignorance of the film industry. For example: The media made much of the enormous “per-screen average” earned by the movie in its first weekend, when it went into limited release in big cities as per standard practice for modestly budgeted “indies” of this type. This per-screen average is one standard way for the media (and the film distributor)to gauge the potential audience for a “niche” film in advance of wider distribution. To the homophobes, though, this was another clear example of the liberal media cherry-picking and twisting facts to create a fiction that this movie had wider appeal and was earning greater success than it actually did. The blend of indignation and gloating displayed by these people, thinking that they’d caught the media in some underhanded but hamfisted trick, was priceless.

  20. says

    I’ve seen a little of the right-wing lunacy over the movie. I had the opposite reaction: the same-sex nature of the relationship was completely irrelevant to me, and I didn’t expect to be titillated or repelled by it in the slightest. I don’t watch movies with the notion that because the actors on the screen are romancing one another, that I am somehow participating in whatever they’re doing, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Heath Ledger or Scarlett Johanssen getting kissed. Instead, I was afraid it would be a boring, talky boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy-gets-boy cliche.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a thoughtful movie with gorgeous cinematography to get me through any boring parts.

    I think those freepers would be even more scandalized about a movie that made them think than one that portrayed homosexuality in a less than demonic fashion.

  21. LJ says

    Well, in Eastern Oregon (my home territory) one can occasionally run across a cattle drive. Horses and all. But anyone in the ranching world usually has multiple occupations, as some have pointed out above.

    Yakima is Central WA, just as Bend is Central Oregon. Dusty and Walla Walla, and even Spokane, for example, are in eastern WA.

  22. John C. Randolph says

    Oh come on, now. The Sound of Music was a fine film for its time. Nazis, a defrocked nun, suspense, and escape! What else would you want from a 1960s musical?


  23. beccarii says

    I spent about one and a half years in eastern Kansas as a post-doc at K-State (aka Kansas State University). The geographical center of the contintental United States is not located within Lebanon, Kansas, even though that’s the nearest community. I’ve visited the geographical center a number of times (I took nearly all of my visitors there when I lived in Kansas) – I’ve long had an interest in geographically interesting spots.

    The spot was marked by a truncated obelisk, upon which a number of my guests from that time have stood. Nearby was an abandoned motel. I could say, at this point:

    Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    …and, well, I just did, as a quotation. The soil there wasn’t particularly sandy, and I never found a shattered visage starting up at me; in addition, this thread is not directly concerned with current political items…on the other hand, it could be argued that the poem contains certain points that are currently applicable.

    On a more positive note, the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas are beautiful both from scenic and biological points of view. South Dakota is beautiful, as well, but that’s another topic.