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Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Brokeback Mountain

Merton A. Shill, LLM, Ph.D.

This movie has been widely touted as a “breakthrough” piece because of its frank portrayal of the love between two men, a story of “forbidden love” that has universal ramifications, and so on. But what kind of love and why? This is not a movie primarily about homosexuality, in my view. What about the recent study in The Annals of Medicine which showed that 10% of a sample of men in NYC who described themselves as “straight” had had only other men as sexual partners and never a woman. Are these men homosexuals? Cinematically the film creates wonderfully well the boozy, denim, cigarette-sucking, bronco-busting, beer-guzzling, spit-laced axis of manhood. It tells us these are real men...and that they have sex with each other--these men, yes they do.

Jack Twist is a disinherited son--emotionally disinherited, alienated from the legacy of having had a loving father, lonely when he is drunk, lonely when he is with his wife, lonely when he is with Ennis. Lonely? No, hungry, always hungry. Ennis, whose parents “ran themselves off,”as he poignantly says, finds it painful just to inhabit his skin. They do have women in their lives, and even children, but the old hunger persists-- for four years after the initial encounter. Jack’s gaudy bauble of a wife can’t reach his heart; Ennis’ wife is too motherly (towards the children). She doesn’t see his pain and wants him just to be a good husband and father. But he can’t, because he is empty and needs someone to notice and fill him up. She can’t.

Jack's and Ennis’ relationship comes as a surprise to them, more so to us--and perhaps a shock--even though we should have been prepared for it by their gamboling with each other in the grass in their lion-cub wrestling...as if they are reaching blindly for something and then suddenly discover each other almost by accident, the impromptu virgin sex in the tent, initiated by Jack. It seems that Jack has gone this way before and is the seducer.

The mise en scène in “Brokeback Mountain” is the landscape of their lonely lives and throws each into the other’s arms protectively, defensively. And, as you may know, there is no such place in Wyoming: it exists only to show their inner desolation. Romulus and Remus orphaned in the woods to die. There is no wolf-mother. The solitary sheep station is the solitary watch of their own lives. There is a wolf--a coyote--but it is the predator of their childhoods who robbed them of their precious stock. Looking, yearning, always looking and yearning.

They numb themselves with alcohol and in this regressive state of mind, induce a loss of boundaries and then sexualize the fusion. This is the balm against loss, loneliness, pointlessness, dead-endness.

The relationship between Jack and Ennis is the result of a desperate search for closeness to a person who is loving and giving. It has the feeling of a maternal longing. Ennis’ parents effectively abandoned him. We never hear about Jack’s mother. His narcissistic wife feeds on her father’s attention, especially after she produces his clone, rather than being an emotional partner to Jack. But then she had just harvested him from the crop of studs in a bar one night. When he is separated from Ennis, he seeks solace in a hired relationship in Mexico.

This film raises the complex issue of object choice vs. gender orientation. These men, like the men in The Annals of Medicine study, seem to prefer male partners, even though as Ennis pointedly tells Jack, who agrees, “I ain’t no queer.” These men however resemble somewhat more the men who are in the military, in prison or boarding school or even the priesthood on occasion, and who, in the absence of women, seek out men as an object of erotic interest. When women are once more available, they then choose them. However, both men here had women available, but they chose each other. I suggest that they found a maternal quality in each other which was lacking in their wives and this was the hunger that could not be denied. So: were these men homosexual? Bisexual? It depends on whether you look merely at their object choice and sexual behavior or whether you look at their motivation. I suggest that this film is about maternal deprivation which is re-created by each in his relationship with his wife, and so the insatiable longing builds. Both characters in search of that fantasied loving mother which they were both denied and finding it in someone of the same sex. Perhaps this is not accidental. Could they risk a woman again?

But back to sexuality. What kind? The research literature differentiates between three aspects of a person's sexuality: gender identity, sexual orientation and sex role preference. Gender identity refers to the subjective sense of maleness or femaleness which the person feels and identifies as his/her core identity in terms of maleness or femaleness. Sexual/gender orientation refers to the choice of object or person of erotic interest who is chosen as a sexual partner. Sex role preference is usually understood as referring to those socially-designated behaviors, attitudes or roles which are thought to characterize one sex or the other.

Jack and Ennis are clearly male in their gender identity and sex role preference. What about their choice of love object? Freud began early in his career to consider this in relation to bisexuality, the suggestion apparently coming from Fliess, to whom he writes on August 1, 1899: “…[B]isexuality! You are certainly right about it. I am accustoming myself to regarding every sexual act as a process in which four individuals are involved” (Masson, 1985, p. 365). Later, in The Ego and the Id, Freud (1923) says: “…one gets an impression that the simple Oedipus complex is by no means its commonest form, but rather represents a simplification.... Closer study usually discloses the more complete Oedipus complex, which is twofold, positive and negative, and is due to the bisexuality originally present in children: that is to say, a boy has not merely an ambivalent attitude towards his father and an affectionate object-choice towards his mother, but at the same time he also behaves like a girl and displays an affectionate feminine attitude towards his father and a corresponding jealousy and hostility towards his mother… At the dissolution of the Oedipus complex the four trends of which it consists will group themselves in such a way as to produce a father-identification and a mother–identification.… [T]he relative intensity of the two identifications in any individual will reflect the preponderance in him of one or other of the two sexual dispositions” (SE, XIX, 33-34).

The “relative tendency of the two dispositions”--bisexuality--referred to by Freud is influenced in part by deprivation, trauma and loss. The impact of these factors can determine either gender identity or sexual orientation or both. I suggest that in this film we see the distortion of oedipal solutions due primarily to maternal deprivation. The result is the “relative tendency” as Freud calls it, to choose the same sex object--the father of the negative oedipal configuration--in identification with the lost object, i.e., the mother. Here an identification replaces, stands for, an object attachment to the mother. Simultaneously, this object preference compensates for the lost maternal object, much in the way Freud suggests that the first post-oedipal object choice of the girl who has not resolved her dependency on her mother is often a man who resembles that mother. Clinically, we see this quite often in women. In this film, it is the peremptory, desperate, driven quality of the relationship which betrays the presence of maternal longings. Freud did not spell out the impact of preoedipal experience nor the loss of a parent as a developmental interference in the resolution of the Oedipus Complex due to trauma or loss. This film suggests one such outcome, from among many: due to bisexuality, i.e., from the four individuals involved in these sexual acts, the mother and father of both the positive and negative aspects of the oedipal situation, the predominant erotic object in traumatic loss can be the negative oedipal father who was the choice of the lost and longed-for mother, i.e., through an identification with her erotic object choice. The choice of erotic object does not influence gender identity but influences choice of the sex partner in a relationship which substitutes and compensates for a lost/unsatisfactory earlier one with the mother.

Brokeback Mountain is certainly about love, but I suggest it shows us the persistence of that love that will cause people to flaunt convention and opprobrium in their quest for an idealized, longed-for relationship of early childhood from the loss of which they never recovered.

Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the Id. SE, 19, 3-66.

Masson, J.M. (1985). The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Cambridge: Belknap.