Was the Western genre “queer” before “Brokeback Mountain”?

The Western has long been an important genre for exhibiting repressed homosexuality. As Brokeback Mountain (2005) acknowledges and the montage Jon Stewart unveiled at the 2005 Academy Awards outs, getting a bunch of tough, emotionally challenged men together is bound to result in some hanky panky, however codified.

In more sophisticated terms, Steve Neale argues in 1983’s “Masculinity as Spectacle” that masculine film genres are “founded upon a repressed homosexual voyeurism.” Because heteronormativity and patriarchal norms mean the male body cannot be marked explicitly as the erotic object of another male’s gaze, the erotic content of such a look must be repressed and explained by a more socially normative motivation.

In the Western in particular, there is significant focus on intense rivalries between men, fetishization of phallic weaponry, and what I would call “intimate” violence (two men slugging each other and rolling around in the dirt). Neale discusses how such elements encourage male spectators to adopt an erotic gaze usually reserved for viewing female characters. Though the men are not passive, as in the prototypical Hollywood female sex object, the activity of men in Westerns is stylized to be watched, and the line between violent display and sexual display is often thin.

While Brokeback Mountain (2005) uses this insight in its overt depictions of homosexual intimacy as a sometimes-violent, emotionally complex, and difficult subject, other films and television programs, past and present, offer more typical, repressed representations of homoeroticism that are arguably part of the Western’s core.

To take just one classic example, we might consider the relationship between Marshal Wil Kane (Gary Cooper) and his deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), in High Noon (1952). The animosity between the men is explained directly by Kane’s decision not to recommend Pell for promotion to Marshal as he stepped down from his position to marry his Quaker bride (Grace Kelly). Rejection also explains why Pell might choose to take as his lover Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), Kane’s former paramour. The petulant intensity of Pell’s reactions (that eventually drive Ramirez to end their relationship, calling him a “boy”—while Kane is a “man”) suggests it is more than vengeance or one-upmanship that drives the rejected deputy.

The fight scene in the barn between Pell and Kane illustrates the kind of intimate violence that encourages a homoerotic gaze. Once Pell, who formerly refused to help him defeat returning villain Frank Miller, truly sees the danger facing Kane, he urges the Marshal to saddle up and leave town rather than risk his life. His wife has already ostensibly left him; Ramirez argues she would if he were (or ever had been) her man; and now Pell takes up the role the two women left open. Kane rejects Pell’s suggestion, and the two eventually end up in a fist fight that halts the film’s forward motion concerning the central plot of the threat of the Miller brothers to the town’s safety and stability. To end the scene, a stumbling Kane, after having knocked Pell out, curiously chooses to dump a bucket of water over his head before he leaves. The moment is highly suggestive of ejaculation.

In the twenty-first century, we can explore homoerotic suggestiveness in the relationship between villain/anti-hero Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Oliphant) of Deadwood (2004-2006). Unlike the traditional Western, we might call this HBO series a meta-Western, invigorating the Hollywood tradition by exaggerating certain standard elements of the genre. Deadwood offers depictions of omnipresent muck, glorification of foul language of a sexual nature (especially “fuck,” “cocksucker,” and “cunt”), depictions of women-as-chattel, and unremitting graphic violence. The series does not, by contrast, opt to comment on other tropes, such as the predominance of whites and heteronormativity. Racism against Asians and Native Americans/Indians we do see, but Indian characters and such commonplace realities of the Old West as African American cowboys and prospectors are nigh invisible. Because it relies more on exaggeration than critique, repressed homosexuality abounds.

As a viewer, deciding whether the gay overtones in the relationship between Swearengen and Bullock are intentional is no simple task. We may posit that the writers are aware of the homoeroticism of the Western and are enjoying it, particularly in the heavy-handed swagger of hyper-hetero Bullock. But, in the first episode of the second season when Swearengen calls out Bullock for his dalliance with the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), the two end up stripping (admittedly, Bullock just takes off his gun and badge), wrestling, and punching until they fall off the balcony and land in the mud, one atop the other, exhausted. It’s difficult not to see the queerness here. We can also see repressed homoeroticism in the sidekick hero worship of Sol Star (John Hawkes) for Bullock, but it is of a more mundane sort than the hero-villain intimacy of the “hatred” between Bullock and Swearengen.

In light of these examples, to the general question of queerness and the Western, I second Steve Neale’s assertion that the hypermasculine and heteronormative tendencies of the genre serve to mask (just barely, sometimes) queer desire.