Square Zero

Brokeback, Indeed

Posted by Eric (February 15, 2006 at 6:17 pm)

Manuel and HarveyThis past Sunday, the family watched Captains Courageous, the classic movie starring Spencer Tracy as the Portuguese fisherman Manuel Fidello, who takes the outrageous brat Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) under his wing after fishing him out of the sea when he fell overboard on a cruise with his tycoon father. It’s a film about what it means to be a man—a film that could scarcely be made today, when we’ve lost that meaning. (Witness Brokeback Mountain.)

Before young Harvey winds up on the fishing ship We’re Here, where he must remain for a three-month fishing voyage, we see him attempting to manipulate school fellows, leverage his father’s benificence to his private school for his own aggrandizement, and spread lies about a teachers who refused a bribe. He’s eventually expelled, which leads to his joining his father on the cruise. He falls overboard trying to avoid being seen throwing up after downing six ice cream sodas to show off in front of two other boys.

What It Means To Be a Man

Long story short, Manuel (literally, “God Is with Us”; his last name means “Faithful”) and the other fishermen on the We’re Here (including Lionel Barrymore as Captain Disko and Mickey Rooney as Disko’s son Dan) teach Harvey to get over himself and be a man. He learns the value of hard work, honesty, friendship and faith.

Manuel’s account of his own father (as well as the example of Disko and Dan) reveals what a father-son relationship ought to be, in contrast to the relationship Harvey has with his own father. The film also deals with with male friendship both between men and boys, the mentoring of boys by men, and masculine faith.

I was particularly struck by how the film dealt with male touching—something that inevitably stands out in the wake of the homosexual movement. For example, Harvey’s father touches the school’s headmaster firmly on the arm like it’s the most natural thing in the world. What’s more, Harvey’s teacher puts his arm around Harvey’s shoulder in a way that would surely cause a major scandal today—but which again seems perfectly natural in 1937.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of Harvey’s school fellows punches him in the nose when he’s being particularly obnoxious. He doesn’t get in any trouble for it. In fact, the headmaster tells Harvey’s father that “It was a blow which I regret to say any one of the other 231 boys in the school would have been happy to deliver.”

Our Tainted Lenses

Such images are no longer possible today, when we must look at all things masculine through the dual lenses of homoeroticism and misandry. A teacher touching a male student affectionately becomes a sexual overture; the boy who punches another student is maladjusted one way or another—either he’s a bully, or he’s ADHD, or he’s an introvert who’s finally had enough, or in some other way decisively not a well-adjusted boy who is dealing out precisely the treatment called for under the circumstances.

The film really brought home to me how far we’ve lost any sense of what it means to be a man—to be a son, a father, a friend, a mentor, an apprentice, a man of faith. And it got me thinking about to what degree all male friendship has been tainted by the rise of homosexuality.

We’re told again and again that what people do “in the privacy of their bedrooms” has no effect on anybody else. Of course, there isn’t anything very private about it when a major motion picture depicts these bedroom (or cowboy tent) activities in graphic detail. The truth is that the culture phenomenon of homosexuality has had a profound effect on all men, and male friendship in particular has suffered.

Friendship Between Men Is Threatened

A couple of months ago, I went to a Bears game with a friend. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but at one point he muttered that I shouldn’t do X or Y—light his cigarette or something, I don’t remember what it was—for “people might think we’re gay.” His remark was particularly ironic given that between the two of us we’ve got fourteen kids (seven each); you could be gay and have maybe one or two kids in a “marriage of convenience”—but no way seven.

But there it is, in a small way, the spectre of homosexuality haunting our friendship. The troubling thing is that men need intimacy with other men—we need it desperately. But all intimacy is being collapsed down into sexual intimacy today. Men feel this discomfort about being intimate with other men. It isn’t so much a conscious concern about “being thought gay” as it is a sort of unconscience sense that “gayness” is just out there. The normal masculine rolls have been forgotten; the walls have all been thrown down and the perfume of homosexuality is always there, even faintly, in the air.

For these relationships are not as robust as we’d like to think. Marriage really is threatened by the notion that two men or two women can marry because marriage really is that fragile. The heroic effort to unite masculinity and femininity, which are fundamentally complementary and yet deeply in conflict in this fallen world, is seriously harmed by the notion that it’s just as good to surrender that effort and couple with a member of the same sex; that there’s nothing especially privileged about the marrying of two beings so basically different from each other, a man and a woman.

Likewise, friendship between men is threatened by a culture that conceives of sexual intimacy between men as not only morally acceptable but even a kind of ideal. In truth, sexual activity drives a wedge between men, as David Morrison has described in Beyond Gay. It is the very contrary of intimacy to attempt sexual intercourse with someone possessing the same genitals as yourself; for you are not really taking into account the reality of the other person whose body, quite literally, does not “go together” with your own.

This is the point that I think needs to be made—that homosexuality is not merely a private matter, but something that deeply affects the entire culture. It has undermined the meaning of intimacy, of marriage, even of friendship between men. Most unfortunately, many of us may never know what that friendship might have meant for us.

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15 Responses to “Brokeback, Indeed”

  1. KaleJ says:

    Well said. Several men in our parish are struggling to form that bond that should be normal. We have a weekly basketball night followed by libations. I truly enjoy our theology on tap.

    Comment posted February 15th, 2006 at 8:14 pm
  2. Kenneth Brahmer says:

    I was nodding in agreement until you brought in homosexuality. Captains Courageous could have easily been written with any mixture of genders. The story depicts a child learning the values of respect for others, respect for one’s self and acceptingresponsibility for one’s own actions. The story depicts the importance of adults (not just parents) in teaching youth the expectations of adulthood. The intimacy issue might best be addressed as one of a relationship with a mentor and discovery.

    Yes, there is same gender touching. But the story would be just as effective if it was between any mixture of genders. It’s not just a film about what it means to be a man—but a film that defines values required for growth into adulthood.

    I also have a different slant on your statement, “It’s a film about what it means to be a man—a film that could scarcely be made today, when we’ve lost that meaning. ” If we have lost such meaning, it is not because a film can’t be made to portray it.

    It is because adults DON’T portray it in everyday life in such a manner that children witness it. Children view the starry life of misbehaving rock stars, overpaid athletes, sexually posing actors and disrespectful adults as the norm…their parents, and the adults they see each day, are not seen as the real heroes to be emulated. BUT the character played by Spenser Tracey was just such a simple man who embodied what the youngster needed to learn. Good films can be made and have been…you watched one with your family (and therein I think you brought to your children a wonderful lesson). Our literature, our films and other art forms portray a view of life…and if we don’t like what we see or read…take a look in the mirror. And while I’m at it, the significance of Rudyard Kipling’s choice in 1897, of a plain and simple fisherman in the role of mentor is certainly not lost on me.

    You were “particularly struck by how the film dealth with male touching.” But I see it as the touch between humans regardless of gender. The very fact that you viewed a male touching a male as an issue, suggests you are homophobic. Had it been an older woman touching a young boy, would not the same concern for appropriate relationships and intimacy been as important?

    Take gender out of it. Let’s regain a sense of what it means to be an adult in the guidance of all children. Let’s regain a sense of perspective that isn’t biased with sex. What it means to be a man is not different than what it means to be a woman. In fact, we may have confused our youth in giving them adult rights and sexual perspectives before they are ready to assume them. Maybe, too many of sufficient age to be adults are behaving like children who have not learned what young Harvey Cheyne learned at age twelve.

    Your point “that homosexuality is not merely a private matter, but something that deeply affects the entire culture” is a viable concern. My point is that it is a failure to be adults in teaching our children that has undermined the meaning of intimacy, of marriage, and even of friendship. We fail to behave as Manuel in respect to Harvey…not necessarily as a man to a boy.

    But then I could be wrong. It’s good to ponder and try to improve.

    Comment posted February 16th, 2006 at 4:04 am
  3. Eric says:

    Kenneth—Thanks for the comments. First, I want to let you know that your remarks came through with funky line breaks. I tried to fix these, but I hope I didn’t put paragraph breaks in the wrong places.

    You say, “Captains Courageous could have easily been written with any mixture of genders.”

    While it is true that a film could have been made using women in some (or all) of the roles played by men, and that film could have been titled Captains Courageous, it is not true that it would have been very much the same film.

    It is also true that the film deals with issues that apply to all human relationships, not just those between males. Clearly honesty, fidelity, duty and compassion are relevant to all human relationships. Yet, the film quite deliberately approaches these issues particularly as they apply to relationships between men, especially fathers and sons.

    Frankly, I don’t know how one can deny this. The film deals with no less than four different father/son relationsihps—Manuel and his father, Harvey and his father, Manuel as proxy-father to Harvey and, to a lesser extent young Dan and his father Captain Disko.

    These are not just generic “parent-child” relationsihps. If they were meant to be, the film would have cued us with something other than exclusively fathers and sons. Moreover, there is really no such thing as a generic “parent-child” relationship. Nobody feels anything warm or comforting about the word “parent”; but nobody hears the word “mother” or “father” without feeling something deeply personal.

    I do not know my parents as “Parent A who happens to be female and therefore is denominated ‘Mother'” and “Parent B who happens to be male and therefore is denominated ‘Father’.” Even if there may be qualities they share as parents, even these are not expressed through the lens of their respective femininity and masculinity, motherhood and fatherhood.

    You say, “The very fact that you viewed a male touching a male as an issue, suggests you are homophobic.”

    Kenneth, I do not know that that word “homophobic” means. It literally means “fear of homosexuals.” I don’t “fear” homosexuals, nor do I fear homosexuality itself, though I am deeply concerned about it; it might even be fair to say that I have a rational fear over what homosexuality is doing to our culture.

    But I don’t know how it would be possible to see the way that men touch each other in this film, paricularly grown men touching boys, without recognizing something strikingly different from what is considered acceptible in our time. What was once considered—no, not even “considered” but just taken as normal, would now be cause for a teacher to reprimanded if not fired.

    You also say, “What it means to be a man is not different than what it means to be a woman.”

    I don’t know what to make of this statement. Are you really trying to say what you literally say here, that there is no essential difference between men and women? Or are you merely saying that there is an essential question of what it means to be a person, which men and women share, even if they also deal with other issues particular to their sex?

    If you mean the former, I hardly know how to respond. That men and women are different, deal with different issues, have different kinds of relationships, and even deal with the same issues and same relationships differently—this seems to me self-evident, as well as the common experience of nearly everyone and a fact plainly demonstrated by research.

    I hope that you meant the latter, but to that I will say again that it’s hard to see how a film peopled almost entirely with men and boys can be construed to deal generically with “human” problems and not those particular to males.

    You surmise: “[W]e may have confused our youth in giving them adult rights and sexual perspectives before they are ready to assume them.”

    When you teach a child to say “Mommy” and “Daddy,” you have given the first lesson in sex ed. There are kinds of people who become mommies and kinds of people who become daddies. That’s an essential sexual lesson—though it is not a genital one.

    Comment posted February 16th, 2006 at 7:51 pm
  4. tom says:

    My god you’re so worried that someone might think your gay

    Hilarious – don’t light my cigarette because someone might think we’re gay.

    Are you really sure he wasn’t trying to kiss you. No – are you really sure?

    Comment posted February 17th, 2006 at 9:07 am
  5. tom says:

    You couldn’t possibly be gay because you have 7 children – wow the lengths some people will go to to hide. It’s a great cover

    I think you protest to much

    Comment posted February 17th, 2006 at 9:08 am
  6. April says:


    I think Tom’s right; we’ve been having all these children to hide your secret identity. Now that he’s found you out, what should we do with the kids?

    Actually, Tom’s comment perfectly illustrates your comments about how the culture of homosexuality has tainted authentic friendship between men. Thankfully, I don’t think it’s as much of an issue with women, though. Two women out together don’t attract much attention unless they really try.

    Of course, the more you try to “prove” you’re not homosexual, the more Tom and those of like mind will use the fact that you even bring it up as proof that you are. It’s a no win situation.

    Comment posted February 17th, 2006 at 10:04 am
  7. Eric says:

    Tom says, “My god you’re so worried that someone might think your gay.”

    Uh, actually it was my buddy that made that comment, not me. If anything, I wasn’t worried enough about being “thought gay,” if we’re going to take his remark far more seriously than it was really meant.

    Comment posted February 17th, 2006 at 1:17 pm
  8. Mary Poppins NOT (Renee) says:

    Aren’t you glad you started blogging again? It is just one of the many places today that a perfectly nuanced discussion can degenerate into insults. Welcome back!

    Comment posted February 18th, 2006 at 12:25 am
  9. John says:

    As the “other man” I think I’ve now earned the right to make a comment in my own defence about being homophobic. Would that I could let Eric light my cigarette in public without others, whether gay or not, thinking that I might be gay. I do not want to perpetuate, in way what-so-ever, the notion that same gender “sexual” relations are somehow being approved by me publically. It is clearly not a moral problem to go out with another man, to embrace him (just a hug I mean), to light his cigarette, to take a walk in a park, to sing a duet with him or do many other essentially innocent activities.

    I could easily do this in a society that viewed the purpose of male and female genitals as being for generation, which should be clearly implied by the very name “genital”. Our society has divorced the true meaning of “genital” from those body parts to which they refer. In my opinion this is not really a result of some master homosexual plot, but rather it is the result firstly of heterosexual people deciding that their genitals are for “fun” rather than for generation. This societal decision is embodied first off in the use of “birth control”. The very idea of birth control presupposes that the genitals are solely (or at least primarily) for the gratification of the individual, and that there are no responsibilities associated with there use.

    So when I am out with another male, my fear is that many people will have this view of sexual activity, and that seeing me having some sort of intimacy (an innocent intimacy I mean) with another man, that they will easily jump to the conclusion that I am gay. Furthermore, people who are using birth control will actually WANT to “see” us as gay, as it somewhat exonerates or gives tacit approval of their own abuse of even heterosexual sex, because it somehow gives “evidence” that genitals are just for pleasure. Since, cleary, in a same sex relationship procreation cannot happen, and some people actually are “gay” (“hey I saw one once”), therefore genitals MUST primarily be for fun and not for generation. Therefore these heterosexual people are “OK” in their use of birth control.

    I will not go into how I think this conclusion is essentially connected with a misunderstanding of “natural”, “unnatural”, and “fallen nature”.

    It is enough for now to conclude that because of birth control in our society, I have to be careful not to “appear” gay. And Eric is very right about the great loss that is incurred by the loss of innocent male intimacy.

    Heterosexual males now pay a heavy price of isolation because of birth control and a subsequent “approval” of homosexuality to ease their own consciences.

    What I hate is that I have to the price in isolation for OTHER men’s desire to abuse sex!

    Comment posted February 22nd, 2006 at 3:43 pm
  10. Pete says:

    Hello, Eric.

    Charity is the best guide for undertaking any assessment of society as a whole. Your stance on this matter has me on the verge of invoking Godwin. To an untrained ear, it might sound like you are saying men can’t be men no more on account of them queers.

    The good old days never were. There has always been the possibility that public affection between males might raise suspicions of homosexuality. The difference between today and 40 years ago is that such suspicions carry with them much less danger of physical violence.

    And, dude, smoking is SO gay.

    Yours with manly affection,

    Comment posted February 22nd, 2006 at 11:38 pm
  11. Eric says:

    Pete says, “Charity is the best guide . . .”

    Pete, are you suggesting that I’m not being charitable? I’ve re-read my entry, and I don’t see anything uncharitable about it, unless to question the wholesomeness of homosexuality is itself uncharitable.

    But that right there shows how polluted the waters have become. We can scarcely even discuss what I am calling the “phenomenon of homosexuality,” or what you might also call “cultural homosexuality—the significantly larger share of our socio-cultural consciousness that homosexuality has assumed in the last four decades, as well as its much broader acceptance, especially by the cultural elites.

    Is it unreasonable to suggest that this social phenomenon might have an impact on many heterosexual men and their relationships? I don’t see how it couldn’t. And it seems to me there is a negative side to that impact (it might even be entirely negative, but I haven’t gone so far as to say that).

    This position has yeilded the predictable responses. I’m a homophobe. I’m being uncharitable. I’m secretly gay. And this one:

    “The good old days never were.”

    Maybe not, but it’s also true that there really has been a dramatic social change over the past several decades (take it back as far as you want—the sixties, the twenties). Can’t we acknowlege that without being accused of a naive nostalgia for the past?

    Can’t we say we’ve lost something along the way, something it might be worth trying to retrieve, without being accused of wanting to “turn back the clock”?

    I don’t want to go back to 1937, but if “the good old days never were,” it’s also true that the good old days never are. That is to say, 2006 can lay no greater claim to being the golden age than can 1937.

    If a film like Captains Courageous can be accused of idealism, so too can Brokeback Mountain. The question is, what ideals are being invoked?

    I’ve already commented on the worthy ideals I find in Captains Courageous. But what are the ideals of Brokeback Mountain? Is its account of homosexuality authentic? How about its account of marriage?

    The point is, what ideal of masculinity are we striving for? Which brings me around to this comment of yours:

    “To an untrained ear, it might sound like you are saying men can’t be men no more on account of them queers.”

    If you’re saying I haven’t made my point very well, fair enough. I admit these are difficult matters to write about, and I’m trying to get my head around them even as I type. But it seems to me that’s all part of the whole blogging thing.

    I’m not really trying to say that men can’t be men anymore—though to a large extent they aren’t. Nor that the all the blame for men’s failure to be men goes to homosexuals or homosexuality. There are many other factors—John mentions contraception. You’d have to throw abortion and pornography in there too, and of course the impact of radical feminism.

    What I am saying is that we have no clear notion of what it means to be a man, and that our culture’s acceptance (if we can call it that) of homosexuality has played a part in that. Seeing Captains Courageous, the product of a different time, when that meaning was clearer to people, brought home to me how unclear it is to us.

    Comment posted February 23rd, 2006 at 11:32 am
  12. Jorge says:

    Don’t you think Brokeback Mountain was as much about the corrosive effects of repression (e.g., on families) as it was about the two main characters?

    And, yeah, you seem really worried that someone is really worried about being thought gay. And that’s bad because you subscribe to a medieval religion?

    Comment posted March 7th, 2006 at 8:14 pm
  13. Eric says:

    Jorge writes: “And that’s bad because you subscribe to a medieval religion?”

    No, I subscribe to an ancient religion that was already established centuries before the medieval period and whose civilizing influence on the barbarians who despoiled the ancient world saved Western Civilization.

    Comment posted March 8th, 2006 at 9:53 am
  14. Ima Sogay says:

    Get a life.

    I personally think that you and “John” (the name under which your partner chooses identified himself) have a Brokeback thing going on. It is so obvious to me that you are both hiding in the closet scratching an unmentionable itch. Perhaps that is not so bad provided that the closet and the itch are mutually shared.

    Comment posted May 13th, 2006 at 7:52 pm
  15. Jimbo says:

    I think a lot of things in society crowd around men making us unsure of ourselves. From appearing “gay” (meaning weak or effete – worthy of exploitation and bullying) to appearing “over-affectionate” with children for fear of pedophilia. Men and women, of all sexual orientations, are both under enormous pressure to adhere to social norms in order to deflect fear and loathing.

    Homophobia is not just an irrational fear of homosexuals – it is also the irrational fear of ANY form of intimacy between people of like gender. We must take into account that same-sex intimacy betweens females is tolerated only because it reflects the faux-passive nature of female sexuality; females are considered unable to be sexual predators. It’s a hangover from the old “lie back and think of England” days of female sexuality. I think Mrs Robinson would have a thing or two to say about that.

    Homophobia betweens heterosexual males is indeed a sad thing and I can see how you can draw a line between the emergence of gay culture and the changes in society around you but I would postulate that those people who would persecute you for appearing “gay” these days would have done it in a more covert manner such as whispering to their friends, giving you a “dirty look” or “outing” you to the larger community – especially the church community.

    Maybe what we need to focus on there days is not the rise of gay culture but the damage our sexual (Sex sells etc…) culture does to non-sexual relationships such as yours and your friend.
    Those who see you as gay or straight are sexualizing you. They deny your humanity and put you in a mental porn movie of their own design. They see not the man and only the “potential homo”; they create a “boyfriend” for you and imagine you and he as lovers. The rise of gay culture didn’t create this. Sexual competition between males create it. To be able to write off a competitor as “gay” removes him as a threat and sets him apart from the “race”.

    The sexualization of people has been around since the beginning of time. We are beginning to see the damage done by the sexualization of children in society – from hip new fashions that push a young girl’s self-image beyond their chronological years to the more outright and overt child porn.

    Comment posted August 5th, 2006 at 5:56 am