For many years after “Brokeback Mountain” was released in 2005, the lesbian community asked, “Where’s our ‘Brokeback Mountain’?” When “Carol” debuted in 2015, ten years later, it seemed like the lesbian community had finally received its answer. But did we? Critics loved the film (it was chosen as the best LGBT film of all time by over 100 film critics and directors in a British Film Institute poll and one source described it as the “year’s most devastatingly romantic film”), as did the majority of queer female viewers. When “Carol” was “snubbed” at the Oscars—“Brokeback Mountain” won three Oscars—its supporters decried the snub as proof of homophobia and/or misogyny among the Academy voters. Still, a minority of queer women, as evidenced at least anecdotally by the comments section of our review of the movie, did not view it as the lesbian equivalent of “Brokeback Mountain.”
To be clear, the criteria for the comparison between the two movies is not whether “Carol” was overall “good” or “bad” or whether “Brokeback Mountain” was good or bad, which would at best be a very subjective call based on personal opinion. (Undeniably, there are arguments to be made for why “Carol” is a fantastic movie and probably some arguments for areas where it could have benefitted from improvement. Unlike the vast majority of queer women who consider it the best lesbian movie ever made, for example, I personally found it to be overwrought, much of the plot illogical—a problem of the source material, not the film, I assume—and the acting frustrating. I spent half the movie thinking that Cate Blanchett was going to eat Rooney Mara (it’s a thin line between looking seductive and enamored and looking like a snake eyeing a rat in a cage) and the other half wondering why an elegant, rich, older woman was interested in a girl-child who couldn’t order off a menu without feeling overwhelmed. And for the record, “sexy lesbian road trip” is not how I would have chosen to solve the increasing acrimony in my divorce fueled by my relationship with my new lover.) Instead, the criteria used here is whether the two have generally similar messages and themes. And based on that criteria, the answer is probably no, the two movies cannot be seen as mirror images.
Therese, you look particularly delicious today.
“Carol” and “Brokeback Mountain” have more differences than similarities. Both challenge conventional stereotypes: manly cowboys can be gay, and high society women with children can be lesbian. Both demonstrate how some LGBT individuals must make sacrifices to heterosexual society because of their sexual orientation. But that’s where most of the similarities end.
The source of conflict, the driver of the narrative, is very different in the two movies: whereas in “Carol” the centrifugal force driving Carol Aird and Therese Belivet apart is Carol’s jealous and desperate husband Harge, in “Brokeback Mountain” it’s internalized homophobia coupled with a tangible and legitimate fear of violence on the part of homophobic society. For Carol, to embrace her sexual orientation means to give up custody of her daughter Rindy to Harge, a huge emotional loss, but she can keep Therese. The choice is difficult, but the consequence, supervised visits, is at least barely palatable. Ennis Del Mar, on the other hand, haunted by the memory of a long ago tale of gay men being murdered, believes he and Jack Twist will be killed if they try to pursue a life together. Put another way, Carol can express her sexual orientation, but at a price. Ennis does not ever consider it a viable option.
Carol and Ennis are almost antithetical, in fact. Ennis is emotionally closed off in a way that is viscerally felt by viewers. He’s petrified of how society will react to two perceived gay men and unable to jettison the heterosexual life he believes he must live to survive. His warring emotions act as the heart of the movie, fulfilling two of the three types of conflict narrative in fiction: man vs. self and man vs. man (in this case, the variation is man vs. society). “Brokeback Mountain” is in, in short, about the struggle to come to terms with sexual orientation. In comparison, Carol is comfortable with her sexuality and desirous of building a life with a same-sex partner. The conflict in “Carol” is largely man vs. man (Carol against Harge), and Carol’s sexual orientation is only important to the conflict in that Harge is able to use it as a leverage point against her. After all, Carol and Harge were already divorcing before Carol ever met Therese. “Carol” is therefore about a mother fighting to keep her daughter during an increasingly hostile divorce.
“Brokeback Mountain” is also about the destructive consequences of homophobia. Alma is devastated when she figures out that her husband Ennis loves Jack, and it eventually leads to the dissolution of their marriage. Lureen’s emotionless telling of husband Jack’s death to Ennis suggests that their marriage had long ago turned loveless as well. By meeting society’s expectations, Jack and Ennis created hollow facsimilies of what a heterosexual family should look like that were unfulfilling to all the family members. Conversely, in “Carol” Harge isn’t homophobic, per se, he’s a man who doesn’t want to lose his wife. He would be equally jealous if Carol’s relationship had been with another man.
So if not “Carol,” what would a lesbian “Brokeback Mountain” look like? Most likely, it would be the story of two women living in a homophobic society, feeling as though they must adhere to heteronormative gender expectations even at the cost of their own happiness. The movie probably would repeat the original message in “Brokeback Mountain” about how society’s oppressive demand for heteronormative conformity can be highly destructive, or else find a similar but slightly different message to convey. It would examine what it’s like to be a closeted lesbian and how society’s heteronormative gender expectations affect women. It might be a bit like the adult version of “Lost and Delirious,” done on a grander, more layered scale.
Fencing solves zero percent of interpersonal conflicts.
Does it matter whether or not there’s been a “lesbian ‘Brokeback Mountain’”? No, probably not, just as it doesn’t matter if there hasn’t been a “gay ‘Carol.’” Collectively, lesbian cinema has covered the same ground, just in multiple movies. That said, it’s notable that in August a story trended on Facebook that “Brokeback Mountain” was to be remade starring Emma Watson and Margot Robbie. Although the rumor was disproven by debunking site Snopes.com, the fact that the story garnered so much interest on Facebook suggests that perhaps there is a market for such a movie. I’d watch it.