3. Its Discussion Around Gender
There are elements in Midnight Cowboy that make it a dated piece of art and very much a product of 1969, but throughout its runtime the discussions held within the subtext of the plot and performances are comparable to modern discussions on identity politics.
In an attempt to garner more content interaction with younger generations invested in social progression, Hollywood studios try to include overt representation to appeal to this “woke” crowd. An example of this is the inclusion of feminist ideals. Greater female representation in writing and directing has been a highlight of 21st century cinema, but lazy and insincere attempts such as franchise reboots with all-female casts like Ghostbusters (2016) and Ocean’s Eight (2018) can come across as condescending and can even trivialise the serious issues of gender inequality (and let’s be honest, studios hiding unoriginal filmmaking behind gender politics is pretty offensive in itself). The struggle for Women’s Emancipation is more than just franchise gender-swapping, it is challenging the systemic prejudice flowing through every aspect of society due to the prevailing kyriarchy that oppresses all those not in a position of power. It works on the dismantling of gender roles which hurt both men and women, especially through toxic masculinity. With this currently being an ongoing discussion far from being exhausted as new theories and philosophies arise, it is genuinely very surprising to find that a film from over 50 years ago depicts a sincere criticism of toxic masculinity in a subversion of gender roles.
The integrity of Midnight Cowboy‘s identity politics is that its discussion surrounding gender is not merely at the surface but permeates throughout all levels of the film. With an initial appraisal, the subversion of gender expectations is apparent: Joe’s story is that of a Texan Dishwasher disillusioned with the monotony of his life, choosing to leave it in the hope of making it big in New York as a gigolo for older, rich, lonely women; though he finds little success and with his growing poverty resorts to selling out for “seedier” sexual favours. This is stereotypically the story of a female protagonist. Indeed, there are countless films from around the world such as Nights of Cabiria (1957), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), The Life of Oharu (1952), and so on, in which women travel to the big city, hoping to make it big or to find love, to only end up prostituting themselves so as to survive.
Beyond this subversion of gender stereotypes, there is an even deeper exploration into toxic masculinity centred around the titular Midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck’s self-styling as a cowboy is his attempt to express what he understands is the ultimate image of masculinity. He moulds himself in the image of the likes of John Wayne: strong, stoic – never complaining as they heroically overcome all adversity (in Wayne’s case, usually with a gun). But as Sydney Tran writes in the essay “Fragile Masculinity in Midnight Cowboy“, Joe Buck’s cowboy is the result “of a man who struggles from the vulnerability of masculinity.”
In his dressing-up game of uber-manliness in which he tries to be the offhand epitome of every woman’s ultimate sexual desire – “I ain’t a f’real cowboy, but I’m one helluva stud!” – he unintentionally projects to the world the fact that he is a drowning man. Apparently boys don’t cry, but behind his act Joe Buck is a man screaming out for some decent human connection to lift him out of the pervading loneliness of his existence. Abandoned by his mother into the hands of his equally neglectful grandmother, Joe Buck’s expression of his masculinity is more than just advertising his services or over-compensation, it his how he quashes the trauma of his past. On top of his childhood neglect, it is seen that his pursuit of older women stems from the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his grandmother – the most meaningful relationship of his formative years reached a crescendo of devastating tragedy as jealous townsmen attacked Joe and Annie (‘the town bike’), and raped the pair of them, resulting in the institutionalisation of Annie.
This event alone has left a deep cut that Joe hasn’t fully healed from and still hugely impacts him throughout the course of the film. Even worse, Joe’s chosen occupation and his assimilation of the Cowboy image actually actively harms him. As he clamours for the intimacy of the countless mass of New York, he doesn’t address the cause of these desires – as such the trauma festers inside him, which when provoked manifests itself as brutal violence. Thus the cycle of toxic masculinity continues.
His evolution by film’s end is one that is not only gripping but important, an unshackling of gendered expectation that breathes relief and joy into a life previously filled with pain, trauma and regret.
4. The Historical LGBTQ+ Representation
More than 50 years on from its release, critics still remain undecided on what Midnight Cowboy truly represents in terms of LGBTQ+ depiction: platonic friendship versus romantic relationship, ground-breaking gay representation versus shocking homophobic depiction. It is this continued, and often emphatic and passionate discussion that illustrates Midnight Cowboy‘s historical significance and continued relevance.
The argument for platonic friendship often seems to be a case of learned incognizance: Peter Bradshaw’s review for The Guardian: “Midnight Cowboy Review – A Still Potent Stew of 60s Sleaze”, throws around words like “Bromance”, “Brama” and “Bragedy” in such an exasperating manner it induces uncontrollable eye-rolling. Still though, reacting in such a manner towards an honest opinion doesn’t do the film any justice; after all, the relationship between Joe Buck and Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo is not explicitly gay.
Within the rich subtext between these characters that many of the film’s queer interpretations have flourished from, and for those who read in between the lines in this manner, the depicted relationship found is just as impactful as many overt LGBTQ+ representations in current-day cinema.
The representation found in Midnight Cowboy isn’t necessarily the most palatable to modern audiences: one of the scenes that boasts some of the most electrifying moments of tension between Joe and Ratso is when they are discussing Joe’s hustling problems and Ratso suggests part of the issue lies in Joe’s Cowboy get-up. After being provoked with the accusation of his possible state of virginity:
“You wanna call it by its name? That’s strictly for fags!”
“John Wayne! You wanna tell me he’s a fag!?”
Both sulky at the respective jabs, as Ryan Gibley amusingly put in his article for The Guardian in 2019, “Homophobic? Maybe. But At Least Midnight Cowboy Showed Me Gay Men On Screen”:
“Evidently the homophobe doth protest too much…”
This line of interpretation can of course be dangerous as it slides towards the territory of well-intentioned but extremely botched attempts at LGBTQ+ representation that inadvertently reinforces stereotypes or fails to give any true representation: fan outrage over the alleged queer-baiting in popular TV shows ‘Supernatural’ and ‘Sherlock’ come to mind. Even then, these shows don’t come close to some of the moments of unbridled homophobia in Midnight Cowboy, including Joe mugging a young male student when it’s revealed he doesn’t have the money to pay Joe for the fellatio he performs on Voight’s character in a dark cinema. And then, of course, there is the film’s pinnacle when Joe possibly murders a client who again fails to pay Joe (who is now desperate to get the ailing Rizzo to Florida) – a man who seems to actually be thanking Joe as Joe quite literally punches his teeth out. It could be argued that it is beyond tone deaf and ignorant to claim that a film that boasts such homophobic violence could be considered in any way an example of decent LGBTQ+ representation, but never has the case of context been so important as it is for Midnight Cowboy. To put it bluntly, it’s very difficult to have a film about homophobia with no actual examples of homophobia in it.
In further defence of Midnight Cowboy’s authenticity, not only did Dustin Hoffman’s preparation through The Method lead him to the realisation “Hey, these guys are queer!” (Vanity Fair, 2010), but the director John Schlesinger was an openly gay man himself back in 1969, two years after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK and 34 years before it was fully decriminalised on a national scale in US. The plight of internalised homophobia therefore more than likely comes from a true place. Furthermore, in terms of the film’s storytelling, the more shocking moments of homophobia transect with the trauma that Joe and Enrico have both suffered. When questioned over previous sexual encounters, Enrico wittily yet curiously deflects with the answer that such matters are between himself and “his confessor”; this moment is paralleled with Joe’s encounter with an eccentric preacher (whom he had been led to believe was a pimp) – the camp Mr. O’Daniel and his questionable sexuality – whose reveal of his gaudy neon Jesus statue in his toilet causes the onset of a flashback to Joe’s traumatising baptism, making Joe run from the apartment. It’s no coincidence that these encounters and accusations of queerness are intertwined with recollections of Joe and Rizzo’s respectively Evangelical and Catholic upbringings.
On a more individual basis, Rizzo’s rebuttal of “faggot” to a transsexual con artist is in response to the same con artist’s disdain of Rizzo’s status as a destitute cripple. Joe Buck’s gay encounter in the cinema is accompanied by the recollection of the gang rape he suffered at the hands of the townsmen back in Texas. For both Joe and Rizzo, their homophobia overlaps with their vulnerabilities that have contributed to their ostracization in society and thus their loneliness, suggesting that they are both suffering from internalised homophobia – their position in life does not allow for such sexual tendencies without further isolation and discrimination.
It is a demoralising prospect that Midnight Cowboy‘s supposedly groundbreaking historical LGBTQ+ representation is steeped in historically accurate internalised homophobia. With its release in 1969 and damning X rating (because of the homosexuality subject matter), which impacted its initial performance at the box office, an explicitly queer relationship was indeed off the books. But, just because it’s unsaid doesn’t mean it’s not there. In fact, the strive for subtlety leads to an oddly freeing experience: without labels, a plethora of personal interpretations are allowed to bloom from bisexuality to gender fluidity and all sorts of identities people would wrongly think didn’t exist at that time.
Despite the tragic tone of Midnight Cowboy, the interactions between Joe and Rizzo that denote their queer relationship are moments of genuine joy, humour and bitter-sweetness responsible for much of the film’s humanity. One of the most significant scenes is Rizzo organising a hustler job for Joe, and as he waits for outside in the cold his mind wanders into a daydream of the life waiting for Rizzo when he makes enough money to get to Florida: the daydream features Joe and Rizzo still together, including a sequence of Rizzo running alongside a shirtless Joe on the Miami beach. The queer aspect of Joe and Rizzo’s characters is the cause of their more satisfying character development: through the intimacy of physical touch, Joe becomes more at peace with his previously vulnerable masculinity as he takes on the role of Rizzo’s caregiver, who in turn learns to trust others and accept help after surviving on his own wits for so long at the behest of the cruel American Dream.
Even though Midnight Cowboy features what are now overused queer tropes, its awarding of Best Picture at the Academy Awards despite its X-rating really does show how it paved the way for serious and exciting new queer representation in cinema and television. In the same year, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once and for all proved that cowboys were gay through the power of subtext, and the 70s would follow with television’s favourite power couple ‘Starsky and Hutch’, which featured its own elements of physical touch and care giving, leading to the duo to be dubbed “prime-time french-kissing homos” due to the intensity of their on-screen working relationship. This decade also heralded in serious queer representation in film beyond subtext, from The Conformist (1970) and Pink Narcissus (1971) to Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Midnight Cowboy is an undeniably important part of the journey to 21st century cinema in which queer representation is now an actual expectation for even the mainstream blockbusters.