#CriterionMonth: Fragile Masculinity in ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Criterion Month is a massive collaboration across 5 websites in honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday and of the films of the Criterion Collection.  We hope the celebration of this incredible director -and these classic films – inspire others to find new cinema they love and share their discoveries with others

The first things that come mind when hearing “cowboy” typically falls around the image of a tall, confident, strong man wearing a flat-brimmed hat, the epitome of masculinity. In John Schlesinger’s 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy, a man named Joe Buck who identifies himself as a model Texan cowboy, voyages to New York City in hopes of fulfilling a prosperous life as a hustler. There is nothing more attractive than a city that exudes sex and wealth for a lonely man looking to escape the slums of an unsatisfying life. As he arrives to the city, he quickly begins to realize how inaccurate his expectations are. The city is not just a cornucopia of sex and wealth, it is a damaged place that conceals its dirt, crime, and corruption from the outside world. The one thing Joe Buck continues to fall back on is his cowboy identity. As I began to analyze the pride he has from his self image and the way he interacts with the men around him, I realized that he is the way he is because of a deeper issue, fragile masculinity. Joe’s flamboyant persona and the deep-rooted homophobia he expresses throughout the film are both results of a man who
struggles from the vulnerability of masculinity.

Men are constantly being reminded to be strong, dismiss emotions, and to “man up” during any obstacles in life. For a man who identifies himself as a cowboy, the embodiment of these principles, it is clear that Joe Buck has these ideals ingrained into his mind. In the first scenes of the film, Joe pep-talks himself in the mirror and gloats to his coworkers about the extraordinary life he will have in New York City. Even though he already radiates confidence and optimism, the detail and carefulness of his cowboy attire enhances his character. As he begins to face hardships in the city, he uses all his power to maintain the persona, because a real cowboy would not show any weaknesses regardless of how difficult the situations are. Even though he barely eats, makes money, or has a stable place to live, he wears his shiny leather boots proudly, and refuses to acknowledge the fact that his dreams are collapsing right before his eyes.

In Joe Buck’s world, there is no such thing as a cowardly cowboy, especially a gay one. As he hustles through New York City looking for potential clients, he discovers the abundance of closeted gay men. Even though he allows their sexual advances and agrees to partake in homosexual favors, he recoils at anything suggesting that he might also be gay. During these particular scenes, Joe’s uncomfort triggers various flashbacks exposing traumatic events from his
childhood and romantic relationships. The flashbacks indicate sexual abuse, especially his memory of being gang raped by a group of men, which have shown to not only build unhealthy foundations in his sex life, but perhaps became the source of his homophobia. Whether or not he is aware of the severity of these events, he dismisses them as if they are nothing to him. The mental separation and homophobia are his defense mechanisms and the need to preserve his masculinity is what blocks him from being able to deal with his emotional trauma.

From the beginning of the film, Joe Buck gives the impression that he is just a happy-go-lucky cowboy with big dream, but through his experiences in New York City, it can be concluded that he is quite the opposite. The culture that glorifies masculinity is one that is familiar to men all over the world. In Joe Buck’s case, the delicacy of his manhood gives rise to the complications he has with his identity and sexuality. There are heroic cowboys, courageous cowboys, and triumphant cowboys, but Midnight Cowboy offers a new category: the emotionally distressed and suppressed cowboy.


by Sydney Tran

Sydney is a college student studying biology and film in Chicago. Her passions include environmental conservation and going to matinee screenings of films from pretty much all genres. Some of her favorite films are Bicycle ThievesStar Wars, and Lady Bird. You can find her on Twitter @sadneys and on Letterboxd @sudney

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