The End of the Road: Escaping through Privilege in My Own Private Idaho
“I’ve been tasting roads all my life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”-Mike Waters
Mike Waters is a tragic character. Played by the late River Phoenix, he’s a young gay sex worker whose life is perceived as a fun escape to his best friend, Scott Favor. Mike’s situation was never a choice. His older brother is also his father, he’s poor, never had a “normal family,” struggles with narcolepsy, and is homeless (My Own Private Idaho). Though he insists he doesn’t feel sorry for himself, what makes Mike tragic is his yearning for stability, something he never obtains in the film. Scott sees the risky lifestyle as a way to have fun while killing time before he turns twenty-one when he will inherit his father’s wealth; to him, Mike’s lifestyle is but a temporary thrill ride as he does not need to worry about his future.
The journey Mike takes is like a circle; he begins and ends in the same place. That place is on a rural road in Idaho that stretches out as far as the eye can see. The road is symbolized to be “freedom from constraints,” a common feature in gay cinema to illustrate the breakage of boundaries found in a heteronormative world (Lang 332). However, I argue that the representation of Mike and his sexuality actually proves how it’s impossible to free one’s self from a heteronormative world, evident by the overarching theme of privilege and the use of the Bury Your Gays trope. Mike’s last appearance in the film is his robbed, unconscious body being pulled into a car on the Idaho road. His goal is never fulfilled, and he’s without his familiars.
To understand the movie’s use of the trope, I will compare Mike to Scott, who I consider to be each other’s foil. It is fair to argue that Scott truly is a queer man and chose to work in the sex industry to explore his own sexuality. His father, the aristocrat mayor of Portland, calls him a degenerate when he sees Scott in a leather choker and no shirt, gagging when he gives him a hug. With this, it’s safe to assume he lacks the security of coming out, especially when considering the inheritance on the line that could go to his cousin, who lives a conservative life. However, this essay is not to state if he is queer or not. Rather, I focus on their different frames of mind that explain why Scott views identities as escapable.
What separates the two boys is their privilege. How they were brought into this world has resulted in two drastically different experiences, yet they find themselves together, whether it be the luxurious home in Seattle where they were both hired for a night, to an abandoned apartment building inhabited by homeless teenagers. Though their physical position may be the same, their mental journeys are not.
Still From Gus Van Sant, see My Own Private Idaho (21:16).
Mike’s narcolepsy causes him to fall asleep in overwhelming moments, leaving him vulnerable in uncomfortable situations. During these episodes, he risks anyone taking advantage of him. Mike is forced to endure whatever reality happens in these moments; he has no escape. However, during these episodes, he rarely receives adequate protection. He’s been left outside, out on the road, and even alone in an Italian hotel by a customer. During a blackout, Scott also took him from Seattle to Portland by catching a ride with Hans, a man who Mike previously thought was a pervert and tried to stay away from. Scott made the choice to escape to Portland, Mike never once consented and was forced to come along for the ride.
This recurring theme of Scott’s decision making shows off his carefree yet dominating nature. One evening, a group of their friends made plans to rob drunk people at the park. However, Scott had a different plan where he and Mike would leave them and switch outfits to rob their own friend group under a disguise. Scott is in no financial position to need to rob his homeless peers. Mike went along because Scott coerced him to, and as we find out in a later scene, is in love with Scott. Thus, Scott weaponizes Mike’s affection as he knew he would accept his plan, even if it meant risking Mike’s relationship with the homeless group, a group he depends on for shelter and community. The next day, Scott ridicules one of the men he robbed named Bob, a veteran to the hustler world that Scott claims is like a father to him. He leads Bob into a long and exaggerated lie where Bob was attacked by a large gang of thieves, only to expose him as a liar by coming out as the true thief. Scott forgets the importance of reputation, how Bob’s elaborate stories are why people trust him. This trust is necessary for him to survive as an older homeless man as it gives him security. His disrespectful treatment of Bob, the man he admires and loves, displays Scott’s ignorance as he is unable to truly relate to those without his constant, financial security.
If Scott cannot understand why his actions were wrong, then there’s less of a chance he’ll ever truly be able to treat Mike with genuine respect. Scott appropriates his vagabond lifestyle, and he appropriates his journey. Scott comes along on Mike’s trip to Idaho to find his mother. This trip is an emotional one for him, he’s never had a stable home life and had to confront his older brother that he knows he’s also his father. During this emotional scene, Scott is going through the house, even going as far as to lay on Mike’s brother’s bed. He acts inappropriate because he does not relate to the severity of the situation. Scott is an outsider, all while using the space to his enjoyment.
“I- I don’t know. I mean… I mean for me, I could love someone even if I… wasn’t paid for it.” -Mike Waters
Before they met Mike’s brother, their stolen motorcycle breaks down on the same empty Idaho road from the beginning of the film. With nowhere to go, they set up camp for the night. Just the two of them, Mike begins to confess his feelings. Scott’s response is that “he only has sex with a man for money,” that “two guys can’t love each other” (My Own). Mike tries to escape the heartbreaking encounter by going to sleep, but the fact of the matter is that he just came out to his best friend and a part of him is no longer concealed. Although the scene ends with the two in a hug, it’s bitter; Mike’s love is unrequited, but he has no one else to console him. Scott’s homophobic statements will be a turning point in Mike’s journey, where everything that follows from this point becomes more emotionally damaging.
Scott sticks with Mike all the way to Italy, where he will inevitably fall in love with a girl he meets in the place where Mike was supposed to find his mother. In fact, the only reason she’s able to speak English is because Mike’s mother taught her the language before she left. Scott then takes her to America to move on with his new aristocratic lifestyle, leaving behind Mike in Italy, where he eventually goes back to sex work so he can afford the ticket home. Through Mike’s journey, Scott is able to complete his goal. He obtains his inheritance and is able to move on from his time as a hustler, getting to a point where he once again publicly humiliates Bob at an expensive bar by telling him to not talk to him. Bob soon dies from a heart attack and his funeral is thrown at the bottom of the hill from Scott’s Father’s funeral. Mike attends Bob’s loud and energetic celebration of life, while Scott looks down from above.
The film’s ending is inconclusive. No one knows who picks up Mike, if he is safe, or if he is even alive. One conclusion that can be made is that he both literally and metaphorically ends in the same place where he began. Mike was chasing after normalcy. He tries to find his mother so he can achieve that idea of a perfect family, and perhaps to have someone normal in his life. Unfortunately, Mike never finds her and with the abandonment of Scott, returns back to his turbulent life on the street. Why couldn’t Mike have that same conclusion as Scott? Simply put; Scott was never Mike’s equal, so of course there would be differences in their destiny. However, it’s important to note that Mike is a canonically queer character; he admits he’s gay in the film. With this, I argue that Mike’s destiny was certain the moment he separated himself via his sexuality from Scott.
Still From Gus Van Sant, see My Own Private Idaho (52:07).
The Bury Your Gays trope is when a same-sex couple comes to an end after one partner dies and the other realizes they are not queer and ends up in a heterosexual relationship (Hulan p. 17). It has been in use since the late nineteenth century and has long portrayed gay relationships as forbidden and unachievable. My Own Private Idaho came out in 1991, long before gay marriage was legalized and during the AIDS epidemic. The common defense for the trope is that it allows queer artists to share stories of their identity without legal and social repercussion, however, the use of it arguably has negative effects of queer audience members. Gomillion and Giuliano’s research illustrates how GLB representation in media are “sources of pride and inspiration” for queer people (Gomillion and Giuliano 344) and suggests the need for a cultural shift to “new archetypes resembling positive role models” (351). With this, I question if the Bury Your Gays trope does more harm than good?
With this trope in use, Mike and Scott’s endings were determined before the film even began. However, the role that each received was determined by each character’s identity. Mike was destined to be the one ‘killed’ as he is explicitly written as gay and could not achieve that safe heteronormative ending that Scott could. This showcases how privilege is more than just the advantages one receives through their financial standing, but to core elements of their personal being, such as sexuality. This movie subtly preaches that to be queer is lethal.
My Own Private Idaho should serve as an insight into the power of representation. What does it mean to audiences when they see a poor, gay, and vulnerable individual pulled into a car while unconscious? It’s not to say that stories of minorities featuring their suffrage shouldn’t exist, these types of stories represent a reality that many individuals experience daily. Rather, I question why to this day, we still see an abundance of these types of films compared to stories that don’t focus on queer struggles. Though we know the importance of representation, why is something like one’s sexual minority still perceived as a death sentence?
Gomillion, Sarah C., and Gieliano, Traci A. “The Influence of Media Role Models on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity.” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 58, No. 3, 2011, pp. 330-354.
Hulan, Hailey. “Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context.” McNair Scholars Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 17-27.
Lang, Robert. “My Own Private Idaho and The New Queer Road Movies.” Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Films, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 243- 262.
My Own Private Idaho. Directed by Gus Van Sant, performances by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. New Line Cinema, 1991.