Sunday, February 05, 2006

A story of destructive rural homophobia

Thank you, David Mendelsohn, for this. Mendelsohn provides a much-needed polemic that gently yet cogently exposes the "love story" and "universal" marketing-speak of the studio, the filmmakers, and the cast of Brokeback Mountain. He observes: "Both narratively and visually, Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the 'closet'—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it." His convincing reading is long overdue. To Mendelsohn's insightful analysis (I don't think he gets everything right, but he gets the big picture, so to speak), I'll add something that Annie Proulx writes in her essential "Getting Movied". This passage sheds light on another aspect of specificity (the first being homosexuality), that of the western setting:

The two characters had to have grown up on isolated hardscrabble ranches and were clearly homophobic themselves, especially the Ennis characters. Both wanted to be cowboys, be part of the Great Western Myth, but it didn't work out that way; Ennis never got to be more than a rough-cut ranch hand and Jack Twist chose rodeo as an expression of cowboy. Neither of them was ever a top hand, and they met herding sheep, animals most real cowpokes despise. Although they were not really cowboys (the word "cowboy" is often used derisively in the west by those who do ranch work), the urban critics dubbed it a tale of two gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia. Although there are many places in Wyoming where gay men did and do live together in harmony with the community, it should not be forgotten that a year after this story was published Matthew Shepard was tied to a buck fence outside the most enlightened town in the state, Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming. Note, too, the fact that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country, and that the preponderance of those people who kill themselves are elderly single men.

A story of destructive rural homophobia. "Rural" refers to the specifically western setting, "homophobia" to the hatred of homosexuality, and these are the two essential elements of the story. Proulx expresses this theme in several ways, and the central way is through the character of Ennis, who bookends her story (and, in a different way, the movie). It's a tragedy when homophobia operates from the outside (Jack Twist's fate), but it's also tragic when the battle rages in one person's soul. Ennis's internalized homophobia makes it impossible for him to love. You can't love if you hate how you love.

Update: You can find Proulx's essay online here.

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