from Books & Reviews
by Louis A. Berman
Professor of Psychology (retired),
University of Illinois at Chicago
March 31, 2006 - Given the lavish praise it won from the film critics across the country, "Brokeback Mountain" was a sure bet to be named "Best Picture of the Year" at this year's Academy Award ceremony. One particularly lavish endorsement appeared in Rolling Stone, and included the words: "Unmissable and unforgettable! . . . A classic in the making! . . . A landmark film . . . an acting miracle. . . .The unerring script . . . a model of literary adaptation." The publication Entertainment lauded "Brokeback Mountain" as "a film in which love feels almost as if it were being invented. Revolutionary."
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest national gay rights group, prepared to make the most of the virtual certainty that this romantic story of faithful gay love, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, would be named "The Best Picture of the Year" by the Motion Picture Academy. A month before Oscar night, the Human Rights Campaign held a gala in New York City at which a pair of jackets worn in the movie by the gay lovers, was auctioned off for $42,000. Well before Oscar night, according to the Chicago Tribune, "the group sent e-mails to its 120,000 members encouraging them to hold house parties on Oscar night." The group also distributed Oscar party kits "to help recruiting, and offered prizes of T-shirts, bags, and watches, depending on how many new members get signed up." The Tribune quoted Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Susanne Salkind as saying that recognition of "Brokeback" will be an opportunity to raise gay issues "to another level of American culture. . . . We want to transform this . . . occasion into something much more important."
On Oscar night, the much-anticipated triumph of "Brokeback" simply failed to occur. (The award for Best Picture went to "Crash," a plea for racial tolerance.) Denver journalist Dave Cullen described "Brokeback" fans as "distraught, upset, angry; they couldn't believe it." According to The New York Times (March 13, 2006), participants in an online discussion group "chipped in more than $24,000 to buy a full-page ad in Daily Variety, [thanking] the makers of the movie 'for transforming countless lives through the most honored film of the year.'"
An Associated Press article (published in the Feb. 15, 2006 Chicago Tribune) quotes gay men who agree that the film "tells the story of [their] own gay life and struggles in a strikingly personal way," and that such movies "have given millions of Americans a greater understanding of who we are." Speaking on Hong Kong television, according to Chicago's Windy City Times of March 15, "Brokeback Mountain" director Ang Lee said, "This is the way gays are. It's just that they have been distorted. When two people are in love and are scared, that's the way they are."
Nobody asks that fictional characters be typical of persons of his group. Was Zorba a typical Greek? Was Capote a typical gay writer? But when it is claimed of "Brokeback Mountain" that "this is the way gays are," that calls for a closer look at the film, at the story on which the film is based, and how the events of the story compare with what is actually known about the lives of gay men. There is, after all, a considerable literature about the lives of gay men, including autobiographical writings, clinical studies, surveys; research studies and field observations of all sorts.
Suppose we compare what we know about the lives of gay men, with what the story tells us. Is the story an educational (as well as an artistic) experience? Does the film sharpen our image of the gay man, or does it actually becloud it, romanticize it, elevating political correctness to a dazzling new level. How much does the story tell us about the social and inner life of gay men? For our answer, I will be guided mainly by Proulx's short story, rather than try to recall every detail of the movie adaptation.
What contrasts so boldly between this pair's behavior and what is known to be so much more typical of gay men, is the secret lovers' uncompromised faithfulness, through 20 frustrating years. Jack is depicted as the faithful lover who pines away for his absent love. (A feminine conception of gay sensibility?) This makes a believable story for straight folks to behold, and gives the movie a very romantic touch, but this does not recognize the importance of cruising in the life of a typical young gay man.
Typically, a young man who has just discovered his taste for gay sex, is eager to explore the widest range of sexual possibilities. He visits bars, pool halls, or other places where young men congregate, searching for kindred souls, getting physical with good buddies or with total strangers, testing himself out with guys just like himself, or completely unlike him; getting to know how he responds to older men and to younger men.
The survey findings of the University of Chicago's Prof. Edward Laumann contrasts the average number of sexual partnerships claimed by typical straight and gay men. In a study reported in 2004, eighty-eight per cent of gay men claimed to have had 16 or more sex partners. In a 1992 study of heterosexual married adults, by contrast, Laumann reported that a majority of 1,660 respondents claimed to have had only one sexual partner after the age of 18, and only 15 per cent more than ten.
"Cruising" is the word gay men use to describe this activity. Researchers use the term "multiple partnerships" and avoid the word "promiscuity," which is old-fashioned and pejorative. Multiple partnerships are far, far more common in gay populations than is the uncompromised faithfulness depicted in "Brokeback Mountain." Given that the theme of "Brokeback Mountain" is 20 years of faithful and very infrequently satisfied love, Jack and Ennis must be viewed as the rarest of rare birds, sprung from the author's feminine imagination rather than any amount of actual observation of how gay men live.
Of course, gay men have always had to be careful about how and where they went "cruising," searching for fellow gays, not to accidentally arouse the wrath of a homophobe. A gay man has always had to be careful where he worked or lived. Life in the rural West could be rather dangerous, as the following quote from Proulx's story (Ennis speaking) indicates:
". . . There was these two old guys ranched together down home, Earl and Rich. . . . They was a joke even though they was pretty tough old birds. I was what, nine years old and they found Earl dead in a irrigation ditch. They's took a tire iron to him, spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp. . . . Dad made sure I seen it. Took me to see it. . . . Dad laughed about it. Hell, for all I know he done the job."How common (or rare) was homophobic violence in cowboy country? For a clue, we look into a 2005 book entitled Queer Cowboys, and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Chris Packard (Palgrave Macmillan, an academic imprint). The author finds homoerotic themes in the writings of James Fenimore Cooper, Owen Wister, Claude Hartland, Frank Harris, Frederic Loring, Eugene Field, and Bruce Seiberts.
Bruce Seiberts in his memoir Nothing but Prairie and Sky recalls that cowboys on the trail "had a general idea that our sex hunger was caused by such a heavy meat diet, but I never heard of anyone going vegetarian because of this. . . . Seiberts's wry observation . . . implies that no self-respecting cowboy would avoid meat in order to avoid an erection." (Packard, pages 13-14)
The author of this academic imprint has much to say about cowboy partnerships and homoerotic activity, but includes not one word of the danger of homophobic attack.
What makes Jack and Ennis different from most young men of their times? Lots of young men, then and now, find themselves in desperate need of finding a job, any kind of a job. Most 20 year olds also cherish having both a best friend and good buddies who are fun to be with, and who are helping them grow into manhood. But work that would cut them off from their social group (for an extended period of time, though not forever) would be a high price to pay for landing a job. On the contrary, it is typical for a young job-seeker to rate a prospective job by the likelihood that he will make new buddies on the job, and maybe find among his coworkers "the girl of his dreams." (The percentage of young people who meet their mate on the job has always been high.) A not-quite-20-year-old who takes a job herding sheep is not, it is fair to say, like the typical young man of his age, who can't wait to find "the right girl."
The job-choice of a sheep-herder suggests, rather, that he is in no hurry about finding "the right girl." Additionally, perhaps, he doesn't have a best friend or a close group of good buddies who can guide his entrance into the dating scene, his more experienced buddies coaching him on where, when and how to make the right moves toward connecting with "the right girl."
Jack more clearly fits this picture than Ennis, who is leaving a wife-to-be to take the sheep-herding job. But does not this move also suggest mixed feelings about getting married? These conjectures suggest that something more than chance alone gave Jack and Ennis's experience on Brokeback Mountain a sexual dimension.
In Ms. Poulx's story, the life history of both Jack and Ennis is given a measure of versimillitude by the portrayal of both Jack and Ennis's father as cold and cruel men, following the psychoanalytical theory that homosexual men are driven to seek the warm and intimate relations with "the affectionate father" they never knew in their growing-up years.
What about marriage and fatherhood for gay men? Is their marriage just a cynical cover for their closeted status? Does it express a hope that marriage will somehow cure their troubled homoerotic desires? The picture is more complicated than that. Gay men take a wife for a variety of reasons: (1) to please their parents, especially if there is an inheritance in the picture -- a ranch, a business, or a stock portfolio, (2) to raise a family, which for some gay men is a dream as powerful as that felt by most straights, (3) to blend in with their social world, to reinforce their closeted status, or (4) because they have found a woman they are especially fond of, though the sexual aspect of their partnership is not so important as it is for most young married couples. Many gay men have admirable qualities, a great personality, or remarkable talents. Sometimes a woman falls in love with a man that she knows is gay, and she wants to marry him anyway. There are at least two books on gay men who marry: Married and Gay, a 1982 American study by Brenda Maddox, and a 1983 British study by Michael W. Ross, The Married Homosexual Man.
Jack and Ennis are portrayed as faithful lovers who pine away for each other in-between their infrequent reunions. Both men claim a powerful craving for each other, and indicate no sexual attraction to other men. This powerfully drawn theme of endlessly patient and faithful love, has the earmarks of a feminine imagination. In the real life of most gay men, the world is too big and abundant, and one's physical cravings are much too urgent to spend months pining away for an absent partner. Jack cannot accept Ennis's suggestion that they be satisfied with occasional reunions:
". . . All I can see is we get together once in a while the hell out in the back a nowhere--"The testimony of Ennis also suggests that he has no other homosexual contacts. He says to Jack, "I like doing it with women, yeah, but Jesus H., ain't nothin like this. I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy except I sure wrang it out a hundred times thinking about you." Even when he is "doing it" with his wife, she observes that he likes to do things with her that could never make her pregnant.
"How much is once in a while? . . . Once in a while ever four f***in years?"
Yes, there seems to be a womanly touch to this major theme of the story: the men's response to their initial taste of gay sex: their enduring emotional bond with their first partner. Typically, the enduring lesson of a gay man's first homosexual encounter is the discovery that gay sex is so easy to come by and can be so powerful, so intense, so transporting. But who happened to be one's first sex partner is usually not so important, and does not lead to such an extraordinarily durable bonding as that experienced by Jack and Ennis.
Here is another womanly touch to the story: Jack and Ennis use as a pretext for their periodic reunions, that they are going fishing together. But Ennis's wife discovers that the fishing gear, which Ennis always takes along and brings home, has never been actually used. She correctly infers that the men have spent their entire time together not fishing but just enjoying each other's company. "Just hanging out" is something that women friends are more likely to do. Men have a greater need for physical activity. They like to do things together: engage in sports (or at least watch a sporting event together), make something, fix something, go hunting or fishing. There's always time for sex.
Now let us ask: Did the initial sexual episode of Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, both not yet 20, trigger their homosexual cravings? Or was it mainly determined by the absence of women in that lonely valley, a cold night when there was plenty of whiskey and each other's body warmth? Perhaps Kinsey's most enduring contribution to our understanding of sex is that men do not fall into two discrete groups, heterosexual and homosexual, but that sexual cravings follow a continuous scale, ranging from very heterosexual to very homosexual. Kinsey's thinking would suggest that both Jack and Ennis had a significant gay potential before they met at Brokeback Mountain, and it was realized under a most favorable combination of circumstances.
Is my impression that Brokeback Mountain expresses a woman's imagination altogether idiosyncratic? No, writing in the Chicago Tribune Magazine (February 26, 200), Brendan Tapeley also sees something "curiously female" about the story, which he observes is emotionally moving to a feminine audience, but makes men uncomfortable. Tapeley, who is at work on a memoir on masculinity, conjectures that men don't know what masculinity is, but resist the notion that Jack and Ennis help define it.
Tapeley's observation is right, but there is a simpler explanation of why "Brokeback Mountain" makes many straight men uncomfortable. Most straight men enjoy "adult movies" that have a straight theme or a lesbian theme, but they feel uncomfortable about watching a film of gay men "doing it." Straight men usually avoid situations that may activate their homosexual potential, large or small. A straight man's homosexual potential may be accidentally aroused when he is, like Jack and Ennis, drunk, cold, and socially isolated. (Or when two buddies get physically intimate with one woman, and in the heat of the threesome, the two buddies "accidentally" engage in sexual play with each other.) But as an old union song asks: "Which side are you on?" Man is a social animal, and for most men in our culture it is important to maintain a clear-cut sexual identity.
A majority of males have mixed feelings about "Brokeback Mountain." (Wonderfully scenic, beautifully directed and acted, but . . . .) Gay men, on the other hand, applaud this lavishly romanticized, if grossly unrealistic, variant of gay life. The film can raise gay issues "to another level in American culture," hopes Susanne Salkind of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national gay rights group. ("Wouldn't it be wonderful," gay advocates seem to be saying, "if the general public imagined that the typical gay character is a composite of the best aspects of Jack and Ennis: faithful, patient and long-suffering." The Campaign promoted "Oscar Night parties" to celebrate the recognition that the film so richly deserves, and to sign up new members to the 120,000-member organization. Alas, the anticipated victory failed to occur.
The intent of this commentary is not to debunk Annie Proulx's story as an impossible tale. Human life has endless possibilities, and this tale unfolds just one of them. The story appeals to the readers' imagination (especially to the reader who, like the author of "Brokeback Mountain," is a woman), but the story does not consistently serve the filmgoer (or reader) who is trying to arrive at a realistic picture about the inner and social life of gay men. If Brokeback Mountain were written by a gay man, it would tell a rather different story, and it might not be so readily adopted by Hollywood.