Academic Book, Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain, Chris Packard, Clint Eastwood, Cowboys, Fievel Goes West, Heath Ledger, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jane Tompkins, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Kirk Douglass, Literature, masculinity, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowyboys, Novella, Queer, Queer Cowboys, Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, The "Fairy", West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns, Wiley Burp, Willie Nelson, Working Class Men
Just remember, Fievel – one man’s sunset is another man’s dawn. I don’t know what’s out there beyond those hills. But if you ride yonder… head up, eyes steady, heart open… I think one day you’ll find that you’re the hero you’ve been looking for.
–Wiley Burp, Fievel Goes West
Like many closeted young men at the time, I refused to believe that cowboys could be gay. I also refused to acknowledge the fact that cowboys had in fact, always been gay, or at least gay in the sense that they exhibit homoerotic tendencies. When Brokeback Mountain came out in theatres, pun not intended, it caused a bit of an uproar and not just because it was one of the few watchable Jake Gyllenhaal movies made at that point, but because it was a mainstream film which featured openly gay, or at least bisexual, characters as the center point of the plot rather than as quirky side characters. An unapologetic gay love story, while not unprecedented, hadn’t reached mainstream audiences in such a way. The fact that Ang Lee dared to make a movie about honest love between two grown men in an atmosphere that satisfied the typical qualities of a Western, a film genre that is looked upon often with reverence despite the fact no film director since Sergio Leone has managed to make one worth watching (unless you count Django Unchained and I do), created a controversy for the reasons I just stated. Brokeback Mountain challenged the masculinity of the Western because it placed two gay, or at least bisexual men, alongside men like Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglass, and, my hero at the time, John Wayne.
As I said before I was closeted at the time and didn’t recognize that that weird feeling I got looking at the underwear models wasn’t just bad Chinese food I had eaten, and so at the time my reaction reeks of the typical desperation of those wanting to cling to the heterosexual identity. Cowboys for me were figures who answered the faults in my own masculinity because I was the young man often presented in cartoons and movies on the sidelines of the game, either my nose stuck in a book, or trying desperately (and pathetically) to talk to girls. Growing up John Wayne was the answer to my masculinity problems, because he seemed to exemplify everything that a man was supposed to be. Men were strong laborers and heroes while gay men were prissy fairies.
Growing up, cutting the shit, and reading lots of books has a remarkable way of changing your perspective. In graduate school I took a Queer theory course (which I won’t shut up about as some readers may know) and while reading Butler, Bersani, Halberstam, and Sedgwick I decided to finally get around to reading Brokeback Mountain, the novella by Annie Proulx. I’d bought the novella for a dollar curious, in every sense of the word, about the book because the media had portrayed the story as a homoerotic pornographic snuff film. I’m sure like many people I was slightly disappointed when I opened the book and discovered, not an erotic masterpiece, but an emotional melodrama that was beautiful to read and imagine in my mind.
It was while studying this book, and producing a paper about how it queered the landscape of the Western, that I realized I was bisexual, came out to a friend and my wife respectively, and began to read more and more about male same-sex intimacy.
There are only two moments of intimacy between Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist described in the novella and Annie Proulx writes it carefully:
Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear-slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s chocked “guns goin off.” Then out, down, and asleep. (14).
It speaks to a heteronormative standard that the first sexual act between these two men is anal sex rather than a blowjob and in truth this is something I’ve struggled with as both a writer, a reader, and a critic of the novella. On the one hand because Annie Proulx is a straight woman it does make sense that physical penetration would be the first sexual scene described, but many literary and queer critics have bashed her for this. The argument is that it perpetuates the idea that the only kind of sex that can occur between men is anal sex because of old heteronormative standards of “active vs passive partner” best exemplified by the bullshit question: “So which one is the girl?” I recognize the problem these critics have with the text and I agree that this does perpetuate a bad example of what male-male sexual behavior is, but at the same time I’m willing to forgive Proulx for this description simply because it makes sense to Ennis and Jack’s economic background.
Ennis and Jack are both working-class men who come from poor upbringings. If I can write this without sounding elitist, it does stand to reason that both of these men are not exactly literate and so the nuances of sexual behavior and identity, or the idea that they could experiment sexually before anal sex occurred, would not be developed. Proulx even goes so far as to write this out herself:
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state […] both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that left him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper and bad tires; when the transmission went there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work. (4-5).
Ennis and Jack are both men who have received little education and come from traditionally heterosexual families, as such both of these men have been raised with the idea of what masculinity is, what it isn’t, and how people are to behave during sex. Looking back at the previous passage, this is clear when Proulx notes that Ennis “ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock.” Ennis in this moment has clearly bought into the idea that men do not “receive” during sex; that their role is instead to be active and penetrate their partner. As such Ennis becomes the “top” and Jack becomes the “bottom.” Both of these characters may be acting a traditionally heteronormative sexual behavior, but I think it would be unfair to expect anything else from these men.
At this point my contester emerges wondering why they should care? I’m not gay and I don’t care how gay people fuck, that’s none of my business. Why should I care about a novella about two gay guys who bang each other in Montana? Where’s the relevance?
The relevance dear contester is in the fact that this sexual act opens up a new territory in the Western which, whether they like it or not, typically defines the American landscape in the minds of countries around the world. The United States contribution to the collected consciousness tends to be “The West” and with that image came the figure of “The Cowboy.” The other night at Graphic Novel Book Club we were reading Preacher and the idea of “The West” came up. While we largely trashed the book, we did all recognize that the image of Texas, specifically cowboys and the desert, are usually the images of America that the rest of the world immediately perceives. Cowboys have come to define what and who Americans are, and anyone from Texas can attest to the fact that Texas itself captures a mythos. Mentioning to someone that you’re from Texas usually creates a strong of questions running from “Do you ride horses to school” to “Is it true everyone has an oil well in their backyard?”
For the record only queers and democrats ride horses, Texans ride longhorn bulls to school, and we each only have one oil well and that’s only so we can fertilize the endless fields of blue bonnets planted by Pecos Bill before he and Elvis Ascended to Enlightenment.
That’s a joke for the record.
My pathetic attempts at humor aside Brokeback Mountain is important because of this perception of the Western as the definitive narrative of the United States. The important idea that emerges after Brokeback Mountain is that “The Cowboy” is no longer only straight. Although there are some who would argue the cowboy never was truly straight in the first place.
Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, apart from having a monstrously long title (though it’s actually relatively short for an academic book, trust me on this) came to my attention after I received a rejection letter for my Brokeback Mountain paper. One of the reviewers mentioned that I had clearly never read Queer Cowboys, and that any work on homoerotic behavior in westerns had to reference this book. I could say that I pouted for several weeks imagining that reviewer’s face as a butt, but given what normally happens after criticism of any of my work I immediately looked for the book and devoured it. Chris Packard’s small tome is a brilliantly researched text that looks at the genre of the Western and observes how homoerotic and homosocial bonds between men in Westerns constitute a queer lifestyle. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying Packard’s book looks at how cowboys were pretty gay in their own right.
Looking at just a small passage from his introduction he makes some compelling points:
Most people, if they think about it at all, assume that the cowboy in history and in literature practiced sexual abstention until he arrived in a town, where he practiced the acceptable vice of dalliances with female prostitutes. But this explanation is counterintuitive and is not supported in the literary record. Particularly in Westerns produced before 1900, references to lusty passions appear regularly, when the cowboy is on the trail with his partners, if one knows how to look for them. In fact, in the often all-male world of the literary West, homoerotic affection holds a favored position. A cowboy’s partner, after all, is his one emotional attachment, aside from his horse, and he will die to preserve the attachment. Affection for women destroys cowboy comunitas and produces children, and both are unwanted hindrances to those who wish to ride the range freely. (3).
Packard’s argument can be clearly seen in Proulx’s novella, for after Jack and Ennis have reconnected after four years apart they retreat to a hotel room and after they make love there’s a brief exchange where Ennis lays it out plain:
“I doubt there’s nothin now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m saying, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment— “grabs us on like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead. There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out a me.” (27).
It’s important to realize that while Proulx is laying out a melodrama about being closeted in rural communities, there’s still this idea that domestic relationships are what’s keeping the two of them apart. Keeping in the tradition of the Western as a genre Garth and Ennis are left unsatisfied in their marriages, not because they don’t care for the women they’ve married, but because the opportunity to have a truly satisfying relationship together is denied to them.
If I can go back to Packard one more time, there is one passage that digs into the conflicts of marriage to the Western:
The trouble with wives in Westerns, at least until Wister’s The Virginian came along, is that they come with a doctrine that annihilates the identity of a free spirited cowboy. But as Wister showed, the partnership with a same-sex friend, when it resembles a marriage, provides safety, consolation, and perhaps erotic satisfaction either prior to marriage or alongside it. (60).
Brokeback Mountain is, as I alluded to it a moment ago, a melodrama because the conflict of the plot is taken almost from Romeo & Juliet. Two lovers discover one another in a fit of passion, express that love through physical acts, get swept up in their love, they are separated, and then ultimately they have to hide their love until it destroys them. For Jack it’s being queer-bashed by his father and some locals, for Ennis it’s a lifetime of isolation and dissatisfaction. Being gay in rural areas is ultimately going to lead to destruction, or at least that seems the end point of the novella, but looking to another book there is a logic behind the destruction of Jack and Ennis.
Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a vital book in my library because it seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t pluck it off the shelf to read or transcribe some quote from it. When I was actually writing my original Brokeback Mountain paper I cited heavily from it largely because Tompkins is a damn good writer, and partly because she opened my eyes to many of the tropes of standard Westerns I’d been watching and then reading for years.
In one passage she lays out a central concern for genre:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and antifeminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. (28).
And in a later passage she explains out part of the embedded homoeroticism:
In the course of these struggles the frequently forms a bond with another man–sometimes his rival, more often a comrade–a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the motions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action–usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (39).
And I suppose, with that in hand, my contester may still wonder then why they should bother reading it, but the previous quotes should be enough to explain. Brokeback Mountain is a book which, by exploring the romance between Ennis and Jack has not only allowed a part of the Western that was always there to “come-out,” it does so while also following the standard “rules” that makes the genre what it is.
For my own part it goes back to the early passages of Brokeback Mountain when Jack and Ennis are watching the sheep and falling and love:
As it did go. They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, ‘I’m not no queer,’ and Jack jumped in with ‘Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but our ours’ (15)
I wouldn’t realize that I was bisexual until a year ago and this knowledge is troubling to me. Growing up I always felt a sense of lacking in myself and I answered that largely by watching Westerns with my dad. Most of them John Wayne films, but there was also Feivel Goes West. The men in those movies, with their pistols, quick hands, horses, and cynical wisdom about humanity seemed like the kind of men I wanted to be when I grew up, and when I made my discovery there was some part of me that felt that lacking again. Brokeback Mountain checks that resolve however, for it in effect levels the playing field. While the novella may be a melodrama about the tragedy of being gay, Ennis and Jack do queer the Western genre by their very existence. Looking over articles and academic books about the genre I became more and more aware as well that cowboys weren’t the sole property of white male heterosexual audiences. There was a queer behavior embedded in those mythic men who defined the identity of Americans to peoples all over the world.
To the young bisexual or homosexual man, unsure about the possibility of possessing masculinity and their sexuality, Brokeback Mountain provides them a model to work with. Queer men aren’t just prissy fairies (though if you want to be that be it and rock it), they can be working class men as well; hard men that work the land and have to fight for paychecks. Proulx’s novella does an important job of reminding readers that while John Wayne might have gotten Angie Dickinson at the end of Rio Bravo, somewhere out there was a little boy who wanted to see Dean Martin wind up with Ricky Nelson too.
The cowboy was my hero growing up, and he still is. Whether it’s Roland from the Dark Tower, Chance in Rio Bravo, Sherriff Wiley Burp in Fievel Goes West, or Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, all of these men have taught me how to be a man, and at least one has helped me finally understand why those SEARS underwear models made me feel funny.
All quotes from Brokeback Mountain came from the Scribner paperback printing of the novella. All quotes from Queer Cowboys came from the Palgrave Macmillan paperback printing. All quotes from West of Everything came from the Oxford University Press edition.
The title of this essay is a line of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singers. Willie Nelson breathes the American spirit and sings the voice of long dead men. Anyway, I could wax poetic for days about the man, but the reader should listen to the song My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys at least once. If you’re interested follow the link below:
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
I didn’t get a chance to put it in but another reason to read the novella is simply because Proulx as a writer has a beautiful prose that, when read aloud, rivals poetry in its ability to blend aesthetics with mood. Take for instance this description of Brokeback mountain:
Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire. The cold air sweetened, banded pebbles and crumbs of soil cast sudden pencil-long shadows and the rearing lodgepole pines below them massed in slabs of somber malachite.” (9)
There are few passages about landscapes that ever achieve such beauty, and damn is Proulx doesn’t knock it out of the park.
****Writer’s REAL FINAL Note****
This is still one of the best conclusions to a Western.