Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and Lee’s Film Adaptation: Reconstructing the Myth of the Cowboy in the American West

February 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

Brokeback Mountain is a short story by Annie Proulx that touches upon social issues such as intolerance and gender stereotypes in the American West. Using the beauty but also the vast wilderness of the landscape of the American west and the stereotype of the cowboy, she subverts this romanticized image by exposing the great psychological and physical violence towards those who are different, something that although milder than it was in the past, is still an issue. In order to achieve the above, Proulx makes a very significant and meaningful choice of both the setting of the short story but also of the stereotype that her two main characters represent. The setting and its connotations are also highlighted in the film adaptation with the same title by Ang Lee (2005). The story is set in Wyoming which is a state that is closely associated with the American frontier and manifest destiny that hold a great significance for the American national identity and the westward expansion, all embodied in the stereotypical and even mythical image of the cowboy.

As O’Connor and Rollins point out, “indeed, throughout its history, American culture would be almost unimaginable without the West as a touchstone of national identity” (2). The idea of the frontier highlights the distinctive American characteristic of Man facing a vast and hostile nature but yet managing to survive through hard work, thriving and expanding against all difficulties, “it is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America.” (Hine 10) It thus comes naturally that the people inhabiting this wild environment would learn to resemble it in traits and characteristics and be themselves tough, rough mannered, self-sufficient people capable of ‘getting the work done’ in order to survive, placing their faith in God and his plan as the first Puritan settlers did, finding order and organization through strict morality and rigid patriarchy. As the historian Turner indicates, in the American West “complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control” (82). These characteristics are also those that are associated with the stereotype of the cowboy, “the great Western myth” (Asquith 78) that is historically tied with the state of Wyoming and as Nicholas points out, “the 1892 Johnson County war was, in many ways, a conflict over what kind of story Wyoming would tell about itself. In the years after the war, the booster, prosettlement narrative coexisted with that of the rugged individualist. However, it was the latter image, symbolized by the cowboy that would become ascendant in the state’s portrayal of itself (xiii).

Wyoming then and the stereotype of the cowboy are used by Proulx in order to be criticized and subverted, presented as embodying a socially hostile environment that supresses people and takes a psychological toll on them. Both Ennis and Jack were “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” (254). It is also significant that the film is subversive towards its own genre. The film industry played a very crucial role in the formation of the stereotype of the cowboy and the idyllic albeit violent west. As O’Connor and Rollins point out, “troughout our cultural history, Americans have been in awe of their frontier experience, and it has been rendered to comment on vital national issues, which it actually may have helped shape” (4). It is thus evident that for a film to portray two cowboys that are the opposite of the male gender identity of the west is very subversive and revolutionary and it comments on “the need to redefine the concept of the frontier in professional histories and in the public imagination (O’Connor and Rollins 262). Proulx got the idea for her story when she saw a man sitting alone in a bar and he seemed lonely and as though he was missing someone, “there was something in his expression, a kind of bitter longing which provided the germ for Ennis del Mar” (qtd. in Asquith 109). The other incident that inspired her was a week later when again in a bar she overheard the owner talking about a homosexual and how he was lucky that everyone was preoccupied with a tournament at the time, otherwise, “things would have gone badly”. After that, “she began to consider what it would have been like for any ill-informed, confused, not-sure-of-what-he-was-feeling youth growing up in rural Wyoming (qtd. in Asquith 77). Even though at first she was reluctant about her story’s adaptation by Ang Lee because she was afraid that he wouldn’t understand the complexity of her setting, after she saw the premier she admitted that her story “was not mangled but enlarged into huge and gripping imagery that rattled minds and squeezed hearts” (qtd. in Asquith 77). For Ennis and Jack, Brokeback Mountain is a safe haven away from the prejudiced society that they could never face because they themselves shared the same social taboos thus never being able to make the most important step towards changing the mind of the community, that is, accepting who they are and loving themselves. Being brought up with the strict values of an intolerant society by fathers that provided an unfulfilling and unloving parenting to their children, the only place they could feel free expressing themselves was nature.

Up in the mountains they felt like what they did and felt was natural because there was no one else there to judge them, “in the splendour and marginality of the untamed American landscape a freedom for male love to express itself away from social condemnation that” as Proulx has suggested, “enables them to challenge the gods, or, more prosaically, to defy both social convention and internal quibbles” (Asquith 80-81). This sense of nature being outside the social sphere and the eyes of the community turns out to be an illusion since the characters cannot escape the deep-rooted intolerance in the gaze of the community symbolized by “Aguirre, whose surveillance provides a constant reminder of social taboos (Asquith 82). The society seems to have a silent fear towards homosexuality, and apart from the violence that is narrated, the judgement is always in the gaze of the community and not manifested in speech, making it thus more ominous and dark.

Aguirre doesn’t say anything to Ennis and Jack and neither does Alma to her husband after the scene where “easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, […] and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders […] shutting the door again” (263-264). This ominously inarticulate fear is also evident in Lureen’s “level voice” (277) that was “cold as snow” (278) and in Jack’s father who again “sat silent […] staring at Ennis with an angry, knowing expression (279) As Reumann suggests, “an elaborate system of fears regarding same-sex love pervaded the national culture and structured social relations” and he as he implies, “Americans’ violent repudiation of homosexuality hid a secret attraction” (191). Whether that interpretation is far-fetched or valid is debatable but one thing is for sure, that such a deep-rooted hatred that can lead to brutal acts of violence, cold-blood murder and torture cannot be something other than deep-rooted fear of the Other, of the different that could be a menace to homogeneity and the social status quo. That is probably the reason she chose this particular setting and as Asquith has noted: She decided to set the story in the early 1960s, presumably because such rural homophobia stood in stark contrast to the universal liberation sweeping the country’s cities, and also because Ennis and Jack would have grown up in the repressive 1950s. It was important for Proulx that they were clearly homophobic themselves, especially Ennis, and that they wanted to be cowboys – part of the great Western myth (78) The film has a great emphasis on the vastness of the western landscape and the untameable nature through the long scenes of the endless skies and horizons to highlight the impact of such a society on the individual. The reason that this image of the natural environment is so significant is because it is constantly contrasted with the inner selves of the characters that seem to be restricted and painfully inarticulate.

When the outer world seems to explode, the inner self implodes violently due to the emotions that have to be restrained and suppressed. This destructive force of inarticulate emotions is manifested in the scene where the characters part and Ennis has a physical reaction against what he considers shameful unnatural: Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time. He stopped at the side of the road and, in the whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up. He felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time for the feeling to wear off (262). Only after Jack is dead can Ennis finally dream and be happy: “he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream” (253). He is free to finally admit to himself his deep love without the guilt and the fear that he may be carried away by his feelings and end up dead himself: “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” (268). Within the context of the strict western community, Ennis’ fear of expression seems more like a survival instinct caused by his upbringing that end up being justified by Jack’s death that he suspects to resemble the homosexual’s that his father had forced him to witness when he was a child: “they got him with the tire iron” (277). The blame seems to be put on the community for the story’s bitter ending and the scene that highlights that is in the white and cold Puritan house of Jack that their love symbolized by the two embracing shirts is forced to stay closeted.

Works Cited

Asquith, Mark. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain and Postcards. London: Continuum, 2009. Print. Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Prod. Diana Ossana and James Schamus. By Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. Perf. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Universal Home Entertainment, 2005. DVD. Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2000. Print. Nicholas, Liza. Becoming Western: Stories of Culture and Identity in the Cowboy State. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2006. Print. O’Connor, John E., and Peter C. Rollins. Hollywood’s West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 2005. Print. Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York, NY: Scribner, 1999. Print. Reumann, Miriam G. American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. Berkeley: U of California, 2005. Print. Turner, Frederick Jackson, and Martin Ridge. History, Frontier, and Section: Three Essays. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1993. Print.

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