Hegemonic Masculinity in Brokeback Mountain
Written by Amanda Tan - 17. Apr. 19.
B. Manifestation of Hegemonic Masculinity
C. Conflicts of Hegemonic Masculinity and Gender Fluidity
D. Hegemonic Masculinity and the Constructs of Gender
E. Multiple Multi-faceted Masculinities
F. Intricacies of Hegemonic Masculinity
G. Identifications with Hegemonic Masculinity
H. Internalizing a Lifetime of Hegemonic Masculinity
Amidst one of the most orthodox conditions for being respected as a man comes traditionally through exerting their authority in a household and being able to adequately provide for their families. Undoubtedly, the progression of gender roles in postmodern times has definitely not gone unnoticed as the tropes of masculinity (that are still heavily entrenched in our societies) are being continually broken down, scrutinized, and refuted. The privileges that are showered onto men who possess a conventional set of ‘masculine traits’ and those who embody a certain stature, gave rise to the term hegemonic masculinity. Connell states the definition of hegemonic masculinity as the disposition of gender norms which exemplifies the currently accepted answer to the problematic legitimacy of patriarchy, which anchors the dominant position of men and the subordination of women (Connell 77). It is not uncommon to forget that the power held by the patriarchal system not only subjugates women, but men too - not all men bask in the same space of superiority, and that status can be very quickly stripped away if they do not conform to their prescribed roles (Brett 2). In the film Brokeback Mountain, the characters and issues presented are very much fueled by the notion of hegemonic masculinity and its repercussions on an individual and on society as a whole. Through the film, we are steered within a tragedy as a result of being conditioned into being bounded by society’s ideal construct of self- identity and the compartmentalization of gender, and we bear witness to how this can run so deeply in someone that it destroys their life completely. I aim to in this essay, traverse the depths of hegemonic masculinity through the development of Jack and Ennis’s relationship, dissect its profound relations to sexuality and gender fluidity, as well as to pull away from the construct of gender roles that exist.
MANIFESTATION OF HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY
The manifestation of hegemonic masculinity is not inherent, but very much cultivated depending on the environment us as individuals were brought up in, and what we have been conditioned to internalize during our lifetimes. Hegemonic masculinity allows one to retain power, privilege and control by adhering to the standards of what it means to be a ‘real man’, which more often than not encompasses physical attributes as well as characteristics frequently associated with being ‘manly’, such as being unemotional, aggressive etc. (Brett 2). In Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis were brought up in incredibly traditional households, with gender roles being strictly delegated from when they were children. Both were high school drop out country boys who were raised in small, impoverished ranches and whose livelihoods depended on hard labor and privation - both rowdy-mannered, rough-spoken and inured to the stoic routine of an agrarian life. When Ennis was a child, his father saw the need to expose to him the mutilated body of a homosexual rancher - brutal imagery being sowed into his mind that festered throughout his lifetime. Jack and Ennis were two human beings who came from tormented backgrounds and had been subjected to similar social hardships, who inevitably bonded under the circumstance of herding sheep together up in the idyllic mountains. They slowly gained affection for one another as they consciously sought to reject their own feelings, both fervently maintaining the stance that ‘I ain’t no queer’, denying their homoerotic desires as a result of a deep-seated conviction of heteronormativity (Chatzipapatheodoridis 30). They are in a perpetual battle with society’s imposed behavioral orders of masculinity that prevent them from loving someone of a gender they felt they were not supposed to be attracted to. This internal struggle presents itself the very first time Jack and Ennis have sex, as we are shown the ambiguous push and pull of their aggression and affection, mirroring their uncertainty of the situation they were in, and at the same time the need to assert each other’s dominance in their developing relationship.
The patriarchal society not only places women at a place of inferiority, it also acts as a vertically moving system to arrange men (Brett 2). In juxtaposition against Jack and Ennis’s vulnerable positions, the film presents us with heterosexual male characters as archetypes of the patriarchy - Aguirre (Jack and Ennis’s boss), Ennis’s deceased father as well as Jack’s father in law, who personify the hegemony in their society, and who throughout the film, project what it means to embody masculinity and the perpetual dismissal of any form of behavior other than their own. The persona of Aguirre diverges from Jack and Ennis with regards to sexuality as well as class, as he is being put in a pedestal of power and had the control to take the only job they had away whenever he saw fit, which he eventually did because he was homophobic. This very treatment towards Jack and Ennis by the men in their social circles reveals to us the vastly patriarchal environment they were brought up in, the values they grew to embody and the people they have been associated with their whole lives, justifying their fears of being romantically involved with another man - well knowing that they could lose not only their livelihoods, but also their own perception of their status as men.
The allegories that point towards the struggles Jack and Ennis face with the notion of masculinity are beautifully interwoven early on in the film. The non-accidental moment where Jack misses as he attempts to shoot a coyote, implies ever so lyrically the relationship his character has with the problematic definitions of masculinity (Brummett 205). Following this is a moment where Ennis encounters a bear that scares his horse, which causes him to lose a week’s worth of supplies he had gathered. Perhaps the most conspicuous allegory lies in the fact that Jack and Ennis are herding sheep, a species most cowboys absolutely deplore. These subtle yet significant touches to the narrative compellingly reinforce the pervasive tropes of how hegemonic masculinity has invaded the lives of Jack and Ennis.
CONFLICTS OF HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND GENDER FLUIDITY
This concern of the masculine gender role poses a conflict with the notion of gender fluidity, and outrightly disavows the idea of two men being romantically as well as sexually involved. Men who unbendingly adhere to hegemonic masculinity have a high propensity of being pressured in situations whenever their masculinity is being threatened. An individual’s evaluation of these situations as pressurizing and unwanted is fueled by one’s inability to meet the standards prescribed by the norms of the expectation of a hegemonic male. When men experience such forms of stress from not living up to their conventional masculine roles, they have the tendency to react in ways that reaffirm their masculinity (Eisler et al. 134). In the case of Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis retreated completely after being discovered by their boss and having their jobs taken away for being affectionate with one another. They decided that their then fleeting romance was not worth a lifetime of fear and discrimination, and parted ways as they each married a woman and started families of their own - reaffirming their roles as men in society. Because of the overbearing weight of societal expectations that have been instilled into Jack and Ennis, they refused to even consider pursuing their affections for one another outside of Brokeback, and so the prospective life they could have had if society did not exist could never have been fulfilled, regardless of whether the relationship would have worked out or not (when stripped of any form of societal pressure).
Heterosexuality has been crucial to the concept of hegemonic masculinity which has proliferated the dominance of men over women and subordinate men to continue, as Connellstates that: “gayness, in patriarchal ideology, is the repository of whatever is symbolically expelled from hegemonic masculinity” (Connell 78). The governance of the boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual has been the core in the construct of hegemonic masculinity (Duncanson 5). These regulations of heterosexual and homosexual have been internalized by both Jack and Ennis, as they chose to step away from the (dangerous) waters of possibly being gender fluid, and instead chose to retain their social status as men by marrying women and having children.
HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY AND THE CONSTRUCT OF GENDER
The construct of hegemonic masculinity stems from the very divided ideology of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, which evolves from a lengthened regulatory process of our assigned gender roles since birth, in which we use as a crucial device in the self-construction of our identities (Butler 5). Gender identity is constantly constructed through language, gestures, and all forms of social signs, echoing that our behavior formulates our gender (Butler 270). Jack and Ennis are characterized by their verbal silence and emotional reticence, while the female characters like Alma and Lureen are portrayed as chatty, expressive and typically sensitive and compliant - putting forth the traditionally 'masculine' and 'feminine' traits of gender. The relations between gender norms, society, and the individual is complex, with each having an effect on one another, with a different force and impact over different periods of time. It is necessary to reiterate that this is a problem not only for women, but also for men. The system that keeps men in a collectively dominant position over women and in competitive relations to other men comes at an expense for men in terms of their health and quality of life (Morrell et al. 15). Confining themselves to the walls of hegemonic masculinity, Jack and Ennis both carry on to lead what it means to have a ‘normal’ heterosexual life. As Ennis and Alma got married, he keeps his memory of what he shared with Jack a secret as part of his commitment to wanting to live as a heteronormative male. On the exterior, he epitomizes the masculine ideal, maintaining a demandingly laborious way of life and providing for his wife and two daughters. On the inside however, are the thoughts and emotions that Ennis represses deep within him and speaks with no one about, which puts an inexorable barrier between him and Alma. Ennis grapples greatly with the lingering memory of Jack as well as the conflict he struggles with over his own identity and how he truly feels as he tries to lead a heteronormative life - these heavy, solitary thoughts that he has to bear with in silence creates a degree of distance from Alma that gradually swells, and causes the eventual falling apart of their marriage. Jack does not deny his emotions with men, and accepts himself more than Ennis does, yet he still shares Ennis’s concern to maintain his identity and social standing as a heteronormative male, and he affirms himself by marrying Lureen and having a child - this does not stop him from having affairs and one-night encounters with men that he meets along the way.
The regard for marriage as a signifier of hegemonic masculinity instead of a signifier of love brings about the question of gender that is developed on the binary of masculinity and femininity, where the aspect of femininity is analyzed within the heterosexual context as a destructive power to masculinity (Butler 6), bringing about the idea that only by marrying a woman would a man be affirmed as a man, the idea that any man being with someone more 'masculine' than them would threaten their own sense of masculinity.
Brokeback Mountain can be seen to deconstruct gender and sexual identity by allowing us
to question whether gender is a fixed concept and whether sexual orientation is a choice. In the
film, having sex with a woman is being portrayed as almost functional, rather than it being a
result of the deep emotional connection between a man and a woman. It is suggested that
natural sex in our conventions is in actual fact non-existent, but is made to seem natural through
a societal construct (Butler 25). As it is further pointed out, gender is the repeated stylization of
the body, a set of repetitive acts within a highly rigid and regulated frame that coagulate over
time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being (Butler 25). The
relationship between Ennis and Alma seem to revolve largely around sexual acts and child
support, with little resonance on a deeper emotional level. For instance, most conversations
between Ennis and Alma that are conveyed in the film tend to lean towards parenting and
financial issues - substantiating the fact that their relationship is purely playing by society’s rules,
each of them fulfilling the duties of their assigned gender. This is seen in contrast to the
relationship that Ennis has formed with Jack, who takes up a larger role in Ennis's life as much
more than merely a sexual partner - he is also seen as an incomparable soulmate as they bond
over the same interests and livelihoods, and who Ennis is more willing to open up about his inner
world and feelings. There is a moment in the film where Ennis uses his mom's words to describe
Jack as a gentle horse, and sings to him in a calm, blissful voice. This instance of connection,
especially in juxtaposition to the relationship between Ennis and Alma, concretizes the
relationship between the two men, and yet, the stringent segregation of gender and sexuality in
their society prevents two people in love from starting a life and family together - venomously
coercing Ennis into constantly holding back the deepest part of himself from the one who loves
him (Jack), and the people he has committed to love (his family).
MULTIPLE MULTI-FACTED MASCULINITIES
Anthropologists and historians have determined that there is no singular pattern ofmasculinity that can be found everywhere (Connell 16). The construct of a particular form of masculinity is highly influenced by various cultures, and the different periods of history. The barometers of what it means to be masculine vary greatly in differing contexts e.g. some cultures place soldiers in high regard as they view violence as the governing trait of masculinity, while others might view soldiers with contempt and regard violence as blasphemy. Some cultures might regard being homosexual as a taboo to pure masculinity, whilst other cultures might hold a less conservative stance. Consequently, in vast multicultural societies, a range of definitions of masculinity is very likely to exist. What it means to be masculine in a working-class community also highly differs from what it means to be masculine in a middle-class community, not forgetting the disparity between the very wealthy and those in poverty (Connell 16). That being said, multiple forms and definitions of masculinity can also exist within a particular context. There can be differing viewpoints and mannerisms as to what masculinity entails in any workplace, community or social circle. For instance, to someone from a middle class metropolitan setting, masculinity could mean holding a key leadership role in the workplace, as opposed to someone else from the same demographic, who could possibly equate different traits with masculinity e.g. being very technically skilled in their field or being able to earn the most money.
Metropolitan cities in the United States such as New York and Los Angeles have notably functioned as vast communal spaces for populations with a range of various gender fluid sexes and sexualities, and commonly boasts a multi-faceted plethora of experiences (Chatzipapatheodoridis 37). In light of the overly portrayed affiliation of homosexuality with urbanization, Brokeback Mountain takes us away from this overrated representation by exposing to us characters whose experiences diverge from modernity and who are able to provide an alternative perspective (Needham 44). We see Jack and Ennis confined by the spaces of Wyoming-Texas in the 1960s, where the dominant role of men is greatly esteemed within that time and place, as reproduction maintains the patrilineal structure of inheritance and creates a perpetually renewing force to support the family (Freud 125). The breathtaking serenity of Brokeback Mountain symbolizes isolation and altitude in an empowering and liberating place, where Jack and Ennis are freed from fear, humiliation and paranoia (Proulx 131). This freedom that presented itself, wild and distant from the turmoils of society, paved the circumstances for the developing romance between them, which would never have been otherwise realized, particularly in the rural spaces of 1960s Wyoming.
Hollywood films featuring two male protagonists are usually structured in a manner that presents a ‘divided’ masculinity consisting a male-male pairing of the ‘dominant star and a star who threatens his dominance’ (Greven 29). Even though Jack’s character in the film does not threaten Ennis’s dominance, a relationship of power is demonstrated and mutually fueled. The first time they engage in intercourse reveals structural components of that power, with the assumption that penetration in coitus distinguishes the 'passive' and 'aggressive'. Even though Jack initiates sex, Ennis is the ‘aggressor’ while Jack remains passive. As the narrative progresses, the power balance between them grows more profound as it is progressively blurred within the momentary, inadequate pockets of time they spend together as they live their otherwise separate lives - exposing the deep fissures in the ideological constructs of masculinity in the midst of different time periods, situations as well as circumstances. We witness the nuanced shifts in the meaning of masculinity within moments, and within life stages, from when Jack and Ennis first met, to when they fall in love in the wilderness, to their respective perspectives of sexuality when re-integrating back into society, to when they married different women, to their relations with their families, to their ephemeral, tender moments together, and to Jack’s eventual demise.
INTRICACIES OF HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY
Masculinities cannot be specifically defined or resolved because they are far from simple, homogeneous patterns (Conell 19). Human beings, regardless of gender, sex or sexuality tend to express conflicting proclivities, desires and logic towards matters and scenarios as they evolve with the accumulation of life experiences and as they are exposed to different environments. A man's pursuit and facade of heterosexuality may exist as a sheer vulnerable layer concealing a deeper homosexual desire. A young girl's identification with women may co-exist or battle with identifications with men in light of societal pressures.
Even as Ennis strictly measures himself by the standards of hegemonic masculinity, when he sees Jack again for the first time in four years, the longing in his heart that festered on inevitably gave in and he passionately kisses Jack within the compounds of his home - momentarily defying the codes he had set for himself, disregarding the societal gaze and the fact that his wife and children were in such proximity to their impassioned reunion. Torn apart by their superficial heteronormative marriages within their individual social circles, Jack and Ennis embark on their periodic 'fishing trips' up on Brokeback Mountain over a span of twenty years. As they claim to adhere to the tropes of hegemonic masculinity, there is mutual recognition of the depth and magnitude of how much their relationship meant to one another. They chose not to lead a life together, but neither were they willing to let each other go.
When Alma suggests to Ennis an opening at a power company which could offer him good pay, he refutes her by criticizing himself, stating that he was ‘so clumsy I’d probably get electrocuted’, when in actuality, Ennis refused the higher paying job so that it would be easier to plan his trips with Jack.
Throughout the film, we see a gradual but cumulative effect of Ennis’s repeated rejections of Jack. When Ennis’s marriage fell apart and he got a divorce, Jack saw the opportunity to finally make a life with Ennis, only to be turned away the moment he arrives.
We are littered with the convoluting decisions made by Ennis, which at times conform to the notion of hegemonic masculinity, and at times challenge it completely. The incredibly complex nature of existing in the world, forming and losing relationships, the boundless depth of the human mind, and the web of the human condition more often than not transcends any kind of rules, labels and classifications - it is only human inclination for us to compartmentalize what is difficult to process, in order for it to be streamlined into something easier to understand.
IDENTIFICATIONS WITH HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY
The very concept of hegemonic masculinity can be seen as what causes Brokeback Mountain to often be classified as a 'gay cowboy' film, when it could be more accurately labelled as a 'tragic love story' instead, without the confines of gender or sexuality of the characters. Those who consciously or subconsciously identify as the superior masculine male, the heterosexual audience, would subconsciously want to separate the film from themselves, thus seeing the need in pinning a label onto the film that they would not want to be identified with.
There are two forms of cinematic identification that people tend to gravitate towards:
1. That of dreams and fantasy that involve the countless and contradictory tendencies within the construct of the individual. 2. The experience of narcissistic identification with the visuals of a human figure perceived as the marginalized (Ellis 139).
Both these sensations are evoked in the conditions of entertainment cinema. This identification involves both the recognition of ourselves in the image projected on screen, and the identification of self with the various roles that are part of the narrative, from protagonists to antagonists, to heroes and villains. Identification is thus multiple and fractured, a sense of seeing the constituent parts of the audience's own psyche paraded before themselves (Ellis 140).
Annie Proulx, author of the short story Brokeback Mountain is based on, has noted that she has received countless letters from men writing to her implying that they knew better how Jack and Ennis would behave because of their gender, and that many of the letters complaining about the film’s ending began with 'I’m not gay, but...', and she even received 'advice' to rewrite the ending, including new lovers and boyfriends for Ennis after Jack's death (Wyatt). Proulx expresses her exasperation that the men who wrote to her did not seem to understand that the story was not just about Jack and Ennis, but about the larger social issue of homophobia in a specific time period and amidst a particular mindset. This very response from heterosexual males reflects the lack of understanding of the point of the film - for people to empathize with those who are not in the realm of privilege, and who were not born with the advantage of basking in the glory of hegemonic masculinity, and instead are marginalized and whose lives are in shambles as they are made to suffer in silence. To equate happiness here to living happily ever after with a new man after the death of someone Ennis struggled to love for half of his life, is foolish almost to the point of ridicule, and the inability to realize this precisely reflects one's distance and detachment from the core issues of the film, which is arguably precisely what leads to superficial assumptions of gender and sexuality in the first place.
INTERNALIZING A LIFETIME OF HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY
Jack and Ennis's final moments on Brokeback together was a heart-wrenching exchange of Ennis not only rejecting Jack's idea of living together, but him also stating that he would be away for a long time - this being incredibly unbearable for Jack. The couple's agony is placed against the sheer beauty of the mountain, with the majesty of nature only accentuating their excruciating pain. Brokeback Mountain remains for Ennis a nostalgic and sore memory after Jack's death - the landscape that once proved as a sanctuary was relegated to being a postcard kept in his closet - alluding to homosexual secrecy, and the fact that it was the only place where Jack and Ennis were allowed to be together.
The death of Jack and the projection of him in Ennis's mind of being brutally mutilated, reminiscent of the violent imagery his father forced upon him as a child, is perhaps the ultimate state of detriment that could result from the effects of hegemonic masculinity being so deeply entrenched in Ennis as well as the society that built him - a tragic moment that comes full circle. Even after death, Jack’s wishes to have his ashes scattered over Brokeback was denied by a patriarchal figure in his life, his father - this very well sums up the extent of damage that accompanies the toxicities of hegemonic masculinity.
Brokeback Mountain serves ultimately as a romantic tragedy that is built upon the fundamental constructs of gender that fuel the perpetuations of hegemonic masculinity in the individual as well as in societies. As with any narrative or relationship, development requires time, and the depth of Brokeback Mountain only begins to truly unfold after a period of years within the film as we are brought along Jack and Ennis’s long, arduous struggle to accept themselves, and to accept their love for each other. The realization that they have been chased by the memory of
Brokeback from the moment they left draws us in, as they too begin to realize that their desires were hardly fleeting desires, but a tenacious connection that neither Jack or Ennis wanted to leave behind. The elaborate interweaving of the conflicting manifestations and multi-faceted notions of hegemonic masculinity, its relations to gender fluidity and how the characters face a perpetual state of dilemma, self-denial and repression allows us to empathize and hopefully unveils the importance of stripping these constructs away as a society.
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