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Monday, December 12, 2005

Brokeback: Bi shepherds, not gay cowboys

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Brokeback Mountain is about bi shepherds, not gay cowboys.
.
A Montana shepherd in 1942, from Wikipedia



I used to work on a cattle ranch, and the distinctive thing about cowboys is that they work with cows.

The gay cowboy meme, repeated over and over again, really speaks to the ignorance of coastal media elites. For instance (one example of literally hundreds), Good Morning America went so far as to ask cowboys what they thought of "the gay cowboy movie." That would be like asking accountants what they think of a movie about lawyers. I think the problem is that, as JQ said in the Queer Fist discussion board, "I can imagine for the Hollywood press there's nothing as unappealing as two gay shepherds as opposed to two rootin' tootin' cowboys. Sounds positively arcadian."

Perhaps I'm being a pedantic little fuck, but the whole story is premised on Ennis and Jack being a specific kind of down-and-out loner. Cowboys are more macho and socially esteemed, whereas shepherds are outcasts. Jack and Ennis are the types of guys who'd never be trusted as cowboys. They simply couldn't handle it. The prevailing opinion would have been that all they're good for is minding sheep, which even a dog could do. It's an important part of the story that they're so low on the social totem pole that they're shepherds, rather than cowboys.

You could argue that Ang Lee taps into cowboy iconography, but really that's iconography of the West, not cowboys per se. And yes, Ennis ends up working on a cattle ranch when he's older. But in that first, painstakingly detailed summer, the summer that defines the rest of their lives, these two come together as the wretched of the earth: shepherds.

As GB Donart just replied over at DIRELAND, "During the time I was growing up in nearby Idaho, sheep herders were almost always temporary "guest workers," Basques in the 50's and 60's, replaced by Peruvians in the 70's, doing work that's apparently still exempt from any meaningful minimum wage in most states. A Google of "sheep herder" and "minimum wage" or "H-2B" turns up the terribly exploitative conditions to this day. ($900 pay for a month of 14 hour days.)"


Here's a crucial line from the second paragraph of Annie Proulx's story:

That spring, hungry for any job, each had signed up with Farm and Ranch Employment—they came together on paper as herder and camp tender for the same sheep operation north of Signal.


And here's a paragraph from the Wikipedia article on shepherds that gives a good sense of the very particular mystique of shepherds:

In many societies shepherds were an important part of the economy. Unlike farmers, shepherds were often wage earners, being paid to watch the sheep of others. Shepherds also lived apart from society, being largely nomadic. It was mainly a job of solitary males without children, and new shepherds thus needed to be recruited externally. Shepherds were most often the younger sons of farming peasants who did not inherit any land.


Annie Proulx was using a very specific Wyoming character type: down and out, itinerant, solitary men.

Shepherds, not cowboys.

Oh, and when I was on the ranch, the guys definitely, definitely got up to all sorts of sexual hijinks (including some suckling calf action), but that's for another blog entry.

UPDATE:

My argument has gotten a bit of attention since Doug Ireland linked to it, and someone was kind enough to point out this interiew with Proulx herself, in which she makes her intentions crystal clear:

"Excuse me, but it is NOT a story about 'two cowboys.' It is a story about two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids in 1963 who have left home and who find themselves in a personal sexual situation they did not expect, understand nor can manage."

then, a bit later,

"Yet both are beguiled by the cowboy myth, as are most people who live in the state, and Ennis tries to be one but never gets beyond ranch hand work; Jack settles on rodeo as an expression of the Western ideal."

So straight from the cowgirl's mouth, these are not cowboys, but struggling ranch kids. She doesn't weigh in on the idea of them as sheep herders, but I don't see how else you could describe them that first summer.

The main point being, they are not cowboys. Proulx even gets indignant about it. If the scriptwriters or others described them as such, they appear to be misinterpreting her intentions.




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51 Comments:

  • At 2:23 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Come on, you really think the experience of those cowboys we do know--all alone at cow camp for the summer, nothing to comfort them but their many, many guns and each other--was so different?

     
  • At 2:33 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  • At 9:22 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I also notice that they didn't even ask real cowboys, they asked rodeo performers. That's like asking game show contestants what they think of a movie about professors.

     
  • At 12:09 PM, Blogger Bill Reed said…

    In my blog on BBM, I refer to them first and foremost as shepherds. Nary a cow in sight of these "boys."

    http://people-vs-drchilledair.blogspot.com/2005/12/spur-of-moment_08.html

     
  • At 2:24 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    So you did! You and I are in a tiny minority, though...

     
  • At 7:36 PM, Blogger cufflink44 said…

    I can't see why the hell this matters to anyone, but for the record, Ennis and Jack are not shepherds. They're two dirt-poor, uneducated 19-year-olds who got A JOB herding sheep. If the job were herding cows, or goats, or armadillos, they would have taken it as long as it paid something. Herding sheep was not their profession or their calling. It was their way of making sure they had enough beans and beer to get through the summer.

     
  • At 12:40 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Hm, so they were working as shepherds, not actually shepherds? I don't really see the difference. My point was that Proulx was tapping into the myth of the weirdo, loser shepherd (doing the job that nobody else wants to do). It's totally different from the cowboy myth.

    But I like your post-queer theory take on identity. None of ever are anything, we just do things. That's your point, right? I'll buy it.

     
  • At 3:53 PM, Blogger mgconlan said…

    Actually, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger's character) IS described in the script of "Brokeback Mountain" as a cowboy who frequently absents himself from his family to go on cattle roundups, even though he's not actually shown working with cattle during the film. It's clear from the line from Annie Proulx's story Chris quotes — “That spring, hungry for any job, each had signed up with Farm and Ranch Employment—they came together on paper as herder and camp tender for the same sheep operation north of Signal” — that Ennis's true "calling" is as a cowboy but he was willing to take a job working with sheep when no jobs involving cattle were available.

    Mark Gabrish Conlan

     
  • At 7:39 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    MC, I just incorporated an update in which I quote Annie Proulx herself on the matter. I would say she's pretty authoritative.

    And if the script describes Ennis as a cowboy, then that's McMurty's reinterpretation and oversimplification. And eternal shame. Hahah sorry I don't mean to belabor this so much, but it seems clear that the short story and Proulx's commentary about the short story make it clear that she does not intend them to be cowboys. They might fantasize about being cowboys, but that's completely consistent with my interpretation of them as down-and-out sheep herders, a whole notch (if not more) below cowboys in the Wyoming social hierarchy.

     
  • At 2:58 PM, Blogger Brady Westwater said…

    I read - and enjoyed - the story when it first came out and was then stunned that it as now going to be a story about gay cowboys since the story was so clearly about two outcasts who could not fit into the cowboy life on far more than just one level.

    As one who spent many years 'out there', I can vouch that no cowboy ever came within miles of a 'sheep' unlesss it was sitting on his plate or lining the inside of his jacket.

    And among the few sheepherder jokes I can repeat - even on a R-rated blog - are - the only place you can get virgin wool is from a really fast sheep and the riddle - why is a sheepherder like a taxidermist - answer, they both mount sheep.

    No one and I repeat - no one - ranks lower in the social order than a sheepherder.

     
  • At 8:00 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Cool, thanks for the personal anecdotes, Brady.

    I am so tempted to tell my craziest bestiality anecdotes (it was an annual ritual for the guys to, um, befriend the suckling calves), but I'll resist...

    I dunno why people are getting so worked up about a couple sheep herders sleeping together when most actual cowboys I know have done their share of FAR more questionable activities... ;)

     
  • At 11:27 AM, Blogger Fizzy good said…

    I completely agree with you about the 'cowboy' thing, but I'm pretty damn sure they aren't bi, particularly Jack. You might describe Ennis as bi, but I personally would say that he was in denial.

     
  • At 6:47 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Heh, I'll buy that. Definitions of "gay" are a lot more imprecise and subjective than definitions of "cowboy." I wouldn't call Ennis or Jack gay, since they both seem to have OK, sometimes hot relationships with Alma and Lureen in the beginning of the story. I would just say that for each of them, the love of their life happened to be a man.

     
  • At 5:19 PM, Blogger Fizzy good said…

    I've always subscribed to the belief that sexuality is basically inherent, but that people can 'opt' for bisexuality, if necessary/for fun. But as a straight (possibly bi) faghag, what would I know?

    Anyway, I prefer to think that they're both gay but, because of the society in which they live, find it easier also to have relationships with women. But that's probably because I find it more erotic, rather than anything else.

    Ahem. That's enough psycho-analysis for Fizzy I think.

     
  • At 9:35 AM, Blogger Cowgirl's Land said…

    Señora, There are a lots of gay cowboys everywhere and of course, a pretty sweetly, intelligent lesbian cowgirls in many western lands. We have to be glad of this human diversity.

    Best whises for you,


    Wild Flower

     
  • At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Viagra Online said…

    I think that the gay community is growing very fast, gay people are now everywhere, Im not against it of course, I think that it is good that they finally stepped out.

     
  • At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I also agree that the movie was about Shepherds or ranch hands and that they are bisexual and not gay men.

    I've read the novella/short story "Brokeback Mountain" and I've seen the movie multiple times.

    In the short story/novella they're not as twinky or "pretty" as they are in the movie.

    http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/article/opinion_bisexual_cowboys_love

    Sex researcher Dr. Fritz Klein also asserted his opinion that the film was "a nice film with two main characters who were bisexual", and further analyzed that Jack is more "toward the gay side of bisexuality" and Ennis is "a bit more toward the straight side of being bisexual".

     
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