Brokeback: Bi shepherds, not gay cowboys
Brokeback's Girl Problem
Text of Story
Anne Hathaway Interview
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.
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.