Originally published in March 2006.
For a society long noted for its simplistic characterizations of men, the film Brokeback Mountain may mark the beginning of a new awareness about the depth and complexity of men’s emotional lives. This stirring story of love unfulfilled, tenderly evoking Ennis Del Mar’s and Jack Twist’s relationship over a 20-year span is so artfully layered that it cannot be dismissed simply as a story about “gay cowboys.” Ennis and Jack are not so easily pigeonholed. Nor are the rest of us. Characterizations of any man as simply “the silent type,” “tough guy,” or “emotionally unavailable” are too shortsighted.
Men’s yearning to connect, to not feel alone, to be visible for all of who we are, too long has been obscured by a guise of inscrutability, stoicism, isolation. Sadly, among those who have perpetuated that myth the longest are men ourselves, and often with the loudest voice. What’s behind our actions? Fear. Fear of being seen as vulnerable. Fear of being seen as weak. Fear of being seen as overwhelmed by the curves life throws us.
If we choose to listen to its message, Brokeback Mountain will likely be remembered as a cultural milestone, a major work of art that triggered a shift in consciousness, the moment when countless men began lifting off our shoulders the burdens conventional masculinity would have us carry: being the sole breadwinner, the infallible family leader, the ready-for-action stud—tough, strong, and almost always silent. What viewers of Brokeback Mountain—as well as readers of the Annie Proulx short story the film is based on—are invited to come to terms with are fresh ideas about what it means to be a man. The Ennis and Jack of 1963 that America has been introduced to were men—western cowboys no less—much more complicated than the Marlboro man stereotype many expected to meet. They were tough and tender, capable and caring, closed-mouthed and open-hearted.
Ennis, in many ways, really is Everyman. Just as he had to come to grips with all of who he was—well beyond questions about his sexual identity—like him, all men have to try and understand our own interior lives. For contemporary men, the inner struggle Ennis waged was emblematic of our own yearning for wholeness. While he struggled to reconcile powerful feelings of love for and love from Jack, like him, most men—straight, bi, gay or questioning—struggle with an equally powerful old-style masculinity that tries to hold us in its grip.
It’s true that while not all men are romantically attracted to other men, not all men are uncomfortable being close with each other. Sadly, though, we have been encouraged to keep our emotional distance from other men by a society that relentlessly inflicts on us a virulent form of homophobia. It is that fear and devaluing of men’s loving connection with other men that, for most of us, remains the primary impediment to our feeling safe enough to develop intimate, long-term friendships with one another.
Like many of us, Ennis and Jack struggled with their identities as men, including as husbands and fathers. But through their struggle, or in spite of it, they revealed a multi-faceted, textured, loving connection, one that exposed the big lie that would have men expressing a very limited range of emotional literacy.
Just as the institution of heterosexual marriage has not eroded in the nearly two years since Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to declare all adults were free to marry, society’s definition of “real manhood” will not unravel if we allow the Jacks and Ennises of today inside the tent of contemporary masculinity. All we have to lose is our fear of growing close with our brothers.