Jack and Ennis’s homosexuality defies the masculine norms under which they have been raised, leaving them unable to reconcile their understanding of the lives they are supposed to lead as men with the relationships they want to pursue. Proulx explores the intersection of masculinity and homosexuality by illustrating the ways in which society sees any deviation from the very narrow traditional notions of masculinity as unnatural and deserving of punishment. Ultimately, this reveals the inherent flaws of narrowly defining how an entire gender must act and advocates for a more expansive definition of masculinity—one that includes non-heterosexual forms of sexual expression.
Jack and Ennis have both internalized homophobic concepts of masculinity that they learned from their fathers. When he was a young boy, for instance, Ennis’s father took him to see the mutilated corpse of a gay man (Earl), and Ennis even surmises that his father may have been one of the men who killed Earl. This experience was clearly meant to impress upon Ennis that being gay was not acceptable. Likewise, Ennis recalls a story Jack told him about how his father once beat and urinated on him for not making it to the toilet in time, even though he was only three or four years old. Like Ennis’s father “punishing” Earl for his homosexuality, Jack’s father’s punishment of Jack for soiling himself shows that masculine norms are often reinforced through violence and humiliation, no matter how minor or accidental the “transgression.”
Traditional notions of masculinity prize heterosexual virility and dominance, and for a time, it seems that both Jack and Ennis are able to fit into this narrow ideal. At first, both men appear to have picture-perfect families. Ennis and Alma marry and have two girls, whom Ennis adores. Ennis asserts dominance over Alma, dictating where they live, how much money they earn, and how they have sex. Likewise, Jack marries Lureen and moves to Texas, where he has a son. However, when Ennis and Jack reignite their affair, both men’s façades of traditional masculinity begin to fall apart. Ennis loses interest in Alma, both emotionally and sexually, and she divorces him, taking the girls with her. Meanwhile, Jack has extramarital affairs with both men and women and is relegated to a vague managerial role when Lureen inherits her father’s business, leaving him with less power than his wife. When Jack dies, Lureen tells Ennis it was due to an accident (which it most likely wasn’t), revealing that she is ashamed of her late husband’s sexuality.
Even though it was something of an open secret that Jack was gay, his family members attempt to masculinize him even after his death. When Ennis goes to visit Jack’s family to get permission to scatter Jack’s ashes over Brokeback Mountain as Jack had wanted, Jack’s father refuses and insinuates that he knows Ennis and Jack were more than old ranching buddies. This implies that Jack’s father’s homophobia causes him to defy his son’s own wishes for what would happen with his remains. Ultimately, Jack’s family buries the rest of his ashes in an ancestral burial ground. This connects Jack to his family (and thus to his homophobic father) forevermore, rather than connecting him to Brokeback Mountain, a symbol of freedom and personal choice. Even in death, then, Jack is subjected to strict societal expectations about who he should be.
Every aspect of Ennis and Jack’s life and identity is influenced by societal expectations of who they will be as men, and it’s ironic that the masculine traits they wish to present to the world are also the traits that, in others, bring them the most misery. Ennis, for example, refuses to leave his life and move to a ranch with Jack due to his fear of masculine violence, but Ennis himself becomes violent in instances in which he feels that his sexual orientation is eclipsing his masculinity (such as when Alma insinuates that she knows he is sexually intimate with Jack). By punishing men who stray from tradition with violence and even death, men scare people like Ennis into denying themselves the lives they want to lead and encourage them to prove their masculinity through violence, thereby ensuring a self-perpetuating cycle of masculine violence. Therefore, traditional masculinity is shown to be anything but “natural”—rather, it is a violently-reinforced set of socially-constructed norms.
Masculinity and Sexuality ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Sexuality Quotes in Brokeback Mountain
In 1963, when he met Jack Twist, Ennis was engaged to Alma Beers. Both Jack and Ennis claimed to be saving money for a small spread; in Ennis’s case that meant a tobacco can with two five-dollar bills inside. 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.
“Forest Service got designated campsites on the allotments. Them camps can be a couple a miles from where we pasture the sheep. Bad predator loss, nobody near lookin after em at night. What I want—camp tender in the main camp where the Forest Service says, but the herder”—pointing at Jack with a chop of his hand—“pitch a pup tent on the Q.T. with the sheep, out a sight, and he’s goin a sleep there. Eat supper, breakfast in camp, but sleep with the sheep, hundred percent, no fire, don’t leave no sign. Roll up that tent every mornin case Forest Service snoops around. Got the dogs, your .30-.30, sleep there. Last summer had goddam near twenty-five-percent loss. I don’t want that again. […] Tomorrow mornin we’ll truck you up the jump-off.” Pair of deuces going nowhere.
They were respectful of each other’s opinions, each glad to have a companion where none had been expected. Ennis, riding against the wind back to the sheep in the treacherous, drunken light, thought he’d never had such a good time, felt he could paw the white out of the moon.
Ennis woke in red dawn with his pants around his knees, a top-grade headache, and Jack butted against him; without saying anything about it, both knew how it would go for the rest of the summer, sheep be damned.
There were only the two of them on the mountain, flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. They believed themselves invisible, not knowing Joe Aguirre had watched them through his 10x42 binoculars for ten minutes one day, waiting until they’d buttoned up their jeans, waiting until Ennis rode back to the sheep, before bringing up the message that Jack’s people had sent word that his uncle Harold was in the hospital with pneumonia and expected not to make it. Though he did, and Aguirre came up again to say so, fixing Jack with his bold stare, not bothering to dismount.
Even when the numbers were right Ennis knew the sheep were mixed. In a disquieting way everything seemed mixed.
“Right,” said Jack, and they shook hands, hit each other on the shoulder; then there was forty feet of distance between them and nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions. 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.
“Ennis, please, no more damn lonesome ranches for us,” she said, sitting on his lap, wrapping her thin, freckled arms around him. “Let’s get a place here in town.”
“I guess,” said Ennis… They stayed in the little apartment, which he favored because it could be left at any time.
They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying son of a bitch, son of a bitch; then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again and still they clinched, pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other’s toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, “Little darlin.”
“Friend,” said Jack. “We got us a fuckin situation here. Got a figure out what to do.”
“I doubt there’s nothin now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m sayin, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, that place in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment—“grabs” on us like that. 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.”
“Dad made sure I seen it. Took me to see it. Me and K.E. Dad laughed about it. Hell, for all I know he done the job. If he was alive and was to put his head in that door right now you bet he’d go get his tire iron. Two guys livin together? No. All I can see is we get together once in a while way the hell out in the back a nowhere—”
Her resentment opened out a little every year: the embrace she had glimpsed, Ennis’s fishing trips once or twice a year with Jack Twist and never a vacation with her and the girls, his disinclination to step out and have any fun, his yearning for low-paid, long-houred ranch work, his propensity to roll to the wall and sleep as soon as he hit the bed, his failure to look for a decent permanent job with the county or the power company put her in a long, slow dive, and when Alma, Jr., was nine and Francine seven she said, What am I doin, hangin around with him, divorced Ennis, and married the Riverton grocer.
“Don’t lie, don’t try to fool me, Ennis. I know what it means. Jack Twist? Jack Nasty. You and him—”
She’d overstepped his line. He seized her wrist and twisted; tears sprang and rolled, a dish clattered.
“Shut up,” he said. “Mind your own business. You don’t know nothin about it.”
It was Lureen and she said who? who is this? and when he told her again she said in a level voice yes, Jack was pumping up a flat on the truck out on a back road when the tire blew up. The bead was damaged somehow and the force of the explosion slammed the rim into his face, broke his nose and jaw and knocked him unconscious on his back. By the time someone came along he had drowned in his own blood.
No, he thought, they got him with the tire iron.
The old man spoke angrily. “I can’t get no help out here. Jack used a say, ‘Ennis del Mar,’ he used a say, ‘I’m goin a bring him up here one a these days and we’ll lick this damn ranch into shape.’ He had some half-baked idea the two a you was goin a move up here, build a log cabin, and help me run this ranch and bring it up. Then this spring he’s got another one’s goin a come up here with him and build a place and help run the ranch, some ranch neighbor a his from down in Texas. He’s goin a split up with his wife and come back here. So he says. But like most a Jack’s ideas it never come to pass.”