Backstairs in the Night: Adding Up the Clues About ‘Brokeback Mountain’

I must begin with a caveat. This is not a review, but simply an essay about a film. It’s meant to be enjoyed, like an after-dinner decaf, once you’ve already experienced the main attraction.

I give away so much of what happens that you may be mad at me if you read this piece first. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this movie since I saw it. We’ve all heard much about it, but for the most part, it’s been the same stuff, over and over again. We’ve heard the gay man’s interpretation, the straight male perspective and that of many a hetero woman. I’d like to offer a few insights into what it meant for at least one lesbian.

Patriarchy has become one of the most overworked words in the American vernacular. You hear it everywhere: both from those who swear it lurks under every rock and from people who doggedly deny its existence. It’s a funny word — makes me think of some old grampa with a long beard, reclining in a luxurious tent and popping dates into his mouth as a bevy of young sweeties wash his desert-sore feet. The word is so pretentious that it almost guarantees those who take it seriously will be ridiculed. But just like the devil himself, patriarchy is never more dangerous than when people tell themselves it does not exist.

“Brokeback Mountain” is being hailed as a milestone “gay” movie. Here’s where my male readers will sigh and roll their eyes. Not surprisingly, I think it’s about patriarchy. I know, I’m a woman — just humor me, please, and hear me out.

Of course, on the most obvious level, it is a film about the long-suffering love between two men. I’m not trying to take that away from anybody. But this is a film that works on many different levels. That’s a part of what will, I believe, make it enduringly great.

The common theme that runs through it all is that patriarchy is a concept whose time has come and gone. Patriarchy hurts everybody: women, children, gay men and straight men, too. It stifles individual happiness, cramming us all into a few rigid, cookie-cutter shapes. Those shapes may be right for some of us, but those of us who don’t fit all too often end up getting thrown away.

I kept wanting to hug Jack Twist. Here was a guy you just know had never been hugged. His mama probably wanted to, when he was little, but old Pa would have beaten the stuffing out of him in compensation. There is such a desperate quality to the embraces he shares with Ennis; these are two human beings the rest of the world has pretty much tossed aside, and the fact that they are good-looking young men nonetheless hints at a destiny of pain. As they romp together high in the mountains, they remind me of two stray puppies who have somehow been lucky enough to find each other.

This is a story about human love. Period. Could have been a man and a woman, could have been two women. And though the atmosphere in the film is choked with homophobia, the question it asks is far more basic than “can two men in love find happiness in the redneck West?” The central, urgent question it asks of all of us is, “Why are we so afraid of love?”

Patriarchy fears love: real, red-blooded, heart-bursting, self-sacrificing love. It clobbers the spirit out of women, gradually replacing the genuine love in their hearts with fear and desperate self-protection. Did Jack’s mother ever really love his father? I suppose she must have, once upon a time, but look at that bitter, dried-up old couple in that rattletrap house: half-dead before their time. Whatever embers of affection still smolder in that mother’s breast, she offers to Ennis along with Jack’s favorite shirt.

Did Ennis’s father harbor any suspicions about his younger son? Was that why he dragged his boys out to see the carnage that was left of the castrated rancher? He didn’t need to suspect; he feared. Fear doesn’t need knowledge, not even the hint of it. Fear is the enemy of knowledge, and of truth, and will kill them as soon as it sees the whites of their eyes.

Some social conservatives are harrumphing about Ennis and Jack’s shoddy treatment of their wives. I’d like to find some excuse for it, but I can’t. Nor does the film offer any excuses. Both women are treated sympathetically, and we’re allowed to feel their pain. There is a definite sense that both couples are being crushed by something larger than themselves.

Many reviewers consider Jack’s wife an unsympathetic character. Even her pretty-and-privileged, straight-girl shallowness, though, seem to me an important detail in the story. She is just the way Daddy expects her to be — the way everybody expects her to be. The reason she can’t hold Jack’s interest, after all, is hardly because she’s shallow. It strains the credulity of anybody who understands same-sex attraction to be told a woman of more substance could have kept him.

The role seems an easy one to play — until the moment when she must break the news of Jack’s death to Ennis. A lifetime of painful recognition passes in her eyes in that one, short scene. She “gets” it, and she gets it good and hard and bittersweet, as she hears the break in the voice of Jack’s old fishing buddy over the telephone. Whether she knew or suspected anything beforehand is not made clear, but in those eyes, we see neither suspicion nor resentment, but the most real, human compassion the character shows in the whole movie. She recognizes, at the other end of that line, the only other person who ever really loved her man.

The one for whom my heart really breaks is Ennis’s wife, Alma Senior. She lacks the education or sophistication to understand the nuances of male homosexual love; for her, it’s simply an indignity, the crowning humiliation by a husband who’s been dealing her raw for years. At the time, however — as from time immemorial — splitting was simply something men got to do to their wives and the mothers of their children. This wouldn’t have been as convincing, or been seen so sympathetically, had the story been about two lesbians in love.

Which brings me back to patriarchy: that funny word so many people (mainly men) think means nothing. I guess patriarchy is kinda like pornography. You may not find it easy to define it, but you know it when you see it. It still retains an enormous hold on our attitudes, even though we sense it most of the time as a shadowy, subterranean things. But because of its very backstairs-in-the-night nature, those who are most invested in it get to pretend it really isn’t there.

I’m not, by any means, trying to paint Ennis and Jack as the villains of the piece. Their love itself is only backstairs-in-the-night because it has been made that way by a society that must lie to itself about love. It hurts, particularly, to watch Ennis’s shame. He is far more hostile to the homoerotic in himself than is Jack, who deals with it more forthrightly. One critic has gone so far as to call Jack “a sexual predator” – which says far more about this critic’s own problems, whatever they may be, than it does about Jack’s.

The people in this movie who are the most honest are those who are the most severely punished. It is no literary accident that Jack, rather than Ennis, is the one who ends up brutalized and dead. Nor is it anything less than revealingly Freudian that a critic would label Jack a sexual predator, while sparing Ennis any similar charge. Ennis shuffles and stumbles and mumbles, faces others only shifty-sideways or with a squint-slanted gaze, gallops out of Alma’s new husband’s house bellowing like an enraged bull when she confronts him with the undeniable truth about himself. But in the end, it is Ennis who gets to watch his kids grow up.

It is impossible to overestimate the role denial plays in the hardy survival of patriarchy. It still exists because we pretend it doesn’t; when we admit its existence, it hides itself or punishes us. I am reminded of perhaps the ultimate movie about patriarchy behaving badly, Gaslight. Charles Boyer drives Ingrid Bergman at least halfway over the edge, and all the while he manages to make her feel guilty about it. Had Joseph Cotten’s character been real, for having saved Ingrid from madness he might well have ended up facing a tire-iron of his own.

When I say that we, as a society, are in a deep doo-doo of denial about the reality of patriarchy, I hardly mean that we don’t use the word a lot. Like “pornography” (and “love”), we use the word so often — and try to make it mean so many different things — that we have virtually drained it of real meaning. It does no word justice to be overused; it merely desensitizes people to it ’til, for them, it’s as ubiquitous as “and” and “the.” And of course, this only plays into the hands of those who want to deny that it has any meaning at all.

So when I say that “Brokeback Mountain” is suffused with patriarchy, just what do I mean? I mean that it calls attention to its existence not by using the word yet one more time (I daresay “patriarchy” is one word no character in this movie would ever have occasion to utter), but rather by showing it in action. Every creative writing instructor I have ever had pounded it into us to “show, don’t tell.” This is a film that shows us patriarchy — in all its naked ugliness — as brilliantly as any I have ever seen.

Patriarchy is not like the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the middle of the living-room floor. You can see that big ape even when he’s sitting stock-still, but in order to recognize patriarchy, you have to see it in action. You have to see not only the tears of the abandoned wives, but also the reviews of film critics willing to give a couple named Jack and Ennis a break one named Jacquie and Edna would never get. The reaction to this film tells almost as much about hetero (or “passing as” hetero) adult male privilege — and about how toxic it can be to those who avail themselves of it — as does the film itself.

The problem many straight people seem to have with “Brokeback” isn’t that it tells the story of two gay men. It’s that it tells a gay love story. It’s okay if you make a movie about two gay guys who have sex with each other — just as long as you don’t show them in love with each other. That, to the protectors, defenders and supposed beneficiaries of patriarchy, is just too icky to deserve to be seen. Perhaps the traditional, patriarchal fear of same-sex love can best be illustrated, after all, by that tired, old phrase, “The love that dares not speak its name.”

Was it wrong for Jack and Ennis to short-shrift their wives because that was the wrong thing to do, in and of itself — or because they did it for the sake of love? It seems to me that Hollywood portrays men doing any number of self-centered and caddish things to women and their kids, and nobody so much as raises a peep in protest. But love — a love so wild, unbounded and unruly that it blooms irresistibly between two men — is such a threat that it must be condemned even when it shows itself in film. Love is messy, unreasonable and endlessly unpredictable. Love makes us lose control — and nothing is as essential to the patriarchal structure as control.

Much of the intellectual dishonesty, and just plain sloppy thinking, generated in the discussion of this movie has come from those supposedly defending traditional, Judeo-Christian morality. Though exactly why intellectual dishonesty, in particular, has become such a crucial tool to self-proclaimed defenders of morality is especially questionable. These people can’t even tell the truth about what “Brokeback Mountain” is about, much less about what it’s trying to say. When you realize the essential role of truth-telling in any sort of rationally-cohesive morality, you begin to see all the posturing for exactly what it is. The moralists have so totally lost their way that they can’t even begin to point the way back to true morality.

Being afraid of truth, like being afraid of love, won’t get you anywhere near Judeo-Christian morality – which is all about truth and love. Telling a story that, though fictional, gays and lesbians all know could be true should not create such panic in supposedly-moral people. What struck me, perhaps most forcefully of all, about this movie was how totally it told the truth: about our lives and about our loves. Jack and Ennis could have been anybody we knew — or at least could have known in the Wyoming of the Sixties and Seventies.

But honestly — what is patriarchy, defined word-wise? Actually, the word is from the Greek, and it means “father rule.” But I define it much more precisely, in terms more relevant to today. Patriarchy is a disconnect between power and responsibility: the power to the men, the responsibility to the women. But it’s a power that blows up, all too often, right in the faces of the very men who seek to hold it.

Had they wanted to leave their wives for other women instead of one another, Ennis and Jack could have gotten away with just about anything. There was never any question that the wives were going to get saddled with sole responsibility for the children. Power (and all the options that go along with it) belong to the men, but responsibility — divorced from power both literally and figuratively — gets dumped on the women who have been dumped by their men. Where the two men in question went wrong was that they opted out of the mandatory heterosexuality that patriarchy requires. Without compulsory man-woman couplings, the all-important line of demarcation between the sexes gets unmanageably blurred.

Power without responsibility is tyranny. And, far from being “Christian,” tyranny is satanic. In this country, we fought a Revolution to free ourselves from tyranny’s yoke. It is incompatible not only with everything the United States of America has ever stood for, but with the very concept of relationship with a just and loving God. Patriarchal couplings require an overlord and an underling, which is why two men or two women, under such a scheme, must never be permitted to marry (under patriarchy, no man ever being allowed to be the underling, no women an overlord, nor two members of a couple ever, ever equals).

Real love makes people act according to interests other than their own. Staunch defenders of patriarchy once opposed marriage for love between men and omen for the same reason they stand against it for same-sex couples today. Of course they claim “moral decency” as the reason for keeping men from marrying men and women marrying women, but as they used pretty much the same arguments against hetero love matches not too many generations ago (as well as, in much more recent times, against interracial marriage), their argument doesn’t hold water. Behind arranged marriages of any kind (arranged always for the benefit of those in power) is a self-centered desire for power. Which tends to rapidly diminish whenever l’amour gets sprinkled into the mix.

The highest divorce rate in the United States is in the so-called Bible Belt. The folks most full of themselves about righteousness and morality are also those most likely to bail out on their spouses and kids. And the rate of family breakup among Evangelical Christians is as high as it is in any other segment of the population. A fat lot of nerve these people have, preaching to gays and lesbians about anything.

Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar probably never would have had a chance. They lived in the very rodeo-buckle of the Bible Belt, at a time when most of the folks who fancied themselves decent preferred to pretend that homosexuals didn’t even exist. If “Brokeback Mountain” teaches our society nothing else, perhaps the lesson it will impart is that telling the truth is the prerequisite for true morality. Old Grampa used to tell us that homosexuality wasn’t “decent,” but then again, he told us lying wasn’t, either. Too bad so many people listened merely to the first admonition, while the second, they totally ignored.