By Olivia Popp
Much of my interest in alterity and otherness stems from personal identity, and so many of my pursuits have investigated the concept. Nevertheless, I have explored the concepts of alterity mostly through science fiction, so upon rewatching “Brokeback Mountain” and re-reading Anne Proulx’s short story upon which the film is based (both the original New Yorker version and the slightly expanded Proulx short story collection “Close Range” version), I stumbled upon alterity as discussed through queerness. Both Matthew Bolton’s “The Ethics of Alterity: Adapting Queerness in ‘Brokeback Mountain” and Richard Block’s “‘I’m nothin. I’m nowhere’: Echoes of Queer Messianism in ‘Brokeback Mountain’” approach themes of queerness in the short story and the film through a lens of otherness and alienation.
Bolton claims that critics who support the idea that the film is just a love story rather than a queer love story dismiss the innate alterity that the protagonists’ relationship depict, potentially supported by director Ang Lee’s ambiguous approach to the narrative. He acknowledges that while there are relatable parts, ignoring the alterity of the nature of the protagonists’ relationship could completely undermine the point of making the characters’ identities feel distanced or removed from the audiences’ own lives. I agreed with Bolton’s claims that the universality of the story doesn’t necessarily undermine the gay narrative, but choosing to only categorize it as a love story does. Similarly, I agree that Proulx’s partial alienation of audiences by illustrating differences in Jack and Ennis’ relationship is purposeful, but it still doesn’t make it mutually exclusive from how universal a story it may be. Pushing aside the queerness of the story veers into dangerous territory of erasure and lack of nuance, especially for these communities.
Even more dangerous lies the idea that the erasure stemmed from the original creation of the film. Bolton recognizes that it may be in part the filmmakers’ choices to avoid content that is blatantly homosexual in order to promote the film’s financial success but push back on the idea that having a marketable epic film is mutually exclusive from its position as a gay love story. Bolton raises the queer studies question of whether making something universal is going to marginalize its content, answering it by claiming that queer narratives must first be queer, not normalized, and that queer stories must acknowledge the “other” as a part of self, rather than “other” as a completely separate entity. This is also something that is discussed not simply in the context of queerness but of so many concepts of otherness — to embrace the other and to embrace the unknown as part of oneself is to progress forward or become stronger — but what happens if one is unable to embrace it, whether for safety or personal reasons, and is embracing it going to help if circumstances are in part determined by one’s environment?
Bolton also points out the difference between the original New Yorker version and the “Close Range” version — more specifically, the effect of this simple addition of an italicized preface in the latter version. This included a paragraph that frames the entire short story as a flashback with Ennis waking up from his dream allows Bolton to claim that Proulx places the queer story first, when her implied audience is not queer. The “Close Range” version even goes so far as to subtitle the volume “Wyoming Stories,” broadly framing the stories as a Western narrative that the New Yorker emphasizes and thus making the alienating part the queer story. Similarly, the film leaves the sex scene until nearly a quarter of the way through, emphasizing the visual imagery of the Western landscape and the story of Jack and Ennis’ time on the mountain, forcing the audiences to empathize with them before revealing the nature of their relationship. I thus wonder about the original conceived idea to include the preface in the short story collection version, which was written before the film was created. Was this in part Proulx’s idea? An account of Proulx tells of the author’s regret over even writing “Brokeback Mountain” because of the reaction to the film (even beloved by many) — people want the story to have a happy ending. It seems in part that the preface — again, included before the film was created — could either be seen as a reemphasis of Ennis’ sorrow over Jack’s death or a reaffirmation of their time together. I still wonder about the impetus behind this.
Block, on the other hand, approaches this issue of alterity through a more theoretical lens, discussing depictions of homosexuality as an inversion of the norm. Through the image of the postcard, Jack and Ennis’ time on “Brokeback Mountain” is represented as a form of memento or souvenir — a fairy tale, of sorts — something to be looked back on and remembered, similar to the “Close Range” version. Nevertheless, this image of homosexuality only exists within the framework of heterosexuality — or when “normal” is defined. As it is shown in the story and film, the relationship of the men is always outside, whether in nature or in marginalized settings outside of their heterosexual lives. Even within the framework of sex, Alma and Ennis’ implied usage of the missionary position precedes that of Jack and Ennis’ initial positioning together — their “buttfuck” in “Buttfuck, Wyoming,” as Block states — or gay sex as an “afterthought.” Block asserts that homosexual bliss also only comes outside of the heteronormative environment of their everyday lives, escaping away together on trips, both literally and metaphorically away from the familiar.
Block also raises the question of connecting bestiality and male-male desire. Ennis’ assertion that “[he’s] not no queer” or whether the subject of queer desire is truly controllable still begs the question of what initially stirred that desire. Was something of the sort inevitable between the men because of the nature of their proximity and relationship to each other? Block claims that they are told not to sleep with the sheep and thus instead sleep with each other. Both men use the idea that they aren’t queer to justify their actions, therefore placing forth the idea that the desire itself results in the punishment rather than the act itself. This also comes in the form of Jack’s death — whether murder or not — who is potentially killed due to his homosexual behaviors, not by the act itself.
Block addresses the inability to parse out a dual-dichotomy of top/bottom, inside/outside, etc. as a result of their relationship. Both men are depicted as embracing each other, while Ennis’ readjustment of Jack’s shirt in the film is symbolic of his sexual repositioning. Jack’s initiation of the initial sexual interaction is also inverted by Ennis’ subsequent flipping of Jack and sexual encounter. The story itself is littered with inversions — Jack is the one to want to stay with Ennis and settle down, but by the end, Ennis is the one remembering their time. This constant flip back and forth redefines and blurs the lines of traditionally heteronormative and individualized gender roles, framing their inability to ever truly stay or exist within one realm when queerness is identified as alterity. I was also particularly compelled by Block’s point that homosexuality in the narratives mainly exists in marginalized environments because of heterosexuality’s dominant positioning in our lives, especially as an afterthought. As such, a certain suppression of ideas is never seen as a suppression of ideas until the idea that is suppressed is discovered — before that, it is simply an idea that doesn’t exist.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.