Thursday, February 02, 2006

Male sexuality and Brokeback Mountain

Now that the Oscar nominations have been announced and Brokeback Mountain is a contender in eight categories, I decided it's time to write about something I've been thinking about for a few weeks now. It concerns a remark made by NBC film critic Gene Shalit (father of an openly gay son) during his review of the flick and it caused a wee bit of a stir. (I really do like Shalit's weekly film reviews very much and, with his unruly, aggressively dyed jet-black hair and colorful attire, he adds to the drama of their delivery. With regard to Brokeback, Shalit remarked that the character Jack Straw (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) was a sexual predator in that he chased after Ennis post their time spent together on the mountain and coaxed him into 'sporadic trysts.' His remarks upset many NBC Today Show viewers and the folks at GLAAD who fired off letters and emails of condemnation to NBC and Shalit saying he was defaming gay people and that he would not have called Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) a "sexual predator" because he was pursuing a relationship with Rose (Kate Winslet) in the film Titanic. Within a few days the requested apology came and Shalit added he had not intended to defame the gay community by what he'd said about Jack and, further, his record showed him very much a man who supported gay equality.

GLAAD is a stellar and important group who have striven to erase bigotry, intolerance and those who seek to defame members of the LGBT community in the media. Their objective is stated thus:

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is dedicated to promoting and ensuring fair, accurate and inclusive representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Their record is impressive as can be seen by the lists of accomplishments posted on their website.

In the current instance, while the LGBT community and GLAAD must be ever vigilant, I think there was an overreaction here. The issue raised by Shalit, albeit unknowingly, is wider reaching. By his choice of words, I feel Shalit has touched upon a key truism regarding the male and female approach to sexuality and society's compelling interest in preserving the concept that it is sexually monogamous man and woman within the confines of marriage that is paramount and the only viable way to regulate intimate adult relationships. Seen through this prism, it is little wonder that the scornful Shalit, wearing the mantles of church and state, used the term 'sexual predator.' Jack went after a man whom society regarded as married, monogamous and thus untouchable, and Jack's behavior must be held up in public for contempt and condemned absolutely.

Let's analyze exactly what Jack does in the movie. He is overwhelmingly attracted to Ennis sexually and, throughout the passing of the summer, this fierce, manly desire between the men develops into a deep-seated, unwanted love, albeit more so on Ennis's part because of the poisonous way he was brought up to regard gay people. After the summer, the two, while clearly totally in love by now, part company and that is to be the end of the matter. The following summer however, Jack returns to seek work with the same rancher in hopes that Ennis has been missing him and will also show up. He doesn't: he is now married and has ostensibly moved on with his life. After the passing of a further period of time, Jack writes Ennis and informs him he'll be visiting in his area and would like to get together if Ennis would like that, to which Ennis hurriedly replies in a postcard "You bet." Of course, Jack is visiting for the sole purpose of having sex with Ennis again, but, by the quickness of his response and it's wording, it is clear Ennis is equally anxious for the trysts to begin again.

I would submit that many such situations (heterosexual or homosexual) are initiated, as in the film, by men simply needing or desiring sex outside of a long-term relationship. It is a truism not often discussed that after a long period of time together with one partner, the sex becomes rote and, well, boring for many men. (I suspect the same goes for women too, but I can't speak for them for obvious reasons.) And despite the abundant counsel dished out by 'Keeping your marriage/relationship on track" type books and legions of psychologists and psychotherapists, a new pair of frilly knickers (the equivalent for an anxious gay male partner being a new jockstrap), furry stiletto slippers (no gay male equivalent, at least to my knowledge) or untried, perhaps novel, lovemaking position will give but limited additional mileage. (Note: I've always found it curious how these books, etc. often make it the resposibility of the woman to address what is a natural condition in men?)

The jury's back on this, though the verdict is never acknowledged or discussed in our constrained society. Many men, straight or gay--and I'm not stating all men--enjoy the physical thrill of having sex with new partners, period. 'Sporadic trysts' throughout the millennia have been initiated with far too much frequency that we should now act as adults and acknowledge this aspect of male sexuality.(The ancient Romans acknowledged it and thus I feel their approach to sexuality was a lot more healthy than ours is today.) Married or gay men--lawyers, judges, vicars, plumbers, garbage collectors--initiate 'illicit' liaisons daily. It's mostly men who do the initiating because the sexes are wired differently in this aspect--just as men and women exhibit different symptoms for similar illnesses such as heart attacks--and, while it's more complicated than the space I can allocate it here, I believe a great many men (straight and gay) can have casual sex and not allow it to affect or threaten the dynamics of their primary relationship. It is the natural sexual dynamic of the male operating, nothing more, nothing less.

Most women, on the other hand, prize and demand monogamy and have extreme difficulty accepting that their spouse or partner can function like this. I feel this is a result of both nature and culture, and many women are utterly devastated when they find their partner has so-called 'betrayed' them. (Please note I'm not going to get bogged down with considerations of morality, etc. because these are well aired and supravening in that they are related to cultural and/or religious beliefs that do not alter the fundamental truth about male sexuality. Nor does their sexual wiring mean that men cannot love deeply. Of course men can love, but sex and love can be distinct in the male mind.)

So to conclude, is Jack's behavior tantamount to his being a sexual predator? Of course not. He is behaving as many heterosexual or homosexual men will behave;no more, no less. It's been this way for millennia. Shalit made the flawed assumption that Ennis had no choice in the matter, that he was a hapless victim to Jack's having taken the initiative, searched him out, and moved the relationship forward. This overlooking of choice, together with his addition of a healthy dollop of good old fashioned American puritanism from the vat labeled "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder," is what I believe led him to use the term 'sexual predator' erroneously.

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Steve Middleton said...

I found this extremely interesting. Brokeback Mountain has had a real impact on me - in fact it has upset me - it is a real tragedy. Two men who are totally interdependent but not exist together because that is an unacceptable lifestyle. I have known so many men who have much deeper relationships with other men, but cannot (will not) live with another man. No woman living with a man like this can never have all of him. As a woman friend of mine said 'If your husband or boyfriend goes off with another man you cannot compete at any level whatsoever'. Ennis could never have been happy with Jack, and could neer be happy without him. Equally Ennis would never have been enough for Jack - for the reasons you've said in your Blog. Ennis, however, saw the sex as just a way of expressing his connection with Jack - the fact that he could talk to Jack - whereas clearing he couldn't talk to anyone else.
Sorry - I've gone on for rather a long time here

Damian McNicholl said...

Thanks for your interesting comment, Steve

Mike said...

I agree, it has always been my personal opinion that women are the sex "gatekeepers" in society. In many cases, the sexual favors are handed out much less frequently than the heterosexual male would like(while I have no personal experience, I do have two married brothers and many married complaining male friends)! The main reason that heterosexuals think homosexuals immerse/rally in sex is simply due to the fact that this gatekeeper does not exist in homosexual society. It has more to do with the sexuality of the male than heter/homosexual males.