on she is in, which is odd considering she

on the unit.

In this essay, I will discuss
the relationship between space and gender in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise1
and Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain2.
 This is interesting to converse as I
will be looking at the differences between the two, how far the Frontier space
is a male space and whether the Frontier offers freedom.

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Firstly, when looking
at Thelma and Louise, the significance of
space and gender is important. The narrative is a development of individualism
and it condemns how women are not protected by the American law. This is
evident when looking at the characters
and their experiences. Louise is a character that can adapt to any space that
she is in, which is odd considering she is a female.  She is single, has a job, and is the epitome
of a modern woman, who has the stereotypical male qualities of independence. She
supports women and defends Thelma throughout the story, instead of getting
jealous and making it a competition. Thelma, on the other hand, is the
traditional female, who reinforces the passive feminine stereotype. She is
dependent on Darryl, asking for his permission to go out, yet he ignores her
because of football. Both females share intimate problems. As said by Wood, the
‘feelings that accompany rape and sexual assault…endure far beyond the act
itself’.3
It was only in 1993 that marital rape became a crime. This suggests that it is
a personal problem and so only women can understand how it feels, which is why
Thelma and Louise are brought closer together, creating the female ‘buddy’
story.

Whilst the
Frontier space is dominantly a male space, a feminist might disagree. When
Thelma is nearly raped by Harlan, Louise kills him. She is justified, but she
is afraid that the police won’t believe her because the laws regarding sexual
assault favour the perpetrators. Despite this, she physically holds the power
and is now the feminist paradigm of a suppressed woman. Due to their
experiences, they are both able to adapt to the Frontier Space and they begin
to mimic the conventional codes of masculinity by dressing like cowboys and
robbing the convenient store, which causes shock to the police officers
watching the taped recordings.  At the
beginning of the film, they are putting on make-up and smiling, giving the
impression that it is going to be a light-hearted story about femininity, but
as the story goes on they become less feminine. Louise plays the role of a
parent, telling Thelma not to litter and stays cautious throughout their
journey. Whilst Louise finds it easier to adapt to the Frontier Space, Thelma
finds it harder, but her journey is one of self-discovery and coming of age,
and by the end, it could be said that she has become a woman with total
freedom. They decide their own death and preserve their freedom. It infers that
outlaws must die, and that aggressive women are not women at all and, so they
must be punished. In spite of leading the police on a big chase, everything
that they do is justified and it highlights that Western society does not show
human decency towards women. They are objectified and repressed in the home
space because of the restrictive barriers put on them culturally. The fact that
they leave in the first place expresses their individuality and they are the
only characters that are in motion, while the men are stationary.

Conversely, it
can be said that Thelma and Louise have no freedom in the Frontier Space. It
could be said that their lives are worse in the Frontier space because they are
mocked and abused even further because they are outsiders. Whilst on the open
road, there are signifiers that show it is male territory – the man on the
motorbike, the muscleman lifting weights, and cowboys. Ridley Scott implied
that the Frontier was for men and their machines, which act as obstacles for
the women. They are immediately objectified – ‘What are two kewpie dolls like
you doing in a place like this?’4.
This supports the media’s view that women are always the victims and sexualised
by men. As implied before, the authorities also degrade women which is why they
always refer to them as girls and not women. All of this shows that they are
not truly free in the Frontier space and can never escape the patriarchal and
sexist society, suggesting that the American dream does not include women
because the American experience is inherently male. Louise’s restaurant and Thelma’s
home are dark and suffocating, metaphorically representing their lives in the domestic
space. American fiction also excluded women writers as it was believed that
women could only write about female issues instead of something intellectual
and universal. It seems as if there is a miscommunication between genders. When
Darryl calls Thelma, the police officer says, ‘sound like you’re really glad to
hear from her. Women love that shit’5.
This gives the impression that men think women are naïve and stupid, however, Thelma
does not believe him at all. Hal is another example of this because he thinks
he knows what women are thinking and invades their space. The stereotype of
male chauvinism in this movie is strongly criticised by the male audience, but
it highlights how both men and women stereotype each other. Men try to
dehumanise Thelma and Louise in both the Frontier and home space. If they were
both male, they would have had easier experiences. This can be argued because some
men in the Frontier space are in fact kind and caring towards Thelma and
Louise. Jimmy, for example, has sympathy for Louise and is not the stereotypical
male that is dominant. He is a ‘typical male’, but is ‘like any other guy, he
just loves the chase’6.
Nevertheless, Thelma and Louise are objectified multiple times. They are not
able to completely break away from their feminine qualities to survive. As said
by Robin Lakoff, they still have something called women’s speech, meaning that
they are still polite to men, despite them being the abuser. Thelma and Louise’s
gender, makes any space for them to be in hard. Like in the film, Easy Rider7,
it is the usual road trip movie with male protagonists travelling. They don’t
have to worry about family, children or the journey itself. Men left women at
home and women were not often allowed to travel, which is why Thelma has never
been on a trip with her husband and is so excited to go with Louise.

Differently, to
Thelma and Louise, the narrative of Brokeback Mountain has two homosexual men.
The relationship between space and gender is significant because it is
different to Thelma and Louise. When looking at Ennis and Jack in the Frontier
space, they are free without judgment from anybody else. They are so in love
that they cannot resist or explain how they feel. Ennis says ‘there’s no reins
on this one. It scares the piss out of me’.8
Their love is an example that love is natural and like the films tagline, it is
a force that is so overwhelming and irresistible that both characters cannot lie
about how they feel. Therefore, the Frontier space is an honest space, that
will not let you hide because of how expansive it is. The mountain itself represents
beauty and is a natural symbol of love. ‘Brokeback got us good’, is what Jack says.9
The mountain is empowering and the strongest force of nature, protecting them
both from the homophobic and structural society. As said previously, the Frontier
space is inherently male. Jack and Ennis are ‘boys with no prospects, brought
up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the
stoic life’.10
Their rugged individuality and male chauvinism allows them to survive in the
wild. Perhaps, they survive for longer than Thelma and Louise because they stick
to the conventional notions of masculinity. This is what makes an authentic US
national. They are the image of the Western male hero, but the fact that the
West and its people cannot understand them, shows the flaws with masculinity
and the expectancy of the stereotypical cowboy. Proulx does not allow white
masculinity to dominate US cultural identity in this narrative and she decided
to use cowboys to discredit that gay Americans are usually stereotyped as
products of the urban lifestyle. If Ennis and Jack were both two women, they
both could have been murdered, as women cannot survive in the Frontier Space.
Many do argue that Jack and Ennis are femininised
because you see things from them that one would usually expect to see from a
woman, however, they are able to mask this sexuality behind their gender.
Despite only having freedom in the Frontier space, they do still have freedom
which gifts them with happiness in the moments that they are on the mountain.

On the contrary,
it can be said that Jack and Ennis do not have complete freedom in the Frontier
space. Firstly, because they are naïve. ‘They believed themselves invisible,
not knowing Joe Aquirre had watched them’.11
Joe does not approve of their relationship and does not rehire Jack. Despite
not making his opinion clear, it is evident that he is prejudice because of his
change in attitude. They are also not truly free, because they are constantly
allowing the cultural conditioning of society to step in. Ennis is always
mindful that men are supposed to dominate a female and that coitus should only
be with a woman. What society expects them to be is always on the back of their
minds. Judith Butler said that Gender is performative, and so when Ennis is at
the mountain, he can put on a performance which, as Freud would say,
corresponds to his Id, allowing him to satisfy his needs. When Ennis is in the
home space, he puts on a performance that instead corresponds to the Superego,
incorporating the morals of society, living an acceptable life with a wife and
children. Whilst the mountain does represent natural love, it does also
foreshadow their future. The storms, the ‘slippery wind’12
and how the ‘mountain boiled with demonic energy’13,
is a constant reminder that their relationship is unstable and going to fall
apart. Even on the mountain they are still outsiders. It is alluring, but
ultimately it does not give them a better life; only the hope of a false one.
After they kiss, they both deny the truth. Ennis says, ‘I’m not no queer’, and
Jack replies, ‘me neither. A one-shot thing’.14
They say this because they know that their sexuality is emasculating, which proves
that even in the Frontier (also known as the new west) they are ever truly
free. It offers false hope; an illusion.

In the 1960s,
America encouraged peace and free love. This did not include gay men. Immediately
at the start, we learn that Jack has been murdered by those who discovered he
is gay and that Wyoming is a prejudice society. The domestic home is claustrophobic
and lonely space. Jack is criticised by his father for not wanting to be buried
on ancestral ground. This abuse makes Jack want to break free from the traditional
life and he attempts to coax Ennis to move away with him, but Ennis refuses. Jack’s
desire to escape from Wyoming kills him. Ennis, on the other hand, is comforted
by home and is unwilling to leave because of the safety that it provides him. He
survives because he is unable to break away from the conventional and
conservative life and be anything other than what society expects him to be. Ennis
acts violently towards others because he does not have true happiness. He
fights with men at bars and hurts Alma, by ‘seizing her wrist’ and leaving her ‘with
a burning bracelet’.15
Whilst this fits the macho male image, it also highlights his suffering and his
carelessness towards Alma. ‘Nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t
fix it you’ve got to stand it’16,
this is a good example of Ennis’s stoicism. Ultimately, he survives because he is
male, but he is miserable, lonely and cannot stop dreaming about Jack. The
narrative is a universal one that can apply to the gay community, but it is a
community that Jack and Ennis never truly experience because they are isolated
in the rural setting of Wyoming. They have no support from anybody which leads
to their tragedy. Jack is only murdered when his sexuality is discovered. It is
worth considering whether Jacks death is punishment. Punishment for rejecting
the stereotypical cowboy myth, or punishment for sleeping with Mexican
prostitutes? It is interesting as to why Jack never returns to Mexico and it is
perhaps because he never felt the real love like he did with Ennis. The possibility
of a real relationship between them is never explored in the narrative and Ennis
is unable to see a future with Jack because of the heteronormative society that
controls what is acceptable masculinity in the USA. Before Jack’s murderers discovered
that Jack was gay, Jack and Ennis could both hide behind their masculinity. Their
gender is not a problem, only their sexuality.

1 Thelma and Louise, dir. by Ridley Scott (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1991)

2 Annie Proulx , Brokeback Mountain (United States: The
New Yorker, 1997)

3 Julia T. Wood, ‘Living with
media’, in Gendered Media: Communication,
Gender and culture (North Carolina: Wadsworth Publishing, 1994), p, 39.

4 Thelma and Louise

5 Ibid

6 Ibid

7 Easy Rider, dir. by Dennis Hopper (Columbia Pictures, 1969)

8 Proulx, p. 13

9 Ibid

10 Proulx, p. 2

11 Proulx, p. 7

12 Proulx, p. 11

13 Proulx, p. 8

14 Proulx, p. 7

15 Proulx, p. 17

16 Proulx, p. 28