The Issue Of Toxic Masculinity In Ang Lee’s Film 'Brokeback Mountain'

Toxic masculinity is an issue that has surfaced over the course of the transitional period taking place towards the end of the twentieth century leading into the progressive twenty-first century. This said issue is clearly evident in texts set prior to the twenty-first century, such as Ang Lee’s classic film Brokeback Mountain (2005), a movie adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name published in 1997 that revolves around the unconventional love story that blossoms between two cowboys, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, whilst they are working in the American West during the 1960’s. However, due to the prejudicial attitudes towards homosexuality that is embedded within the conservative society of the 60s, the two lovers go on to commit to seperate, heterosexual marriages with women and start families of their own all for the sake of remaining closeted in a vastly homophobic society. The text also looks closer into some of the problematic stereotypes associated with masculinity, such as the belief that it is in a man’s nature to be provocative and stoic in the face of adversity at all times, which ultimately contributes to the issue of toxic masculinity. Likewise, the advert “The Best A Men Can Be”, produced by the men’s health and grooming brand Gillette in 2019, set its sights to raise awareness on the prickly consequences of bullying, sexism and sexual abuse that stem from toxic masculinity. This advert was intended to engage with the trending #MeToo movement, a social phenomenon originating as a viral Twitter hashtag in 2017 that attempted to place the commonality of sexual assault and harassment under a microscope, raising awareness to the problematic nature of toxic masculinity. Both visual texts depend on an array of modes in order to epitomise the issue of toxic masculinity as pertinent to a heavily conservative American society in the 1960s, as well as a modern world in the twenty-first century.

Lee’s Brokeback Mountain attempts to portray an unorthodox romance between two homosexual cowboys, Ennis and Jack, that is forced to remain closeted in the conservative society of a 1960’s Western America that believed homosexuality went against the stereotypical traits a man was inherently supposed to possess, especially as a cowboy in the wild west, which has often been epitomised in numerous texts as the very definition of the word “masculine” for their fiery temperament and stoicism. However, Ennis and Jack are shown to go against the grain, engaging in intimate, playful acts with each other in secret, but having to outwardly uphold the values and attitudes expected of a masculine man in the 60’s. This is evident in a scene in which Jack and Ennis are shown to be play-fighting with each other intimately, however things quickly turn violent as they begin throwing actual blows at one another to counteract the built up sexual tension. This violence is symbolic of the aggression that is stereotypically deemed a masculine trait, which works to encourage the audience to sympathise with Jack and Ennis for having to break up something as light and innocent as play-fighting with each other to regain the masculine frame that is pressured upon them by society. Another scene that highlights the toxicity of stereotypical masculinity is when Ennis’ wife Alma, who he had been cheating on with Jack at Brokeback Mountain, suspects that Ennis was secretly intimate with Jack, which quickly spirals into a heated altercation between the two. Ennis is characterised in this particular scene as a closeted homosexual, and in an attempt to downplay the cheating accusations against him, he displays aggressive body language, raising up his clenched fist in order to frighten her into submission as a way to assert a dominant, masculine frame over her, which positions the viewer to sympathise with both sides - Alma for being the victim of abuse, and Ennis for having to uphold the toxic traits associated with manhood in order to mask his sexual orientation in a conservative society.

Likewise, Gillette’s 2019 advert works to raise attention to the social issues brought about by the existence of toxic masculinity in the twenty-first century, such as bullying, sexism and sexual misconduct, the latter being tackled by the rising #MeToo movement. The advert begins with a voice-over placed over the top of a montage of men reflectively staring at their own reflections in the mirror, which can be heard saying: “Bullying. The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.” Subsequently, speech bubbles in the form of text messages appear which read: “Freak”, “Everybody hates you” and “You’re such a loser”. These written codes and voice-overs accompanied by the sympathetic body language of a mother hugging her young son captured with a medium, eye level shot, positions me to resonate with this young child on an emotional level, as well as opening my eyes to the fact that the tyrannous behaviour brought about by toxic masculinity is no longer acceptable in a progressive society, and that taking social action is a must in order to influence a more positive future for young males. The multiple voice-overs intended to arouse a reaction from the viewer in regards to bullying and sexual harassment begin to speed up until they become completely inaudible, which in turn positions me, as a viewer, to realise the extent of the inappropriate behaviours stemming from toxic masculinity displayed by some men towards females as well as their fellow males. This, in conjunction with the montage of the men at the beginning of the advert shown to be gazing at their own reflections in the mirror, coupled with a rhetorical question making direct reference to the brand’s slogan: “Is this the best a man can get?”, raises attention upon the toxic nature of stereotypically masculine behaviours that the #MeToo movement has been enforced to combat.

The issue of toxic masculinity had been flying under the radar in the twentieth century and while it still is currently an issue in the twenty-first, it has evidently been brought to light through various multimodal texts in different contexts, such as Ang Lee’s Western romantic film “Brokeback Mountain (2005)”, and the 2019 Gillette advert titled “The Best A Men Can Be”, both depending on numerous different modes in order to raise awareness to the problematic nature of toxic masculinity as relevant to a conservative American society in the 1960s, as well as a much more progressive world in the twenty-first century. 

16 December 2021
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