Stereotypes are for sheep?

WARNING! This post has been called a "spoiler." People who don't want to read about certain details in "Brokeback Mountain" might not want to read any further.

Someone at the Childress, Texas Chamber of Commerce isn't doing a very good job. For a shrinking town of some 6500 people, it seems to be the capital of far more mayhem and murder than it should.

You'd never know Childress was a terrible place merely by Googling the name. What you get are interesting facts like these:

The community was named after George Campbell Childress, who wrote the Texas Declaration of Independence

Former and merged community names include:

Crime: The number of violent crimes recorded by the FBI in 2003 was 19. The number of murders and homicides was 0. The violent crime rate was 2.8 per 1,000 people.

Well-known residents have included:
Walter P. Chrysler, founder of Chrysler Motor Corp.

Hey wait a second! Number of murders and homicides was 0? What about the awful Sawyer family who murdered motorists by the carful and then ate them? As attentive fans of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre know, Childress was the nearest town to the murder scene.

And now, from "Brokeback Mountain," we know that homosexuals get beaten to death in Childress.

Which means the above statistics can't be right, can they?

Should it matter that "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Brokeback Mountain" are actually fictional? That no such murders actually took place near Childress?

Is it fair to ask whether Childress is a victim of unfair stereotyping? Might it have been better to pick another town?

Another state, perhaps?

The reason for my concern about Childress is that I saw "Brokeback Mountain" last night, and the night before that I rented and watched the umpteenth version of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." (A must for all fans of Full Metal Jacket's R. Lee Ermey, BTW....) What I'm troubled by is the logic of stereotyping a small town I've never visited and probably never will. Am I supposed to be more afraid of cannibals with chainsaws? Or homophobes with tire irons?

Somehow, the latter seems intended as the more truthful stereotype of the two. Perhaps evocative of the death of Matthew Shepard?

No, that can't be right, because his name aside, Matthew Shepard never herded sheep, and he wasn't what you'd call a man's man. He was tiny and effeminate, and it is doubtful he could have put up much of a fight -- either on the night the thugs beat him to death or any time.

But the "Brokeback Mountain" guy who was murdered in Childress, well, he was tough enough to ride bulls in rodeos, physically threaten his bullying father-in-law into submission, and duke it out with his violent boyfriend. He was also smart enough to carry on a gay relationship behind his wife's back, as well as score with guys in Mexico (where such things can be more dangerous than here). He just didn't strike me as the type who'd get himself beaten to death by fag bashers.

I don't mean to engage in stereotypical thinking, but the few cases of fag bashing I've personally known about took place not at the hands of cowboys, but in urban areas, at the hands of minority youths offended by gay men who ventured too close to "their" neighborhoods (and who were too open for their liking). This is not to say that small town Texans wouldn't do the same thing, but seeing stuff like that on a big screen always makes me wonder whether there's a message being sent. ("GAY MEN BEWARE! Texas towns are dangerous places.") In reality, I think most gay men would be more likely to be attacked in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, or even tolerant San Francisco than in Childress, Texas.

But again, is Childress really the issue?

Or is there a bigger stereotype meant to include Texas, Wyoming, and other flyover states? The red-state/blue-state cultural stereotypes, perhaps?

Anyway, there was just something about portraying a Texas small town that way that struck me as a bit unfair. I can see past the stereotypes (assuming that is what they are), but are there clueless people out there who won't?

And am I supposed to care about clueless people?

As it is, the clueless hordes drive me to utter distraction, because while I don't know where they are or what they think, they are always invoked by communitarian proponents of the National Kindergarten mindset which so infuriates me. From what the ideologues on both sides say, they -- the little people -- are victims of bad leadership and propaganda aimed at manipulating them and leading them astray. The evil Red State Neocons make them think Saddam Hussein personally directed the 9/11 attacks, fill their minds with homophobia, and trick them into voting for antigay marriage ordinances. Clearly, they don't know what they should think. This justifies the people on the other (blue state) side in telling them how bigoted, insensitive, and murderous they are, and of course what they should think.

It's almost as if American ideologues on both sides believe that non-ideological Americans are sheep to be led. But it's insulting to tell people they're sheep. It can backfire. So, instead of telling them that directly, they're told that they're acting like sheep if they follow the evil ideologues on the other side.

I tire of this, mainly because I dislike the idea that Americans are sheep. In fact, I hate the very idea of human sheep. I do my best to deny the existence of a class of people who want to be led, and I defend individuality to the best of my ability, because I don't think it is natural for human beings to be led, much less Americans, who are a proud, independent, individualistic people.

On some deep subconscious level, I hated the endless images of sheep in "Brokeback Mountain." I'm not sure why, but I'm now finding myself wondering whether I saw them as a symbol of the imaginary mindless Americans who think what they're told to think, and whose existence I deny, but who fill me with fear and loathing. For, if we are a nation of sheep, then libertarianism is wrong, and the communitarians, the fascists, and the Communists are right. So, I refuse to believe in sheep. The catch is that it makes me sheepophobic. (Would that be oviphobic?) I hate and fear the sheep I deny, because they threaten my view of a proud, free, independent America.

Is it an accident that the cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain" were portrayed as neglecting the sheep while they were screwing, or am I just being paranoid?

Author (and non-Texan, non-Wyomingite) Annie Proulx doesn't say much about the sheep, but the way she talks about her characters might be seen as a tad condescending:

I had to imagine my way into the minds of two uneducated, rough-spoken, uninformed young men, and that takes some doing if you happen to be an elderly female person. I spent a great deal of time thinking about each character and the balance of the story, working it out, trying to do it in a fair kind of way.
It didn't seem fair to me.

But then, neither did "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and I never complained about that.

So what the hell is my problem with unfair stereotypes and sheep?

(I think I should conclude by reassuring myself that these movies are all fiction and we are not a nation of sheep.....)

UPDATE: A reader who wishes to remain nameless has sent an email titled "Stereotypes are sometimes real" in which he argues that in his experience, small towns are more dangerous for gays:

My partner and I have lived in rural northern California together for 27 years. Our experience in many ways mirrors that of what is portrayed in "Brokeback Mountain" (We haven't seen the movie yet, but have read the reviews - so I'm kind of flying loose here.)

Anyway, you say that gays are far more likely to get mugged or beat in cities than in small towns.

Not in our experience.

In 1999 two closeted friends of ours were brutally murdered in bed in Redding, California. Gary Matson & Winfield Mouder were their names. They befriended the Williams brothers, Identity Christians, who also burned a couple of synagogues in Sacramento and had a list on them of well known Jews they intended to murder when they were captured.

Some 25 years ago a close friend of mine was bludgeoned to death in Red Bluff, California. He was gay in a cowboy town. Ever heard of the "Red Bluff Round Up"? His name was Russ Baldwin.

And finally my own experience:

My partner & I have tried to live a quiet existence in a small rural community. But like all small towns, everyone knows.

So, a few years ago the 20 acres next door to us was sold to a couple in their 70's. They just happened to be former occupants of Mt. Carmel, Texas. In fact they were some of the original Dividians. And without trying to sound paranoid, I believe they have brought other followers with them. To the point that this tiny Sierra foothill community now has quite a group of 7th Day Adventists with intent of building a church, a food processing center, and a school.

A year ago last Labor Day, one of the flock living on another adjoining piece of property to ours, started a fire that burned up through our 5 acres destroying everything in its path except the house. We were BBQing on the deck when the fire storm approached, and escaped with our lives. Only because of a large water-filled Live Oak tree in the front yard that deflected the fire around the house, did we survive.

Ever read in the Bible about "and they shall be consumed in fire"?

I sleep with a 12 gauge by the head of the bed, and we are getting ready to move.

This is no joke.

It's life for gays in small town USA. (And Canada is looking better by the day.)

Obviously, these things can happen anywhere, but I can only speak from personal experience, and the incidents I've known of took place in large cities. It's certainly true that Christian Identity types (as well as certain fringe fanatics) often prefer rural locations, but I'd want to see a statistical breakdown before generalizing.

I do remember reading about the Matson-Mowder murders described in the email. Yet California as a state was never implicated in the same way that Wyoming was for the Matthew Shepard murder.

(If I lived in Wyoming, I might consider that a double standard.)

UPDATE (1/02/06): The Philadelphia Inquirer's Faye Flam rounds out the discussion of "Brokeback Mountain" with a quasi-scientific piece on gay sheep: his book Biological Exuberance, author Bruce Bagemihl details gay behavior in a huge variety of wild animals. Here's an excerpt from his section on bighorn mountain rams: "Typically the larger male rears up on his hind legs and mounts the smaller male... the mountee assumes a characteristic posture known as lordosis, in which he arches his back to facilitiate copulation."

"Usually the mounting male has an erect penis and achieves full anal penetration," the book goes on to say - apparently the anatomy of wild sheep is suited for it, unlike that of domesticated sheep.

This anatomical coincidence is shared by various other living things, including, it would seem, sheep-herding cowboys.

I say Bah!

posted by Eric on 12.30.05 at 07:57 AM


Thanks for the spoiler warning on Brokeback...

Adam   ·  December 30, 2005 12:47 PM

Didn't mean to spoil anything; only to complain about stereotypes. (The death was in Proulx's short story too, which is all over the Internet) Overall the film was pretty good, although a bit long. I just don't think it works as a generalization about anything, but a lot of people want to see it that way.

Eric Scheie   ·  December 30, 2005 1:25 PM

Oviphobic. Definitely. Sounds so much more high class. Of course, we'll be bashed by feminists of the womyn and herstory type for being phobic of ovaries, but that's just a side benefit. :-)

On brokeback -- a friend, like me straight, married, religious (albeit, an evil libertarian) -- says it sounds like the perfect chick-flick. And judging from all the slash sites on the net she might be right. I don't know. Haven't stirred myself to seeing it yet. I'm not big movie person.

For something completely different -- last year I was busy over new years and the beginning of January and by the time I came here I realized Steve Malcom Anderson had left a note behind wishing regulars -- self included -- a happy new year.

In his memory, because he isn't here, happy new year to all the Classical values Regulars and even Irregulars. And to Steve, wherever he may be, and if time still holds any meaning.


Portia   ·  December 30, 2005 5:58 PM

Portia, thanks for the sweet comment -- especially remembering Steven!

BTW I meant "oviphobic" as a reference to Ovis aries (Latin for sheep).


Eric Scheie   ·  December 30, 2005 8:56 PM

Actually, maybe I should use the Greek "ois" instead of the Latin "ovis." Oiphobia?

Dennis might know....

Eric Scheie   ·  December 30, 2005 9:06 PM

I really can't empathize with Proulx's difficulty: As a white man with a white mind I can't even imagine what it would be like to have a black man's black mind, much less to have an elderly female's mind - straight or gay, rednecked or not. So I can't begin to imagine what Proulx's problem must have been, or why she thinks I could imagine it.

In fact due to my unique bodily characteristics, economic statistics, life history and circumstances, etc., I can't understand anyone. And so I am sure you likewise can't make heads nor tails of what I am even saying right now.

I rest my case. So the only fair thing to do is to make up some stuff and put it into cartoon form. After all, Hollywood movies are the universal language, somehow transcending all otherwisely impenetrable barriers. Allah Akbar!

Joe Peden   ·  December 31, 2005 2:01 AM

It should be noted that altho Matthew Shepard was indeed tiny and effeminate, and it is doubtful he could have put up much of a fight, this was only a reason he was chosen as a victim, and not the motive. He was killed by a tweaker in a robbery for drug money gone bad. There was in fact a witness who claimed that the killer swung both ways.

triticale   ·  January 2, 2006 1:40 AM

triticale, that wasn't the story Matthew's killers told at the time. What they said on their little ABC interview special I discount because the case's original investigators discounted most of their new claims.

Eric, Proulx's short story was released a year before Shepard's murder, so Jack's death could not have been based on Shepard.

I'm really not sure how riding bulls or fighting with your boyfriend will help you if a group comes after you with tire irons, but one of the big questions in the film was whether or not Jack's wife paid those men to kill Jack. If she did pay them, then Proulx wasn't trying to tell the audience that small Texas towns are full of homophobic rage, she was trying to tell them Jack's wife became sick of his playing around and had him killed.

Carl   ·  January 2, 2006 5:47 AM

It fascinates me how Brokeback functions as a kind of Rorschach. Over at Gay Patriot, one obsessed commenter can't forgive what he considers its glamorization of barebacking. Other people elsewhere are angry that these sheepherders pretend to be cowboys. Etc. Now you and the sheep thing. Almost makes me believe the postmodernists that a text has no fixed meaning at all. I'll keep my own Brokeback thoughts to myself.

EssEm   ·  January 2, 2006 11:38 AM

Isn't the movie really about what Hollywood believes (and wants you to believe) about small-town Texas/America? Don't we all *just know* the rednecks will kill all the homos?

Real Childress: no sheep, no mountain, no homo killers. Real Hollywood: overpaid, self-righteous amoral moralists.

Peggy Noonan is right: "When people have complete professional (read financial) security they are more likely in time to show a new conceit. I don't know why this is, but I think it's connected to the fact that they're lucky, and it seems somehow hardwired in human nature that when people are lucky they come to think they deserve it: It's not luck, it's virtue. And since it's virtue my decisions are by their nature virtuous."

pluck   ·  January 2, 2006 1:12 PM

pluck, the film presents a variety of images of small-town life. Ennis's wife is certainly not a redneck fool. Neither are Jack's parents. Viewers are led to believe Jack is killed because his wife or father-in-law paid men to kill him. I don't think the film believed paid killers are only available in Childress, Texas.

Carl   ·  January 2, 2006 5:35 PM

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