Feminist Guilty Pleasure 1: Cowboys

December 22, 2014

As a “male feminist,” I face routine tests and conflicting impulses that pit my intellectual self against my (learned) emotional self. I did not watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. (My wife did.) And I only looked up at the screen to criticize it, I promise. (C’mon, Taylor Swift. If you’re a feminist, start reading The Beauty Myth.) I stopped watching Game of Thrones because it was too “rapey” and I threw out some old Maxim magazines so my daughter would never find them (the Beyoncé issue!). That was easy. More challenging is confronting my love of westerns.

As a pre-internet latchkey kid, my after-school activity 5 days a week was usually the Four O’Clock Movie. This meant that by age 13, I had seen every Elvis movie, Godzilla movie, musical, Jerry Lewis movie, war film and Western that any citizen should see to be culturally literate. I’m always crushed in my Criminology class when I reference West Side Story and find out that none of the students have seen it. (Damn you, Xbox!)

At age 12 I adopted Clint Eastwood as my spirit animal. Between A Fistful of Dollars and Kelly’s Heroes I had him down. I would practice squinting in the mirror. On the Woodridge Elementary playground (No middle schools in Georgia in the 70s), I would lean against the wall, sucking in my cheeks, silently observing, a sucker stick poking out of my mouth like a Marlboro. I was a goofy loquacious kid, so the “strong and silent” thing was essentially impossible. But he was my role model.

Of course there are a legion of problems with this. If you’ve ever watched the first 20 minutes of High Plains Drifter (1973), you know that, without uttering a word, he kills several men and rapes a woman (who seems to enjoy it) before we even know that he’s the “hero.” Long before Clint became a vocal conservative, talking to empty chairs, feminists have had issues with him and he has had issues with them.

Academics have had a go at him as well. One of my favorite film books is Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood (1994) by Dennis Bingham. I read it when I was creating a fun summer sociology class at Portland State called “Hollywood Elvis: Post-War Masculinity Through Elvis Films.” I wanted a course that explored the evolution of screen masculinities from the 1950s to the 1970s. And I wanted the students to never ever have to say “Viva Las Vegas? Haven’t seen it.” again.

The class also allowed me to explore the literature on the Western genre. What was so appealing about it to me as a kid? If I wasn’t watching a John Wayne movie at 4 o’clock, I was watching reruns of The Rifleman or The Wild Wild West. Was it just the phallic gun usage that taught pleasure in shooting? Was it the taming of wild horses (as Elvis did in Charro!) as a metaphor for taming women? Was it Miss Kitty and her stable of hookers in the saloon? Was it the leather chaps?

There’s all kind of juicy stuff to dive into when untangling the Western. Many films from the 50s to the 70s were seen as allegories for the backlash to the civil rights movement. The western town was a bastion of civilization on the edge of the wilderness that required the taming of the “uncivilized” Indian. So that’s the civilized white suburbs on the edge of uncivilized black ghetto. The native people are portrayed as violent and hyper-sexual. Gee, where have we seen that before?

But the main thing is the creation of the iconic cowboy archetype. The cowboy is the ultimate symbol of male autonomy. He rides into down, without saying much, he does his thing (letting his guns speak for him), and then rides off into the sunset. John Wayne never talked about his feelings. Clint Eastwood never cared what women think (or probably anybody else in town). As a boy trying to stand alone from the tribe, how could that not be appealing? The reality of frontier life was much different than the screen version. Susan Faludi does a great job if explaining this in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (2007).

As a child I learned that boys don’t cry and boys solve problems “like men” (with violence) in westerns. I learned to leave town before a woman ties you down. And I learned I could always take out my frustrations on the “injuns.” As a professor I dove into the list of the Top 100 Westerns of All Time list on americancowboy.com and saw the same pattern over and over again. I was saturated with cowboy masculinity. (And it resonated with my boyhood self.)

So the question is, do I share this genre with my daughter at some point? How do I frame it? As an artifact of a bygone era in gender roles? That might be true if Season 5 of Justified wasn’t on my Netflix queue. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, lead character on the show, is pretty much the 2010s version of Clint Eastwood (complete with the squinting but without the raping). But in a post-Ferguson world the idea that Givens’ relentless killing as “justified” because he is a marshall is a bit less palatable.

I want Cozy to know that just acting like boys, like cowboys, is not the same as female empowerment. I want her know that when some dude says somebody needs to “cowboy up,” it’s nothing but bad news. Most of all I want her to know that the men who ride off into the sunset are not happy. It’s the men who stay in town and build connections to friends and family that win the day.

These books are available at Powell’s independent bookstore by clicking the covers below.

2 thoughts on “Feminist Guilty Pleasure 1: Cowboys

  1. I loved this post. I watched Bonanza with my Dad when I was three and wanted to marry Little Joe. About that time I went to the rodeo just to see him.

    It wasn’t very long after that before I noticed that the only women in westerns were cooking or prostituting, and I said this very loudly to anyone who would listen.

    I have a feeling that Cozy will be just fine, but don’t be surprised if she loses interest. 😉


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