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Cowboys Don’t Cry: Westerns & the Ideal Man

Western Annie In Field

“He ain’t much of a man, is he?”

I remember well the words of Buck Hannassey in Big County. His guttural insults were just one among many to blare through my grandparent’s walnut encased TV. Sitting there, on that avocado armchair, I first learned to distinguish between “real” men and their inferiors–those city slickers who couldn’t handle a gun or their liquor.

Real men were in control.

Real men were aggressive.

Real men didn’t cry.

Real men were cowboys.

It was a cultural standard I was taught along with other little American boys and girls–an archetype promoted by family, schools, and the Hollywood Western.

At that time, I didn’t understand that gender was a construction. I just assumed that masculinity was a biological reality for all little boys, just as sugar and spice ostensibly replaced the nucleic acid in every pair of XX chromosomes.

I had no clue just how insidious these suppositions could be.

How the West Was Masculinized

The advent of the Hollywood Western coincided with a particularly tumultuous time for white, heteronormative men. Industrialization, the advancement of women’s rights, and a massive influx of immigrants all threatened their presumed power and authority.

During this crisis, Hollywood responded with the Western: a portrait of the ideal man. Rough and ready. Strong and silent. Unbridled and untouched by the emasculating influence of the big city. Outside the purview of federal laws and progressive politics, the cowboy was free to be a man. A “real” man.

The raison d’être of the Western has always been the examination of manhood.

Carol MacCurdy

Throughout Hollywood’s golden age, the Western continued to uphold the masculine ideal. And as Jane Thomkins elucidates in her book, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, “It is not one ideal among many. It is the ideal, certainly the only one worth dying for. It doesn’t matter whether a man is a sheriff or an outlaw, a rustler or a rancher, a cattleman or a sheepherder, a miner or a gambler. What matters is that he be a man. That is the only side to be on.” 

Buckskin and Puppy Dog Tails

But what does it mean to be a man, truly? Is there some ubiquitous standard?

John Wayne
John Wayne

Well, no. Not really.

The concept of gender lies beyond any anatomical designation, and rather than being a static or fixed reality, the male essence is an evolving, idiosyncratic construction. As philosopher Judith Butler explains it, our behavior creates our gender. But, while there may be no such thing as a “real man”, the social pressure to adhere to arbitrary male standards can feel all too concrete. In order to fit prescribed masculine molds, many men feel obliged to trim off essential bits of their personality, their character, their most authentic selves.

Keep the gun, lose the empathy. Release your anger, bottle up your tears. Fall in line, you plastic toy soldiers. Suck it up. Be a man.

As if there was only one way for a man to be.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be (Patriarchal) Cowboys

The interesting and perhaps ironic thing about patriarchy is that it’s not only harmful to women–it’s terribly noxious for men too. By encouraging men to be violent, controlling, and devoid of any real emotion or deep human connection, we promote a type of Stepford man. A Stetson man, if you will. An emotionally stunted caricature.

It is little wonder that men are significantly less likely than women to seek mental health treatment and four times more likely to die by suicide. Seeking help is perceived as weakness in our society, and while acceptable for the so-called “weaker sex”, it is an anathema for the man’s man. Some scholars have even suggested that women, on average, live longer than men because of these absurd gender norms, which force men to take greater risks and isolate themselves more often. Thus, despite the assertion that feminists are man-haters, smashing the patriarchy has nothing to do with destroying men–it’s a liberation…for all genders.

As an aside, I want to be clear that not all attributes associated with traditional masculinity are problematic. Rather, it’s the power and control indicative of patriarchal masculinity that causes issues and limits men to a circumscribed identity.

True Grit, False Ideals

Now, it would be inaccurate to portray all classic Westerns as misogynistic. Giant and Johnny Guitar, two films mentioned in last week’s post, actually challenge gender norms and feature strong female leads. There are also a handful of Westerns which question the legitimacy of patriarchal masculinity. In fact, this post’s opening quote was delivered by the villain of The Big County–a film which directly confronts Western depictions of the ideal man.

Gregory Peck and Carroll Baker in Big Country (1958) MGM
Gregory Peck and Carroll Baker in The Big Country (1958) MGM

Rather than featuring traditional stars like the stony Clint Eastwood or the womanizing John Wayne, The Big Country casts Gregory Peck as a sort of Western antihero–a polite, soft-spoken pacifist from the East. His refusal to fight is mistaken for cowardice, but to him, integrity and authenticity are far more important than his sullied reputation. By the film’s end, the message is clear: those who live by the revolver die by the revolver; blessed are the peacemakers.

Films like The Big Country are significant for championing alternative forms gender expression; they help chip away at the impenetrable edifice of the ideal man. As more modern Westerns begin to challenge heteronormativity, it may be possible to expand the current criteria for manhood. For, according to scholar Anna De Biasio, Hollywood is not “a reflection of  pre-given masculinity fixed outside of representation. Rather, they actively construct the cultural meanings we give to masculinities.” As such, films play an important role in liberating men from the straitjacket of patriarchal masculinity.

Let’s hope that in the years to come, Hollywood and modern society can leave the notion of the ideal man in the dust.

There is so much more freedom on the horizon.


Get the Look: Western Fringe & Pony Tales

Annie in Field

Dress: Fables by Barrie

Boots: Capizio (similar)

While I have purchased swimsuits from Fables by Barrie in the past, this is my first time to invest in one of their Riley Fringe dresses. A part of their Pony Tales line, The Riley Fringe dress comes in multiple colorways and sizes (XS-XL). I was in between an extra-small and a small; ultimately, I decided to size down to an XS. It is very tight across the bust, but fits well everywhere else. For reference, my measurements are 36-25-36. The quality of the dress is exceptional and well-worth the steep price tag; I would just recommend choosing a size based on your largest measurement since there is little give in the fabric. Now off to find a honky tonk…