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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

 

John Wayne has to go

I've recently be reading the excellent The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi, and it's got me thinking about John Wayne. This, I should say in advance, is going to be an extremely long post, so I should outline it in brief: in the light of Faludi's contention that John Wayne movies, particularly The Searchers, formed a myth to which too much of America clung in the face of terrorism, something needs to be said about The Searchers. Well, two things. The first, obviously, is that its story should not be taken as applicable to entirely different security problems nowadays, but the second is this: no one of any sense should want, in any way, to be like John Wayne in The Searchers. I say this as an admirer of several of John Ford's movies, but when it comes to his supposed masterpiece, you can count me out, and I'd suggest everyone else counts themselves out as well. Because not only is John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers a complete bastard - bastards can work if you're looking for a myth of manhood; when it comes to the important virtues, he's also a big sissy.

There seems to be something about John Wayne that short-circuits the brains of even some intelligent Americans. The guy has some kind of race-memory mythical ability to stand for macho virtue, the good old ways, true spirit, and so on, to an extent that I really can't find an English equivalent for him. We have our archetypes, to which, like Americans, we revert under stress - the spirit of the Blitz was invoked a fair amount after the July 7th bombings for example. But that comparison was, at least, reasonably appropriate: the spirit of the Blitz was to continue 'business as usual' in London despite being under threat, which was a sensible course of action after the bombings. We stood outside offices for a two-minute silence, we e-mailed everyone we knew to check if they were okay, and most of us got back on the Tube as soon as we could. I recall sitting on the District Line on the evening of July 8th, a little jittery, but feeling, above all else, defiant. If other people were scared to go on the Tube, I sympathised, but I wasn't about to be scared off. To some extent, I invoked myths, but they were myths of experience. I'd grown up in a London that the IRA attacked at intervals for years; when I was five years old, I heard a bomb detonate as my school went out for our lunchtime walk. The other myth was the myth of good old British incompetence. The Tube sucks, it really does. The price goes up every year, and every day, something else malfunctions; it never works. So my main thought, sitting there and trying not to fret if the train stopped too long in a tunnel, was 'Fuck 'em. If they wanted to scare us, they should have hit something other than the Tube; we're used to that being a disaster area.' I cared about the people who'd been killed, but I didn't see how staying scared would help them; cynical English commuterdom seemed a functional archetype to get me through the journey.

But John Wayne, particularly John Wayne in The Searchers - this is Faludi's argument - was a part of the American psyche that 9/11 exhumed: the strong man rescuing the helpless woman in a hostile land beset by barbarians. Faludi's arguments are too detailed to reproduce here (and anyway, the book is worth reading in its entirety), but, among many interesting points, she relates the real historical event that The Searchers was based upon.

To recap it in brief: in 1936 (well before the 1860s, when the film was set), a homestead called Fort Parker was attacked in Texas, resulting in the killing of some inhabitants and the kidnapping of several others, including nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. The Parker men had received several warnings that an attack was likely, including a warning from a Native American as to the exact date it would happen, but the fort was unprotected nevertheless. Cynthia Ann was adopted and raised by her Comanche abductors, renamed Nautdah ('she carries herself with dignity and grace'), and eventually married and had three children with Peta Nocona, the leader of the raid. Several attempts were made to ransom her, and the Comanches were prepared to return her, but Nautda herself refused absolutely to go back and hid from any attempts at 'rescue'. By all accounts, or at least by the reliable ones, she was happy in her new life.

Her uncle, James W. Parker, the man on which John Wayne's Ethan Edwards was based, made sporadic attempts to recapture her and her cousin. While he proclaimed he had 'spared neither my purse nor my person' in the search, he in fact turned to the state to defray any money he spent - the practice of ransoming captives and then charging the state for your expenses at a marked-up price being a recognised form of profiteering, though not usually practiced upon one's own family. Parker himself was a known crook, thief and murderer, who had killed a woman and child in a robbery staged to look like an Indian attack, had been barred from two churches and had a nasty habit of claiming other people's slaves as his own; all round, a pretty spectacular bastard, whose pursuit of Nautdah served the double function of bolstering his income and his reputation.

Nautdah remained with her Comanche family until her mid-thirties, when she was 'rescued' in a massacre of unarmed women and children; her life was spared because one attacker noticed she had blue eyes, but there were very few other survivors. Returned to her family with one of her children, a little girl called Topsannah who died of pneuomonia aged five, Nautdah fell into severe depression, self-harm and wretched homesickness, eventually starving herself to death. Her husband, Peta Nocona, never remarried; her son Pecos died of settler-inflicted smallpox, and her other son, Quanah, became the most important Comanche leader of his generation, his people dwindling to a straggling remnant on a reservation. Quanah spent years trying to find his mother and sister, forbidding his warriors ever to kill a white woman or child in case it was them, but never found Nautdah till after her death, when he had to plead with Congress for the right to bury her in Comanche ground, heartbroken at her loss.

So, that's the actual story behind The Searchers, an immensely fictionalised account of the whole sordid business, with John Wayne planing the hero. The curious thing is, if you can watch it without the Wayne-ness of Wayne disrupting your intelligence, it's actually a pretty sordid story even as it stands.

Ethan is, it's understood, a profound racist. Rather than being a crook, as the real Parker was, he's a veteran of the Civil War, where he fought on the Southern side - that is, to keep slavery legal. Meeting Martin Pawly, his adoptive nephew, he's extremely rude to him purely on the grounds that Martin is an 'eighth Cherokee', or 'half-breed', as Ethan puts it, and his hatred of Injuns in tangible. This comes out primarily in his intention to kill the kidnapped Debbie, his niece, because she's been living with 'a buck' - that is, married a Comanche man. This racism isn't entirely confined to Ethan - Martin's fiance Laurie backs him up with the appalling comment that Debbie is now 'the leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own? ... Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain ... I tell you, Martha would want him to.' There's no evidence in the film to support the idea that Comanches prostituted their captives, and the historical Peta Nocona would appear to have been a devoted husband, but, down to the animalistic 'buck', the Injuns in this myth form a twilit sexual nightmare, the specifics of which are vague but full of nameless horrors. Ethan surveys two girls rescued from Comanche captors who now sit on the floor, apparently mute, brutal idiots; Debbie, having been contaminated by Comanche attentions, is expected to be no less tainted. Martin has no sympathy with Ethan's plans to shoot the girl, but Ethan, by his triumphant act of relenting at the finale, trumps Martin as the central image of the movie, carrying both the girl and the day to a grand finale.

(Whether or not she does have any 'savage brats' - if the film were following the facts, she ought to have three - is entirely overlooked. Infantilised in Wayne's strong arms, Debbie returns home like a civilised little girl. If she does have any savage brats, which, given the time passed and the lack of contraception in the era, seems extremly likely, we can only conclude that she left them behind. But that's by the by; Wayne's forgiveness for her sexual tainting effectively restores her lost maidenhead. A virgin with children would be a bit much to manage, even in as mythologising a film as this, and a woman with children would look too adult for Uncle Ethan's paternal protectiveness to be quite so effective. Debbie comes home a maiden once again; the unnameable violations she's supposedly endured, being unnamed, are all the easier to whitewash.)

Defenders of Ethan tend to point to this great revelation at the end: that, far from killing the girl, Ethan finally sweeps her up in his arms, saying 'Let's go home, Debbie,' and carries her away. Very touching, if she had done anything that needed to be forgiven. But if this is Ethan's great moral acheivement, it's hardly an outstanding one: He eventually decided not to commit a crime that should never have occurred to him in the first place is hardly the epitaph you want on your tombstone.

That much goes more or less without saying. What stands out to me, though, is something that's far less often noticed: Ethan may be played by an archetype of manly manhood, but in fact, he's wildly emotional and self-absorbed, in a way that, should such behaviour be witnessed in a woman, would be castigated as the worst kind of drama queen, feminine vice. I've complained before that self-centred male protagonists tend to be valorised for qualities that would be villified in female ones; Wayne's Ethan Edwards is a striking instance.

I realise I'm going up against the bulwark of American culture here, so let's take some examples.

Ethan is, on the whole, a forbidding person, prone to snapping at the first suggestion of a slight, slow of speech but volatile of temper. Watch, for instance, the body language of his family in this first YouTube clip of the whole movie. Perhaps, if you admire Wayne, it looks like respect and a desire not to hurt his feelings, but without that admiration, everyone simply looks intimidated. 'You asking me to clear out now?' he flares, throwing down money to 'pay my way' when his brother has done nothing more offensive than comment that Ethan hadn't wanted to stay on the homestead prior to the war. Being this irritable with family you haven't seen for years is hardly being a benign patriarch, but being a big guy with a short temper is at least aggressively masculine. But Ethan's touchiness isn't confined to matters of honour.

Consider how he takes exception, for instance, to Martin addressing him as 'Uncle Ethan'. Martin isn't related to him except by adoption, and is, in Ethan's eyes, irretrievably tainted by his Cherokee great-grandparent, but that's not the only reason he objects:

MARTIN: Somethin' mighty fishy about this trail, Uncle Ethan...
ETHAN: Stop callin' me 'uncle'. I ain't your uncle.
MARTIN: Yes, sir.
ETHAN: Don't have to call me 'sir' neither. Nor grampaw neither. Nor Methuselah neither. I can whup you to a frazzle.
MARTIN: What you want me to call you?
ETHAN: Name's Ethan. Now what's so mighty fishy about this trail?


Ethan is displaying in this little exchange a number of notable qualities. First, he's finickety about how he's addressed, which is to say, touchy about his public appearance. Now, this might come under the heading of 'honour', but there are some other, less macho traits on show here. First, he's sensitive about his age - irrationally so, considering that the 'Uncle' was a friendly honorific rather than a slight. There's no denying that he is of an older generation than Martin, old enough to be his uncle. Ethan's blood nieces and nephew are still children or teenagers, young enough not to irritate him, while Martin is a few years older, but Ethan leaps up a generation to 'grandpaw', offended at a younger man referring to the age gap at all. Second, he wants something, but won't name it without being asked. Clearly he has a particular form of address in mind, but he isn't about to be clear about it; in effect, he's annoyed that the lad can't read his mind. Now, sensitivity about aging and wanting your mind read are qualities one would traditionally ascribe to a malign female character. Picture the scene: a young woman addresses 'Auntie Ellen', and we have a similar exchange. Wouldn't Auntie Ellen look like an aging prima donna, rather than a hero? It's worth noting, making this gender comparison, that Martin is not only younger than Ethan, but also handsome, better-looking than Wayne even in Wayne's youth. Imagine Auntie Ellen snapping at a pretty young girl for acknowledging the age gap, and you have a Dickensian harpy rather than a paragon.

And, let's not forget, that this objection to being Uncled takes place during a search party, out in hostile country, where the party are vulnerable to attack. Martin is addressing Ethan to point out that something's wrong - something, in fact, that affects the safety of the whole group and their homesteads. To an aspiring leader of men, or even to a moderately responsible person, Martin's concerns should be more important than his form of address. The one addresses the lives of the whole community, the other merely Ethan's personal feelings. Ethan doesn't care for the boy because of his mixed-race heritage and, possibly, his youth, and that swamps his priorities so thoroughly that he has to correct a petty irritation before addressing the 'mighty fishy' problem - which, for all he knows, might be a sniper sitting behind the next rock, ready to shoot them both before Ethan could finish his 'Methuselah' speech.

This small example sets the tone of a great deal of Ethan's problem as a hero. Supposedly rugged and stoical, he is in fact entirely ruled by his emotions, many of them petty and egocentric, to the outright detriment of the common good. Your traditional cowboy archetype is supposed to be square-jawed and self-sacrificing, righteously disregarding his own feelings because 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do'; Ethan isn't prepared even to let other men do what they gotta do until he's got it straight that they're not getting on his nerves.

Take, for instance, a little tantrum we see him have when the hunt begins. The Comanche have kidnapped two girls, Lucy and Debbie, and the priority is to rescue both girls before their captors can do anything to them. Ethan and Captain Clayton, the local officer, disagree about the best method for doing this. Ethan has sat brooding unhelpfully while others discuss options, until someone says something sufficiently provocative:

CLAYTON: What I had in mind was runnin' off their horse herd. A Comanche on foot is more apt to be willin' to listen.
NESBY: That makes sense to me.
MARTIN: Yeah.
ETHAN: What do you know about it? What's a quarter-breed Cherokee know about the Comanche trick of sleeping with his best pony tied right beside him? You got as much chance of stampedin' their herd as...
CLAYTON: ...as you have of findin' those girls alive by ridin' into 'em. I say we do it my way, Ethan, and that's an order!
ETHAN: Yes, sir. But if you're wrong, Captain Clayton, don't ever give me another!

Let's consider what's at stake here. Ethan isn't in charge of the party because Clayton outranks him, little though Ethan likes it; however, he would appear to have some experience of scouting, and has a strong opinion as to the best course of action. If they pursue the wrong course of action at this point, two girls could be killed. But the minute Clayton pulls rank on him - largely because he objects to Ethan's tone, it seems, rather than because he's naturally a bossy man - Ethan drops his opinion and sulks.

Now, if Ethan genuinely thinks the horse plan will get the girls killed, shouldn't he stand his ground and argue his point? After all, lives hang in the balance: if you see a fatal mistake, you should point it out. There's not enough evidence to support the defence that 'he saw Clayton wouldn't listen to him'; he makes one attempt to make his point, and drops it the instant Clayton doesn't agree to do what he wants. He doesn't argue. He follows a course of action he believes will get the girls killed. He does it with bad grace, but he does it. Ethan's primary concern, in fact, seems to be his own rank within the group: rather than trying to change Clayton's mind, he instead puts a marker on the future right to say 'I told you so.' If the girls die proving his point, so be it.

All in all, Ethan proves a sullen and temperamental rescuer, more concerned with his own pride than with any sense of greater good. This self-centredness is not confined to action: Ethan also abrogates to himself the right to regulate other people's emotions. Witness the fact that he punches Martin to the ground rather than let him look inside the burned homestead and see the body of his aunt Martha - in a way that, if one disallows the automatic assumption of heroism, is extremely presumptuous. Ethan hasn't seen Martha, his sister-in-law, for years, while Martin has been raised by her; Martin can only be more grieved at her death than Ethan, more involved in it. Considering that Martin is enough of an adult to go out on scouting parties - and, indeed, no so much younger than Ethan, as Ethan would have it - adding a bruised jaw to his sudden bereavement shows a tremendous arrogance. Even though Ethan has denied any family connection between them, he still assumes it's his right to determine what Martin sees and how he grieves. Ethan refuses to promise the grieving Mrs Jorgenson not to 'let the boys waste their lives in vengeange', and is perfectly willing to let them get killed, but when it's punchin'-time, suddenly he's Martin's mentor. Which is to say, he'll appropriate the patriarch role when it suits him - ie, when it gives him the opportunity to aggress - but rejects it entirely when it might involve either affection or responsibility.

Buried behind this lies a fundamental assumption: Ethan's emotions are simply more important than anyone else's, or indeed, anyone else's wellbeing. Witness the following dreadful scene. Lucy, Debbie's cousin, has also been kidnapped, and is subsequently murdered by the Comanches - in, it's implied, a horrible way (whether tortured, raped or both, it's never stated.) Ethan returns from finding her body, to meet with Martin, and also Brad, Lucy's fiance. Brad, frantic to know whether Lucy is safe, appears to irritate Ethan with his pestering for answers, and the following conversation ensues:

BRAD: Did they...? Was she...?
ETHAN: What do you want me to do - draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live don't ever ask me more!

Poor Ethan is very upset, you see. Now, if you accept that Ethan is the centre of the universe, this looks like high drama, but step back a moment. Brad is engaged to Lucy; Ethan, having been away for years, couldn't even recognise her when he returns home. Yet Ethan spares none of Brad's feelings, lashing out at him as if no one but he, Ethan, could possibly be suffering at the terrible news. Brad, in fact, is so upset that he races off to confront the Injuns; Martin, recognising this as suicidal, tries to stop him, while Ethan sits by, making no effort at all to do anything until Brad goes off on his horse. At this point, Ethan actually holds Martin back, letting Brad race off to his death. By the time Brad mounts up, we're supposed to realise, it would be too dangerous to follow him - but if Ethan can chin Martin for trying to look inside a burned homestead when his auntie dies, what's to stop him chinning Brad for trying something genuinely dangerous when Lucy dies? Martin on his own can't stop Brad, but two men against one might have stood some chance - except Ethan isn't about to bother. He sits on his hind parts, offering no help until it's too late. Picture a woman doing all that and getting away with it.

The thing is, the whole debacle is Ethan's fault. He's remarked previously that 'I thought it best to keep it from you - long as I could,' so he clearly grasps that he has some responsibility for how he breaks bad news. But a gentler explanation, or even a tactful lie, is something his all-important emotions forbid. Consider, for example, the following scene in a hypothetical different movie, where Ethan actually is a responsible man:

BRAD: Did they...? Was she...?
ETHAN (slowly): No. They just cut her throat. (Pause.) Guess they were in a hurry.

... followed, some time later when the still-alive Brad isn't listening, by:

MARTIN: Ethan?
ETHAN: Yeah?
MARTIN: ...They didn't just cut Lucy's throat, did they.
(Long pause.)
ETHAN (heavily): No.
(Long pause.)
ETHAN: I thought it best to keep it from Brad.
MARTIN: ...Yeah.

If you're fond of stoical cowboys, the character of Ethan should really be showing emotional stoicism as well as physical fortitude: that is, controlling his own emotions so as not to distress others. To break down and blurt out something that drives a boy to his death is simply having the vapours; hardly the act of a grim-jawed hero.

These are just a few examples, but this post is already quite long enough. They all serve to illustrate the basic point. Ethan is an emotional, irrational character, presumptuously telling others what to feel and do when they get on his nerves, but unprepared to take any responsibility, unaware that he even has a responsibility to anything but his own amour propre. The 'let's go home, Debbie' finale as an expiation for him reminds me of nothing so much as Bob Altemeyer's comment on authoritarian logic:


In both studies high R[ight] W[ing] A[uthoritarians] went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea.
Therefore, sharks are fish.

The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, 'Because sharks are fish.' In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right.



By this kind of reasoning, if you show a movie with a bad man who rescues a girl at the end, we have to assume that he was a good man throughout. But, especially in fictions, this kind of reasoning doesn't hold good.

What stands out, watching the movie from a female, English perspective, is the strange performance of Debbie. Barely a word does she say throughout; she simply sits, and watches. Near the end, she garbles out a confused story about how 'all white men lie and kill' and that 'white men' killed her family, which we know is false (though considering the real Parker's character, one has to wonder), declares that the Comanche are 'my people', and simply havers on the sidelines, caught between one cultural narrative and another, until Wayne strides in, his Macho Sueness* sweeping aside her entire life and restoring it to its rightful place among the whites. As in many an old-fashioned story, from Doris Day pictures to Much Ado About Nothing's romantic 'Peace! I will stop your mouth!' from Benedick to Beatrice, the happy ending involves the woman dropping whatever she thought she wanted and letting men decide for her. But the character of Debbie remains haunting: sitting still while the men square off, her big blue eyes staring silently at the conflict, her face unreadable, her thoughts unknown.

There's a lie at the heart of this fiction, and if you watch it straight, you can see, even from the movie, that there's something funny going on.

John Wayne has to go. And the horse he rode in on.


*Unbelievably, when I Googled for the phrase, nobody seems to be using 'Macho Sue'. So, dear readers, you heard it here first - or possibly not, who knows? In any event, I think it merits a special classification. Let's work on a definition; I'll post one shortly, but right now, it's really time to stop typing.

Comments:
An excellent analysis, and I found the historical background fascinating. I had no idea that Quanah Parker was John Wayne's great-nephew.

I suspect your analysis suffers from a wee flaw, however, which is the notion that we're supposed to view Ethan as admirable. We're not. John Ford explicitly stated that the film was intended as an examination of how racism can lead to genocide, and Ethan's psychotic character is the focus for that examination.

Ethan's tortured character, who displays heroic qualities but is far from being a hero, is probably the reason why the film didn't do very good box office on its first release. Hit movies are supposed to be simpler than this.

If you want to see Wayne playing a character that is intended to be admirable, you could look at the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach or Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Or if you want to look at a John Wayne western where the values are so crazed they seem to be from Mars, check out McClintock!
 
Wow, somebody actually made it through that enormous post! I salute your energy. :-)

(And yes, I've seen McClintock. Couldn't believe my eyes.

I do know Ethan's supposed to be an anti-hero and his racism isn't supposed to be justified. But, with no disrespect to you, my excellent Dubjay, I don't buy it.

First, Ethan isn't tortured, he's a torturer. A particular instance of spite comes to mind: shooting out the eyes of the dead Comanche so that his soul 'can't enter the spirit land, but has got to wander forever between the winds'. The man is dead, no longer any threat to them; the gesture is one of pure malice.

Most of the things that seem to cause Ethan emotional pain are either the very existence of Injuns at all, for which no sympathy is merited, or the fact that people don't always do exactly what he wants. He's not so much tormented as prone to tantrums.

I also don't think that the qualities he displays are that heroic. He goes after the kidnapped girls, but so do all the other men. Ethan just survives longer doing it; his moral worth in pursuing Debbie is no greater than anyone else's. If you want a heroic figure, it's Martin, who spends his life trailing around after a man who's continually abusive to him, in the hope of preventing a murder, with no thanks from anyone.

Yet the storyline ousts Martin from the final rescue. By granting that grand finale moment to Ethan, it grants him the status of true hero. According to Faludi, the book on which the film was based had Ethan as a secondary character who eventually gets shot by a Native American woman, and the hero is Martin. But John Ford shoulders Martin out of the top slot to make way for Ethan, and redeems him in this improbable last-minute act - an act which does not make any kind of amends for the sour, vicious bastard he's been throughout the film. He recants his racism just enough to spare one life, but his tantrums, aggression and bullying are not expiated because they're not condemned.

All of this says to me that John Ford found the character of Ethan not only more interesting, but on some level more admirable, than the less patriarchal Martin. It's not just Ethan's racism that's the problem, it's his entire personality, and that personality is finally rewarded by a narrative coup that Ford had to impose, as it wasn't there either in the book or in reality.

I do like Stagecoach very much, but there's something notable about Wayne's performance there that I think is at the heart of the problem about Wayne-ish swagger. The world is full of men who want to be John Wayne, and the characteristic expression I see on their faces is a pout, a bewildered scowl at things not going their way. Ringo in Stagecoach is something of a victim, imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit and then re-arrested for it amidst a group of people, some of whom are very hostile to him. Under those circumstances, looking put-upon is understandable. But Wayne grew older without growing up. That put-upon look stays on his mug whenever things go his way, even when he's the patriarch. There's a tendency to act oppressed even from a position of strength that is getting America into a hell of a lot of trouble, and the mythic image of Wayne is a big part of it. Wayne as actual underdog I can buy; Wayne as tortured adult, I can't.

As to whether the film is an examination of racism, I'm very sceptical as to its merits. Ethan's racism isn't lauded, but the Injuns are still presented as unbearable savages, monstrous rapists in the shadows. There's no interest at all in portraying them as human beings. Ethan's hatred of them may be carried to excessive lengths, but there's nothing in the story to contradict his basic opinions about them. He simply feels what everybody feels, to an intemperate degree.

Wayne himself can hardly have seen things otherwise, if his famous opinion about the genocide of Native Americans is anything to go by: 'I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.' This is not the remark of a man who was working to enlighten audiences. He might not perform Ethan as exactly charming, but he doesn't perform him as fundamentally wrong.

Once I was in a writing class, and a fellow-student caused a furore writing a story supposedly about a character learning better. The character was a ferociously anti-Catholic Orangeman, who condemns his daughter's boyfriend for being Catholic, only to learn better... But what he learns better is not that Catholics aren't so bad, but that the boy is Protestant after all. That's changing his mind about one person, not about his wrong beliefs; the individual is the exception that proves the rule. In essentials, nothing has changed.

To me, Ford's examination smacks of the same problem. Ethan is insufferable to Martin because Martin has a Cherokee great-grandparent; he's prepared to kill Debbie because she's been with 'a buck'. He never really mends his manners towards Martin, but relents from killing Debbie at the last minute. That act of forgiveness is not so much a softening of his hatred towards Injuns, but a decision to let Debbie's whiteness finally carry the day. His acquaintance with the very-slightly-mixed-race Martin seems to teach him nothing about the brotherhood of man; neither do we ever see him encounter a friendly Native American, though such people did exist in reality (in fact, one of them warned the Parkers of the impending raid). He doesn't learn that red folk aren't so bad, he just concludes that Debbie is white after all. That's no kind of progress; his fundamental racism remains untouched.

As a critical examination of racism, it fails. If you portray the Native Americans as blood-thirsty Injun savages, there's no way the audience can be expected to conclude that you're suggesting a greater respect for them. And on the whole, I think a big section of the audience responds to the movie on Ethan's terms; Faludi quotes director Chuck Workman, who used images of Ethan twice in a 180-second movie called The Spirit Of America, saying 'I chose it because John Wayne is the quintessential American hero for what I was trying to say. He's a rescuer. When he rescues the girl, that's what the movie is all about.' His rescuing of the girl who doesn't want to be rescued is seen as uncomplicatedly heroic, his racism as a perhaps extreme but not unnatural reaction to the painted monsters that surround him, and his bullying rudeness to all around him completely overlooked. By sweeping Debbie home, he gets cheap-grace forgivness for all his other sins, some of which the film doesn't even see as wrong.

So, in brief (brief? what's that?), I think we are supposed to admire Ethan disproportionately to his worth. As a moral character, he's pretty much worthless, but, whatever Ford says about it, I don't think it discourages racism. Either Ford was being disingenuous, or, more likely, he was so profoundly hobbled by his own prejudices that he simply couldn't do it straight - but either way, it's still a profoundly racist film. And racism isn't the only count against Ethan, not by a long measure; most of the bad behaviour I talked about in the post was towards white people. Ethan's racism is bad, but it's not the only thing wrong with him. He's just a through-and-through wanker.
 
This small example sets the tone of a great deal of Ethan's problem as a hero. Supposedly rugged and stoical, he is in fact entirely ruled by his emotions, many of them petty and egocentric, to the outright detriment of the common good. Your traditional cowboy archetype is supposed to be square-jawed and self-sacrificing, righteously disregarding his own feelings because 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do'; Ethan isn't prepared even to let other men do what they gotta do until he's got it straight that they're not getting on his nerves.

Wayne portrays largely this same set of attributes in Red River -- brutal, arrogant, and almost always wrong. But even after killing, and in a few cases, committing what felt to me was murder, he reconciles with his protege and all's right with the world. Red River, looked at critically, is an incredibly repulsive film.

(I was going to mention She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but was beat to it.
 
It's a kind of last-minute solution, isn't it? One good act at the end, even if it's not outstandingly good by normal standards, equals a good man. Even if he's done all sorts of things that would never be forgiven in a woman or a bit player. It's this kind of thing that makes a Macho Sue - about which, more tomorrow.

I have to say, I am not a big John Wayne fan. (You couldn't tell?) There are certain actors who seem somehow able to embody a whole form of manhood, and their impact on a culture's psyche can be huge. Wayne was one, Clint Eastwood another, though Eastwood managed to include intelligence in his masculinity. Marlon Brando, to a certain extent, but he was more of an actor's actor than a man's man; I suspect that he was too flexible in his performances. My personal favourite is Toshiro Mifune; though he doesn't always play the same character, there's a kind of heft to his presence, a masculine style that manages to pull off cynical, scruffy decisiveness without any swagger. Mifune's the only one I can think of who seems to have a sense of humour about himself.

Wayne seems to be all swagger, and generally the swaggerers are not the most manly, if by manly we mean mature, chivalrous, trustworthy and prepared to use their strength carefully. I think, in the end, Wayne's swagger functions as a kind of substitute for virtue; you might be a bastard, but you're a masculine bastard, which is still admirable. If you admire one gender too much over the other, you end up overlooking all sort of bad things.

Of course, I might be judging everyone by George Bush and a few other Wayne-imitators in life and art that I can't stand, but I can't think of a Wayne-ish man that I've ever thought well of. The closest I can think of is Harrison Ford, who definitely takes some influence from Wayne, but Ford has enough style to be his own man rather than a Wayne knock-off - and also exudes a kind of rueful humour that lifts the horrible arrogance out of the equation.

There seems to be a revival of Wayne types in science fiction, which is the main reason why, when friends tried to interest me in Serenity and Babylon 5, I couldn't get much beyond the thought, 'The captain is an arse.' That kind of performance demands that you take an awful lot for granted, and I can't.
 
After mentioning Eastwood and Mifune in the same paragraph, you have to compare Yojimbo and A Fist Full of Dollars -- the same movie, and both a remake of The Last Man Standing. I like them both, but I've been an Eastwood fan for quite some time. (Dirty Harry is a great example of manipulating the viewer into rooting for a rather loathesome individual, which Eastwood makes plain later in the series.)

Mifune was never afraid of mocking his "heroic" status: his character in Rashomon is pretty despicible, even when he tells his own story, but he's also the most fully fleshed of the characters.

As for Firefly (I disliked Serenity), the relationship between the soldier Zoe (played by the lovely and talented Gina Torres) and the pilot Wash (played by Alan Tudyk) more than makes up for Mal's deficiencies in my book.
 
I think we could do with separating Ford's politics from Wayne's politics from Ethan's. Wayne was a right-wing crank, but he wasn't an unreconstructed Confederate, a train robber, or a brutal killer. Nor was he Ethan's type of racist: all three of his wives were "half-breeds," to use Ethan's term.

Ford's politics were progressive--- he courageously fought against Hollywood McCarthyism--- and he admired Indians, but he was brutal and violent on the set. The actor who played the Indian chief on the Searchers said that Ford "was the only man who could make John Wayne cry."

One reason why the Indians are so brutal in this film is that Chief Scar is supposed to be the Indian equivalent of Ethan, a violent racist. (I remember Robert Mirabal, the Taos Indian flautist and rock 'n' roll guy, complaining that Scar's closest emotional relationship in the film isn't with his wife but with John Wayne, which makes sense if they're supposed to be coequals.)

Anyway, I think Wayne's character in The Searchers is supposed to be a raging dinosaur in a world increasingly dominated by civilized, sensible mammals. (He's equally a dinosaur in Red River.) I didn't admire his character in either film, and I don't think we're supposed to.

Whether the US turned into a nation of Ethans following 9/11 is another issue. I think the country went perfectly crazy, but not emo dinosaur crazy.
 
Kit, I have been trying to email you at the address on your home page (kit@kitwhitfield.com) and the mail has been bouncing. Have you changed your email address?
 
Yes, it's now kitwhitfield@hotmail.com. Sorry; the minute I work out how to change pages on this site, I plan to update it!

Dubjay: yes, you've got a point. I suppose I quoted Wayne because it seemed so similar to how he plays Ethan. He's one of those actors who tends to play some variant of himself; Ethan may be a darker incarnation, but it seems very close to him.

And I think you can be married to someone from a different race and still be racist. After all, you can be married to a woman and still be sexist, as with Wayne's odd comment 'I've had three wives, six children and six grandchildren and I still don't understand women .' (You'd think he'd be embarassed to admit it. It's hardly creditable to be bewildered by half the human race after so many opportunites to deal with it.)

Whatever Ford's politics, I think he fails to present the Comanches as anything other than nasty, bloodthirsty savages. If he was trying to plead for more understanding towards them, he didn't do a good enough job. Perhaps he was too bound by the styles of his time, perhaps he admired the 'noble savage' stereotype; I don't know. I just think that The Searchers is a film far more weighted to Ethan than it realises.

It's notable, for example, that Ethan isn't the only person who calls Indian men 'bucks'; Martin's fiance does as well, and like Ethan, considers a woman who's slept with one to be his 'leavings', that is, tainted. Ethan's pickier about what he considers Injun than most - everyone else puts Martin on the white side of the equation - but nobody in the film shows any desire to deal with the Indians as anything other than a terrifying, half-human enemy. So I don't think Ethan's a dinosaur; he's an extremist, and bad-mannered, but he's different from the others in degree rather than in kind.

Possibly it's a plea for racial tolerance by way of negative example - go too far and you'll end up sounding like Ethan - but again, I can't get past the fact that Ford gives the triumphant ending to Ethan rather than Martin, which is what happens in the book. The movie's final course of events gives too much credit to Ethan, condemns him too little - for his many, many faults, not just his racism - and puts more intelligent and reflective men in the shade. Like I say, it's not just Ethan's racism that's a problem, it's his tantrums, sulks, pettiness and self-absorbtion, quite apart from his racial hatred, that I have a problem with. Even without the Injun-hating, he'd still be a prat.


Hi Jeff. I'll always go for Kurosawa over the Western remakes; I like Clint Eastwood, but Kurosawa's fantastic. If I'm going to go for an Eastwood movie, I'm picking Unforgiven.
 
Oh, and on another note, this is one of many reasons why I so love The Wire. The character of McNulty is very similar in disposition to the classic Dirty Harry type: the maverick cop who defies his superiors to do the right thing and gets into a personal vendetta with the criminals. But The Wire is realistic about what such a man would be like.

McNulty is often right, intelligent, and achieves some impressive things. He's also a pain in the bum to many people who work with him - and the fact that he's often right doesn't make him any less annoying. It doesn't make his superiors grudgingly respect him; it doesn't make his wife take him back; it doesn't win him final, spectacular vindication. His superiors can't stand him, his wife doesn't trust him, and you have to acknowledge that he gives them all fair reason.

Similarly, his personal vendetta with Stringer Bell is almost entirely one-sided. Stringer is only moderately aware of him; he certainly doesn't care about McNulty anything like as much as McNulty cares about him. When McNulty starts getting too obsessed, even his friends start telling him, 'It's not all about you.' The vendetta is personal only because McNulty takes Stringer Bell's enterprise personally; he's not even the cop who does the most impressive work to break the case. It's a team effort; McNulty's valuable, but so are lots of other people who can also resist throwing their weight around like him. He's not even the most intelligent person on the case; he's smart, but others are at least as smart as him. And when he finally gets inside Stringer's apartment, all he can conclude, looking at it, is that he never understood Stringer at all.

His recurring 'What the fuck did I do?' when people lose patience with him is the complaint of a man so convinced that his personal quest is righteous that he forgets his ego can grate on other people. It's just a really good portrayal; sympathetic and respectful, but not worshipful, and not prepared to let him get away with the consequences of his behaviour.

The Wire kicks booty.
 
The Wire is the best one-hour drama ever made for television, period. Just as Revolutionary Girl Utena is the best series.

Count me among those who grew impatient with McNulty. I thought he was the series' weak point: I'd just seen too many stories about obsessed cops with divorces and problems with alcohol. Not that they don't exist, but that the McNulty character too often failed to rise above the stereotype.

John Ford's attitudes toward Indians are shown to better advantage in Cheyenne Autumn, and in moments in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache.

I think it's interesting that of all the people I knew who are huge John Wayne fans either haven't seen The Searchers, or didn't like it. They preferred the more iconic Wayne of Big Jake or Chisum, both of which were mediocre to weak films. Also far simpler, of course, just good guys and bad guys doing what good guys and bad guys do.
 
Ah, I thought McNulty was a strong point in the series. He seemed to me a classic character, yes - but done properly, without the series going all sentimental about him. There's something about the maverick-cop type that seems to attract certain kinds of writers, and they usually present him as generally vindicated, but I liked that McNulty was a more naturalistic, believable take. It seemed like a character that's almost always a mild Mary Sue, only not done in that way. Eh well. I have the impression that he's phased out by series 4 - but don't tell me don't tell me don't tell me, I haven't seen it yet and I've been looking forward to it for months!
 
I realise I'm going up against the bulwark of American culture here, so let's take some examples.

"The" bulwark? Goodness. If it's at all appropriate, I'd just like to pipe up and mention that for some pretty significant portions of the populace over here, John Wayne is utterly meaningless? The source of weird-talking, limpy-walking jokes and Seinfeld episodes where people wearing cowboy boots are mocked and maybe beaten up in the streets? (Not that I endorse street crime.)

John Wayne has to go. And the horse he rode in on.

I'd argue that by and large he has done -- and if he has not, let's have at those instances. That the John Wayne oeuvre or indeed most American (and maybe farther flung, who knows) pop and/or blockbuster films of the time are either dedicated to or unwittingly steeped in the glorification of the white male is a big "well... yeah" in my neck of the woods. I'm not convinced any huge percentage, and certainly not the majority, of post-Boomers has seen much more than "High Noon" -- which I had to see in a film-critique class in D.C. (My own engagement with the story of Naduah and her son Quanah came via this book. I recommend it. This is the first I'm hearing of this film.)

If Wayne has merits, I'm not prepared to argue them and will leave that to people who are more familiar with the material -- I'm just going by your post. (And I'm willing to allow, too, that I'm tangenting a bit.)

Rescue the damsel and the reduction of female to object and trophy is a trope by no means unique to American or even western (by which I mean the hemisphere, not the genre) films (or literature, or mythology). Sexism is and continues to be the oldest and most pervasive prejudice in the world. Sexism pervades all the other prejudices. It is entwined like a parasite at the root of homophobia; its vocabulary comes into play to denigrate and objectify whole nations of people as inherently "effeminate" or "wild," "oversexed," "animalistic"; it's used as a rallying cry at some point or other ("save the women from the [insert adjective] hordes!") for nearly every movement, vile or noble, that ever was.

Further -- Oversimplification sells. It's easier to subtitle and translate, and if it's exciting enough, people will run out and see it (not just Americans, by far and away). If something else began to sell, they'd probably produce it leaping on the bandwagon like crazed loons. I don't believe in exclusive content-producer culpability anymore, any more than I believe in exclusive consumer culpability -- there's responsibility enough to go around.

Further -- the cowboy meme is an overrated one anyway when it comes to American thought, and seems to me to loom far larger in the European mind (at least if the feedback from four years of teaching English conversation or number of times I've been greeted with a "howdy" in France and Italy is any indication. Or times, upon revealing my nationality, I have been met with an impromptu geography quiz).

I don't count my experience the definitive United States one, but it does exist, and it isn't fringe.

The country was founded on the principles of Christianize and Conquer, but for sundry reasons your average American now is no fewer degrees separated from the parties responsible than your average Western European: For more of its history than not, the US was not a different entity than Europe, just an avatar, a foreign correspondent. It's not the standard mindset of indentured Africans (hello, great grandma!) and Chinese and others here pre-20th century, nor (for the most part) their descendents now. Nor for the immigrant waves of the late 1800s and early 20th century (Irish, German, Jewish, so on) or the current Caribbean, South and Central American and Asian waves -- their mindset was/is economic, and I'm mentioning them because at the moment they would pretty much outnumber the descendents of the original European colonists. I'm sure "manifest destiny" isn't dead, but I'd be willing to bet that -- conservative estimate here -- it's irrelevant for at least a quorum of us johnny-come-latelies.

We've got a cowboyish government currently, (and pastly, more than we realize) but the populace itself has tended toward a pretty knee-jerk isolationism (for good or possibly ill) in modern times. The maverick nature of foreign policy has been the doing of Post-FDRoosevelt corporate interests thumping about under sundry political names, intent on undoing all of the effects of his New Deal policies (socialist and welfare programs and policies enacted by that Democrat administration), securing global business interests, and uprooting Communism and alleged Communism wherever its dusky head might lurk. (Keeping in mind that significant numbers of people had to be bloody well drafted to serve Vietnam.) Aaaaaand at the risk of sounding too conspiracy-theorist, I'll stop there. But 2000 was a bummer. Governments (which is why I will never fully trust them or their works) have other agendas that I'll be overjoyed to excoriate all day, but they're not the film industry.

What's happening here is that a movie (heck, a body of work) that was made during a time when my mom, on a train trip from New York to Alabama, had to get out of her seat after she crossed the Mason Dixon line and go sit in the Negro section with a “where do you think you are, girl”, is being cited and making it into a "Spirit of America" sort of thing. I think it's a reasonable synecdoche, but not an accurate one, nor one free of marginalization -- not unlike applying children's books starring golliwogs to current English sensibilities. That Westerns of the era (in fact, my prejudice would be Westerns as a genre entire, but... I’m prejudiced and admit that) are grossly sexist, racist, and heteronormative is not something one has to convince the majority of modern Americans of -- it is a truth generally acknowledged, at least by the people and publications I tend to come into contact with. (If demonstrated, I'd be willing to accept that I'm in a minority with this opinion -- but not without citations. And not based on John Wayne. And comparing John Wayne to “The Wire”?! Fish in a barrel like WHOA.)

If we're finding echoes of John Wayne in current films, we could eviscerate those. (And I'd personally be easier to sway with films that are 1. popular and not box-office flops, 2. not savaged by critics and nearly universally acknowledged as bad 3. not meant for satire. Existence isn't necessarily indicative of popularity, acceptance, or societal impact. "300” was a worthy target -- I don't agree with everything you said about it, or I simply viewed it through a very different lens, but its impact and effect was such that it did warrant not only deconstruction, but some synecdoche and the examination of THAT.) I'll go to town on "Traffic" for a start, not for exact parallels to John Wayne but racism? Hoo boy. I could cite a Clint Eastwood film where I had a couple of WTF moments -- mainly because we're supposed to cheer him for infiltrating the Soviet Union and stealing a stealth plane. That THEY invented and made. With no narrative disclaimers or anything.)

If I as a privileged Westerner and American am to remember that other peoples and cultures are not monoliths, I don't think I'm remiss in gingerly pointing out that the same might be true on this end? “Bulwark” is a big word. We’re Americans too, and we’re minority but not THAT minor.

(Me, I'd jump in with the defense of -- and heck, my primary critiques of -- Mal Reynolds, but at the moment I haven't got any parameters.)
 
I seem to have offended you with 'bulwark'; if you felt personally implicated, I take it back. That's not how I meant it.

I've read in numerous places that The Searchers is considered one of the Great American Movies, so I think it's fair to consider it an important part of the American cultural psyche, but 'bulwark' was probably the wrong word. I felt at the time it wasn't quite the word I wanted, but the word I was reaching for didn't seem to exist; rather than add another paragraph explaining myself to an already enormous post, I went with an unsatisfactory compromise.

My reasons for going with it were threefold. One, everything I read suggests that the film remains admired as a work of art if not a political tract, hence enjoys respectability in the national film canon despite a number of flaws, only some of which I've ever seen pointed out.

Two, America is currently headed by a man who spends a lot of his time apparently pretending to be John Wayne. I know most Americans didn't vote for him, but he's still swinging the country at everyone else's heads like the world's biggest baseball bat (which is why foreigners tend to notice Westerns; prior to Bush, we didn't think about them so much, but when foreign policy starts resembling a movie, foreigners start talking about the movie). Admirers of John Wayne's style currently have access to nuclear launch codes. Because of that, he and his ilk are the ones who have the biggest impact on the rest of us. You say that 'manifest destiny' isn't a meaningful myth for many American citizens, and I'm sure you're right; all I can say is, I wish it was you guys who had the military and economic power.

Three, 'bulwark' means a rampart or fortification, a defensive construct, and Faludi makes a convincing case that the movie was used as a psychological fallback for people who felt threatened, a myth to hide behind. That seemed kind of ramparty to me.

Hence, bulwark: critical regard combined with military firepower and defensive fantasies. But even when writing 'bulwark', I didn't mean 'entirety'. Just the best-armed bit. Obviously not all America likes the film or what it stands for. But you see what I mean? A complicated set of issues, and as the sentence was more or less an aside, it didn't feel worth expanding that elaborately.

As to it being outdated, well, I wrote the post having just finished The Terror Dream still furious with all the people Susan Faludi quotes having talked John Wayne in recent years. That, to my mind, makes it topical; it may have been made a long time ago, but people are still talking about it. Heck, the Bible was written even longer ago, but it's still relevant to contemporary discourse.

People seem to have picked up on me calling Wayne's character racist, but actually most of the post focuses on his other unattractive personality traits, such as vanity, sulkiness and self-absorption. These are traits I haven't seen discussed elsehwere, and I thought they were worth bringing up. That he's racist pretty much goes without saying; I acknowledged it mostly to get his most obvious fault out of the way before getting down to what really struck me, to wit, Macho Sueness. That's not a specifically American quality - the other example I gave, Jimmy Porter, is English. Once I started talking about Ethan Edwards, I intended only to discuss an individual character, not a whole country. It's not that I think Ethan is America; it's that I think any Americans who pick him as their symbol are misguided, because he's a wanker, on a personal as well as a political level.

And comparing John Wayne to “The Wire”?! Fish in a barrel like WHOA.)

I make no apology for comparing something bad with something good. Qualitative comparisons are a fair critical tactic, besides which, seeing a good version of something can show what's bad about a bad version, same as seeing a bad version shows what's good about a good one. Comparing good and bad takes can be enlightening, especially when you're tracing something like the portrayal of a certain personality type by different artists.

Besides, the greatest compliment a reviewer ever paid me was to say that Bareback wasn't as good as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Being mentioned in the same breath as Atwood made me feel great about myself. If something is done superbly, it's not unfair to consider other similar artworks in comparison with it, just inevitable.

If we're finding echoes of John Wayne in current films, we could eviscerate those. (And I'd personally be easier to sway with films that are 1. popular and not box-office flops, 2. not savaged by critics and nearly universally acknowledged as bad

Well, I am currently working on some other posts about films that seem to me in the same tradition of violence and machismo. Some are recent, some are not; I'm a blogger, not a reviewer, so I don't feel sworn to talk about only one particular period.

I reserve the right to criticise stuff that's already been criticised, though: it's highly unlikely that I'll find a film or book that the entire world thinks is great but only I see the true faults of. Critics are a smart set of people on the whole, and usually they can tell when something's bad. Sometimes I agree with what other people say, but have a different way of or reason for saying it.

Anyway, thanks for your perspective. I have the urge to tweak the post now in the light of what you've said, as I realise that in the heat of the moment I probably let my hatred of Bushian jingoism provoke me into saying 'America' when I meant 'America as appropriated by Bush and his cronies', but I think I'll let it stand so our debate can remain in context. :-)
 
I am completely unsurprised that "Bareback" is being compared to "The Handmaid's Tale." It deserves that level of discourse -- it remains hands-down one of the most insightful novels I've read, of any genre, dealing with marginalization, how one can internalize self-hate and still resent the hell out of the oppressive society. (I made my supervisor read it over Christmas. ;-D)

I seem to have offended you with 'bulwark'; if you felt personally implicated, I take it back. That's not how I meant it.

Well, it was more "the bulwark," used singly, but I'm not offended. I'm defensive, because I take your opinions seriously. (I don't think it's the same thing, and I hope that doesn't sound like a quibble.)

But you know, I think I see where I'm veering off here -- I'm thinking in terms of "what does the existence of this film mean concerning the United States's collective psyche," whereas I should be thinking "what does this teach about how to write/create better fictional characters." (Er, is that where I'm going wrong?)

At any rate I believe I see your point, and appreciate your clarification and examples. And I kinda don't think you should tweak, or should feel you have to tweak on my account.

Heck, it could very well be that I am more out of the mainstream than I realize -- I'm a Northeastern liberal among liberals (well, at least, the U.S. definition of such) and New Yorkers. To me, Wayne is a figure of fun: an actual self-avowed white supremacist and McCarthyite at worst and a caricature at best, and far more out of mainstream thought than any serious religious text could be, despite being comparatively recent. (I was six when he died and three when he started gaining the respect he got later in life, at least according to this rather dismaying Wikipedia article I am looking over right now. Abbie Hoffman praised him?! That's just odd.)

But then Schwartzenegger just gave him some plaque or other last year. Oy.

Wayne's stated views on race and responsibility are why he in particular raises my hackles -- but his characters have a wealth of other despicable characteristics to choose from, as you pointed out, and as I did take note of -- I'd just rather not leave the impression that these are the components of a "cowboy" mythos that Americans as a body hold dear. For me, to privilege his work and the world view espoused therein as more quintessentially "American" than some other is akin to marginalizing the already marginalized as not being "real" Americans. But I understand that this is not what you are doing, so thank you for that clarification.

I don't take issue with comparing something old to something new to demonstrate flaws or strengths in one or the other. I have no intention of censoring anyone's right to criticize anything at all.

What raised my alarms is the comparison of something I would have thought to have less current cultural real estate in people's minds (Wayne oeuvre) with something that has more ("Wire"), and then to aggrandize the former as something more representative than it actually is. So this thing I said...

"films that are 1. popular and not box-office flops, 2. not savaged by critics and nearly universally acknowledged as bad"

... that goes back to my third 'graph in this post -- I was talking about "deciding what is representative" instead of "deciding what makes for good, responsible fiction" (which I will stop doing now). Just about anything is fair game for the latter, no?

At any rate, "The Wire" business was rather a throw-off comment of my own, especially seeing as how it mainly came up in the comments, not the main post, so I don't mean to harp on it.

I still think that Wayne is a catchphrase, iconic in the same way people often recognize and quote the line "Are you talkin' ta me?" but can't even identify what film it's from. (Susan Faludi bears serious discussion -- I still wonder, after reading some of her stuff and comparing it with my own local experience, what exactly the scope of that phenomenon was, and how long it lasted. I've thought that a great deal of that was media bandwagoning with catchphrases -- I don't know that it affected the habits of actual people so much. e.g., the sexist remained so; the women who won the bread continued to do so, and for the same reasons -- have you met our floundering economy? say hello -- but it is very worth exploring, why the media fixates on certain types of narratives.)

You say that 'manifest destiny' isn't a meaningful myth for many American citizens, and I'm sure you're right; all I can say is, I wish it was you guys who had the military and economic power.
Not more than I do, believe it or not. (Can you imagine how exhausting it is, defending the place all the time, trying to introduce these nuances, and yet all the time wondering at the back of my mind if I need to start planning my swift exit?)

Anyway, pardon my incoherence here -- late work night!
 
Not incoherent at all - it's very interesting to hear from you. This is a stimulating discussion. And thank you for the compliments! :-)

What raised my alarms is the comparison of something I would have thought to have less current cultural real estate in people's minds (Wayne oeuvre) with something that has more ("Wire"), and then to aggrandize the former as something more representative than it actually is.

Well, I was under the impression more people had seen Wayne films than The Wire - I always thought the latter was more a succes d'estime than a big commercial hit. But I think we're looking at an interesting distinction here: things that are 'representative' as in being accurate representations of how things really are - and I'd be prepared to bet my left foot and both elbows that The Wire is a more accurate portrait of, well, everything, than The Searchers.

On the other hand, there's 'representative' as in being some kind of distillation of an attitude. From the sources Faludi quotes, it sounds as if at least some people consider Wayne to represent, if not actual history as those of us in the reality-based community would see it, than some mythic expression of what's best in themselves. At which point, we're getting close to the other defintion of 'representative': a chosen representative, somebody selected to speak through the group.

What's worrying is when the chosen representative is a fiction that does not represent reality. Then you get the media talking about non-existent phenomena, a country's leaders doing stupid and terrible things, and all sorts of trouble, both at home and abroad. And believe me, I feel a lot of sympathy for the American people right now. The American brand, that line of tripe that Bush et al are trying to sell, makes me want to punch somebody very hard, but right now the victims of it are first, victims of war, and second, victims of America's disastrous economic policies - which includes most of its own citizens. The neocons are sticking it to everyone, as far as I can tell.

Part of my problem is that, living over here, most of what we get is America's export culture, which, towards other nations, ranges from the benignly patronising through the insulting down to the injurious. That's not the American citizenry talking to us, but it is the main contact we get - unless, of course, smart and charming Americans like you start putting in an appearance. :-) Because of this, and because the leaders of America seem to want it to be a homogenous monolith and try hard to present it as such, it can be easy to get a bit carried away in the heat of the annoyed moment and start over-generalising. Which, you're absolutely right, I shouldn't do. It's really the brand rather than the reality that I was ranting about. It's just a shame that the brand is so hard-sold that sometimes the campaign works.

And on a slightly different note, isn't it interesting how the different meanings of 'representative' apply in times of stress? The most romanticised eras in American history, from the perspective at least, seem to be the 1950s and the Wild West; both seem to seen as more innocent/noble times that it's virtuous to hark back to. Whereas actually, both were times of tremendous pressure and insecurity; the Wild West, if it ever existed at all, was probably more like downtown Baltimore in The Wire than anything else - lots of armed bastards shooting each other - and the 50s had just finished one huge war and were shifting into the Cold War against an equally gigantic enemy.

I suspect that what happens is that people deal with difficult times by telling themselves consoling fictions - the noble frontiersman or gunsel, the squeaky-clean happy home - which later eras take as a much more accurate representation than is correct. Then they start harking back, and the fictions begin again...
 
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