"They'd Kill Us If They Knew": Transgression and the Western1

By Brower, Sue | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

"They'd Kill Us If They Knew": Transgression and the Western1


Brower, Sue, Journal of Film and Video


A FILM THAT TOUCHED AUDIENCES WITH ITS epic tale set in the West, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) tells the story of hidden homosexual love, beginning in 1963 in the Wyoming wilderness and spanning the next twenty years. The film's use of the Western genre in its setting and iconography intensifies the lovers' transgression by juxtaposing the mythic roots of our country and the masculine archetype of the cowboy with a taboo love affair- a combination, as critics have noted, resulting in a film closer to melodrama than Western (Kitses "All That"; Osterweil). A smaller film released in 1993, The Ballad of Little Jo, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald, is a tale set in the West (the old West) that also features social and sexual transgressions, including at least two taboo love stories. Both films also illuminate the lives of marginalized people. My intention is to explore the filmmakers' use of the Western genre in telling these stories and to consider how in each case they blend the Western with other genres. I hope to show The Ballad of Little Jo deserves as much recognition as Brokeback has garnered, or more, for the former's critique of gender and racial stereotypes, its examination of genderbased assumptions on which the Western is largely based, and its generic response to the theme of transgression that results in blending the Western not with melodrama but with comedy.

Problematic Heroes (or, Who're You Callin' a Cowboy?)

Despite an increasingly cynical, media-wise audience that can spot and often dismiss established generic icons, the Western archetype of the cowboy still possesses power as a symbol of American courage, strength, capability, and masculinity. The Western figure continues to inhabit popular culture, from the Marlboro man to President George W. Bush's references to Western mythology (e.g., "we're gonna smoke 'em out") to the recent flurry of Western films, including/Appo/ooso (2008) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007). The Western protagonist's identification with masculinity, in contrast to Eastern femininity, goes unchallenged unless that challenge becomes the point of characterization. James Stewart in Destry Rides Again (1939), for example, is initially presented as less than a "real man" by his entry into town carrying a birdcage and a parasol. As Dennis Bingham points out, what is seen as "'sissified' to the townspeople" proves to be an act of "chivalry" to a young woman he is assisting (47). In My Darling Clementine (1946), Wyatt is challenged by Doc Holliday to "draw," and Wyatt mildly declines ("Can't- not wearing a gun") without sacrificing masculine pride because of the wellestablished reputation of Wyatt Earp, within both the film and American culture. The subtlety and irony of these characterizations are cast aside by the extreme violence of Clint Eastwood's Western protagonists in Leone's films of the 1960s and many of Eastwood's subsequent films made with Don Siegel or under his own direction. Eastwood's (perhaps) final Western, Unforgiven (1992), offers a stark comment on the hideous obligations of an individual assuming the role of masculine protector/ avenger. These characters are Western heroes or antiheroes, but they are not cowboys.

In films since the 1960s, there has been a self-conscious use of the term; indeed, "cowboy" has taken on a theatrical, artificial, camp, and/or homosexual connotation. Ara Osterweil identifies both Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys (1967) and John Schlesingers Midnight Cowboy (1969) as precursors to Brokeback Mountain (39-40). 2 "Cowboy" has become a signifier of an ironic twentieth-century (and now twenty-first-century) perspective on the genre's tradition as it has been commercialized, such as The Electric Horseman's (1979) has-been rodeo champion, repeatedly called a "cowboy," cornered into selling breakfast cereal, or the term is trivialized, as with John Travolta's turn on a mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy (1980). In Midnight Cowboy the term is literally prostituted. …

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