Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

The Western as Male Soap Opera: John Ford's 'Rio Grande.'

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

The Western as Male Soap Opera: John Ford's 'Rio Grande.'

Article excerpt

Conflicts between career and family are commonly assumed, in social science and popular culture, to be women's problems. Recognition that men might have similar problems has been slower in coming, perhaps because we assume that the superior power men often have in domestic and work situations can resolve or mitigate them. John Ford's 1950 Western Rio Grande presents a male-role conflict that neither institutional power nor violent physical action can resolve. The struggle must be waged within rigid institutional constraints, a pattern commonly seen in 1950s melodrama and soap opera. These films gave us a preview of the Women's Movement of the 1960s. This article investigates the film Rio Grande qua male soap opera as a possible preview of men's concerns.

Conflicts between career and family in the lives of women has been a common topic in social scientific research and popular culture for the last thirty years (Hochschild, 1989). More recently, we have recognized that men can have these conflicts as well (Gerson, 1993). Men have probably always had such conflicts. Their problems have received less attention, perhaps, because men's superior power and privilege, and particularly the institution of the stay-at-home wife, can often mitigate them. However, in some situations, power and privilege are useless. Such a situation is explored in John Ford's 1950 Western, Rio Grande.

The post-World War II period reaffirmed the male breadwinner/female homemaker division of labor, but this by no means assured an easy definition of masculinity and fatherhood. Popular magazines and self-help books on child-raising were calling for family togetherness and greater involvement of fathers in domestic matters. At the same time there was great pressure on the breadwinner to support an increasingly expensive domestic lifestyle with increasingly stultifying jobs (Filene, 1986; Griswold, 1993). Images of father-as-incompetent-bungler were appearing in popular culture.

During this time, few films dealt with what we call male-role conflicts. There were lots of Daddy-goes-to-war themes in the WWII films. But such plots, by definition, separate roles. While Daddy is being a soldier, he cannot be father and husband. A Vincent Minelli film, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), featured a man facing a corporate transfer that might disrupt family life. But the focus there was entirely on the family; we never saw the father at work.

Conflict between work and family is even less common in the Western film. In fact, a basic problem of most Westerns is the integration of the hero into society. He is often an outsider who arrives providentially to help other individuals or a community uphold good against evil, after which he will probably leave again. He is sometimes an individual who has withdrawn from society to undertake a mission of personal vengeance. He may be a professional who defends society from evil for a price but whose professional status sets him apart from others (Wright; 1975). The outsiders and the professionals usually have no current family ties; the revengers are often after the killers of wives or family members. There are often romantic subplots that may or may not end in an ongoing relationship. There are sometimes real or surrogate father/son relationships (Cawelti, 1971; P. French, 1973; Kitses, 1969). But few Western heroes are husbands, fathers, and professionals all at once.

The Western is a genre focused on men confronting external forces and problems that require forceful, usually violent, responses. Women characters are peripheral, obstacles or supporters and, usually, prizes for proper performance. Performance, commonly hinging on issues of courage and competence, exhibits a fairly simple, physical notion of masculinity. It is taken for granted and enjoyed as spectacle, not explored or analyzed (Neale, 1983; Nowell-Smith, 1977).

Some critics, however, have placed the Western as a genre in a position parallel to the romance, within the broader tradition of the melodrama (Elsaesser, 1972; Lang, 1989; Walker, 1982). …

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