Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Horse Whisperer as Neoliberal Roadmap to the "New" American West

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Horse Whisperer as Neoliberal Roadmap to the "New" American West

Article excerpt


In the summer of 1996, Robert Redford returned to south-central Montana - where he had filmed portions of his critically and commercially successful film A River Runs Through It (1993) - to direct the screen adaptation of Nicolas Evans's novel The Horse Whisperer (THW, 1995). Redford chose the area north of the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness because he sought to capture the particular confluence of agricultural serenity and mountain grandeur for his film about the power of rural simplicity to heal and provide succor from the damaging and dehumanizing aspects of American urban life (Jaehne).1

In addition to that explicit message, the film that Redford created is freighted with additional themes that made it a powerful model of and for the lives and projects of the ex-urban in-migrants that have colonized communities like nearby Livingston throughout the "New" West Archipelago over the past several decades (see Hines, The Post-Industrial). Specifically, as I seek to recount here, the efficacy of The Horse Whisperer as a model for the lives of rural gentrifiers is predicated on the way it communicates the abiding neoliberal capitalist themes of creative destruction and individual responsibility.2 In so doing, I explore how cultural texts, such as novels and films, serve as conduits between larger themes within capitalist culture and the lives of people on the ground.

This article can be seen as complementing published pieces (see Ruth Williams, Woodstock, as well as Blouin and Shipley) that have also sought to describe how cultural texts are products and productive of capitalist subjectivities in the contemporary neoliberal era. As an example, Williams's piece does an especially effective job of connecting the voices in the memoir (and subsequent film) Eat, Pray, Love (EPL) with the character of neoliberal subjects. Of specific interest to what follows here is the point made by Williams that neoliberalism in part accomplishes its ends by depoliticizing (and thereby naturalizing) this subjectivity. EPL is party to this program, as Williams notes, by inspiring its female viewers/readers to seek to empower themselves through their consumption of touristic experiences; this agenda, however, ultimately leaves them cast as unwitting contributors to re/creation of inequality. "When she finds herself travelling [sic] to other countries," Williams writes, "the neoliberal spiritual subject takes this depoliticized viewpoint with her, allowing her to consume without regard for how her consumption perpetuates negative local economies" (18).

In another instructive example of this style of analysis, Woodstock offers an image of the ways in which neoliberal narratives of individual responsibility are interwoven into the presentation of the reality programs Miami Ink and LA Ink thereby reinforcing and broadcasting these ways of thinking and being to television viewers, which serves as an inspiration to the internalization of neoliberal perspectives and practices.

From this introduction, I now turn briefly to discussions of the primary components of this investigation: the ongoing social process of rural gentrification, the cultural ideals of neoliberal capitalism, and the relationship between the two as made evident through THW. At the end of the piece, I return to an interpretation of the film and its implicit neoliberal perspective.

Rural Gentrification

Rural gentrification has, over the last two decades, dramatically reworked the physical and social landscape of significant parts of the American West.3 The in-migration of ex-urban middle-class Americans to specific sites within the region has inspired the emergence of an "archipelago" of communities commonly referred as the "New" West (see Hines, In Pursuit).4

In general, the migration of the members of post-industrial middle class (PIMC), with whom I do my research, is compelled by the underlying cultural standards of American middle-class-ness. …

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