Academic journal article Gender Forum

Renegotiating White Male Hegemony in Contemporary Period Fiction: An Analysis of the Television Serials Copper and Hell on Wheels

Academic journal article Gender Forum

Renegotiating White Male Hegemony in Contemporary Period Fiction: An Analysis of the Television Serials Copper and Hell on Wheels

Article excerpt

Stabilizing Hegemony by Incorporating Criticism?

The two network television serials Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011 - present) and Copper (BBC America, 2012 - 2013) might at first glance have nothing more in common than their historical setting in immediate temporal proximity to the American Civil War. Yet a look at the publicity that both shows received might suggest otherwise. BBC America General Manager Perry Simon promoted Copper as a show that would be "capturing the early American multicultural experience in provocative, ground-breaking fashion" (qtd. in Fienberg) and likewise Hell on Wheels was criticized for giving the impression that its "actors sometimes are made to symbolize very modern obsessions, e.g. with race and gender" (Dewolf Smith). Could it be, then, that these shows represent an intersectional approach of the dramatization of American history, that they might, in other words, present an attempt at "decentering the center" (Narayan & Harding), at undermining the hegemonic position of white masculinity? It might come as a bit of a surprise that this is precisely not the case, but that both series resort to a rather conventional setup in featuring a white male main protagonist - with astoundingly similar character designs.In fact, as I would like to argue, a comparative analysis of both shows that takes this similarity as a starting point indicates that they primarily cater to the emotional needs of a white male audience, up to the point of offering a redemption of sorts from the historical guilt of slavery.

Both protagonists are introduced as Civil War veterans who lost their family while they were at the front and in either case this loss supplies the backdrop for the "long arc [that] hangs over every episode" (Metcalf 64) of at least the first season. Furthermore, both the former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon in Hell on Wheels and the former Union soldier Kevin Corcoran in Copper are complemented with a minor character whose identity as a Black man is a defining factor of their relationship. It is probably safe to say that the relative prominence of these latter characters - Elam Ferguson in Hell on Wheels and Matthew Freeman in Copper - has inspired statements about the two shows such as those quoted above. As a matter of fact, it is not to be denied that the subject of racism is critically explored through the portrayal of these relationships, e.g. when Ferguson points out to Bohannon that even strong emotional bonds between slave and slave-owner cannot undo the fundamental injustice of slavery ("Revelations") or when Freeman makes Corcoran aware of the racist bias guiding one of his investigations ("In the Hands of an Angry God"). Yet, for all this apparently critical engagement with power structures, the fact remains that in either case, we somehow mysteriously ended up with a white man occupying centee stage. Now, how did that happen? Could it be, for instance, that these apparently critical glances at American history operate in a way very similar to "popular culture's latest attempts to come to terms with feminism by appropriating it", a pattern that Modleski has observed in her analysis of Top Gun already 25 years ago (63)?

Postfeminist Fatherhood in the Civil War Era?

Given the striking similarity between Bohannon and Corcoran - both are family fathers who lost their families while fighting in the Civil War - an obvious point to further this analysis is to look at the way in which their being fathers is made relevant in either series, based on Hamad's observation that "[f]atherhood has become the dominant paradigm of masculinity across the spectrum of U.S. mainstream cinema" 1) and her subsequent conclusion that "postfeminist fatherhood is the new hegemonic masculinity" (ibid.). For all its acuteness with regard to the present, Hamad's pointed formulation runs the risk of obfuscating the fact that fatherhood as a social institution has always been a central element of hegemonic masculinity in American society, notwithstanding the manifold transformations that it has undergone since colonial times (Griswold 1-9; Rotundo 2-6), and that, by virtue of its ideological equation with breadwinning for the better part of the last two centuries it has served to legitimize male dominance (Pleck 86-90). …

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