David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

The death of the Western: and what it means for us

In 1959, the most popular television genre in America was the Western.

TIME magazine's cover story for March 30 of that year gives you an idea of the scope of the domination. Of the ten shows leading the ratings in the previous week, eight were Westerns. Of all the shows on TV (around 114 by my count) that weren't news that season, says TIME, 35 were Westerns. That’s more than thirty percent.

From the article, here’s how this looked if you were paying attention to the industry, or working in it, at the time:

TV's western boom began four years ago, and every season since then, the hay haters have hopefully predicted that the boom would soon bust. Yet every season it has been bigger than the last. Last week eight of the top ten shows on TV were horse operas. The networks have saddled up no fewer than 35 of the bangtail brigade, and 30 of them are riding the dollar-green range of prime night time (from 7:30 to 10 p.m.). Independent stations too have taken to the field with every wring-tailed old oat snorter they could rustle out of Hollywood's back pasture. This season, while other shows, from quizzes to comedies, were dropping right and left like well-rehearsed Indians, not a single western left the air. Indeed, 14 new ones were launched, and the networks are planning more for next year. Sighs a well-known writer of western scripts: "I don't get it. Why do people want to spend so much time staring at the wrong end of a horse?"

Today, the Western is largely gone.

You see them every so often -- TRUE GRIT got remade, and we’ve seen other flicks like APPALOOSA and 3:10 TO YUMA, with upcoming (sorry, Jon Favreau) sure-to-be-grotesqueries like COWBOYS AND ALIENS -- but they’re few and far between. It’s often said that Clint Eastwood and David Webb Peoples’s UNFORGIVEN is the eulogy for the Western, the last word on the genre. And folks who say that aren't wrong. At its core, UNFORGIVEN is about dispelling the Western myth and exchanging it for a colder, more jaundiced perspective: that violence in the Old West wasn't about honor and duty and courage, but was mostly just damn fool acts perpetrated by cold-blooded, selfish people who were drunk most of the time. As dramatized in the film in the personage of dime writer W.W. Beauchamp, who follows a number of the film's characters before being disillusioned or failed by each of them, this change in the audience's perspective (UNFORGIVEN states) is what killed the Western. The Western, in short, died because its audience grew up.

The problem with the UNFORGIVEN thesis is that violence and the fascination with violence remain today. They're just different kinds of violence. But the mythologizing persists; it just comes from different quarters. Ask Tupac Shakur, who attained great success and still felt the need to tattoo “Thug Life” on himself. Except of course you can’t ask him, because he’s dead now.

A related view, one you see mostly from leftist critics, is that the Western is an inherently individualist, racist, imperialist, selfish genre; they're not explaining its demise on such accounts as much as stating that it deserved to die. Molly Gloss, for example, makes this argument in her essay "Desperado:"

At its core, the Western is a story of breaking the wild land, its animals, its native peoples, by brutal, violent conquest. The cowboy’s insistence on “freedom” has all too often been the rationale for overgrazing, overcutting, hydraulic dredging, pit mining; and of course our mythic history takes no notice of Native American genocide, of land speculation, vigilantism, brutalities against the Mexicans, the Chinese.

Above all, the boiled-down western story solves every problem with violence. Our heroes shoot their way out of trouble with guns blazing, no matter how complicated the troubles. Our hero is above the law, dispensing his own violent justice and punishment. He lives by the Code of the West: if he’s insulted or cheated, if his horse is stolen, or, damn it, if his favorite hat is tromped on, he must fight or he’s a coward.

We’re in love with Shane, but he’s the guy our mothers warned us against.

Gloss's view is that the Western, in short, is nyekulturny; it's problematic, rooted in things that make modern leftists profoundly uncomfortable and things they fight against. It's worth noting, however, that Gloss's argument has several weaknesses. For example, when discussing specific Westerns, Gloss not only manages to somehow miss *the entire point* of SHANE, but also lists, among the examples of a genre that she describes as seeing the only fit way to solve problems as being violence, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT. This is a little like calling 12 ANGRY MEN an endorsement of racial profiling. Moreover, the current trend of leftist criticism is rooted in the fact that huge amounts of modern entertainment is fundamentally based in things that make modern leftists profoundly uncomfortable and that they fight against. So if the Western's nyekulturny nature is its problem, then why has only the Western declined in popularity? Some leftist comics fans have argued that superheroes are inherently conservative, because they're individuals effecting change through action, and that the genre is thus inherently problematic because its solutions to supervillainy aren't sufficiently collective. If the essential nature of the Western is individuals taking action, why do we have so few Western movies and so many superhero pics? Individuals take action in any number of movies, including the Matt Damon lefty fantasy pic GREEN ZONE; why has our unending thirst for individualism not boosted the Western?

Here's my answer: I don't think the Western is an individualist genre at all. The Western fell, in my view, because it was a profoundly *normative* genre. It’s about creating and establishing community norms, and ensuring that those norms survive; it's about developing land and communities. The Western went downhill after the late sixties because of the rise of the counterculture, and the celebration of the individual. If you're all about celebrating the individual who rebels against a society with norms, you're not going to get behind people who create norms and perpetuate their own society, especially if it's a society that you disagree with. That's why I think the Western fell from popularity: if you're Questioning Authority, seeking for the human condition in the choices of the individual, if that's exciting, the Western will seem staid and uninteresting, because it's about people trying to Build Authority. That's why I think the Western went out of fashion, and it's also why I think the harder left hates the Western.

But although I'm a righty, that's not why I love it.

The reason I love the Western is that characters are amazingly unconstrained. The West is a place where authority is not the government, not power, not even other people, but *the nature of the characters.* Characters' choices have weight in proportion to how obligated they are to choose one side of the question. Characters in a Western have options that are not open to characters in most mainstream fiction: they can do almost anything they want if they are physically capable of doing it, which means that they have a wider range of dramatic choices open to them, and their moral choices really have weight. And drama, essentially, boils down to characters making choices.

You don't just see this in Westerns. The crappy action flick TEARS OF THE SUN, with Bruce Willis, is an example: Bruce Willis is a military guy charged with rescuing a VIP from an African war, but the VIP won't leave without the African refugees she's been working with, thus complicating Bruce Willis's mission. Throughout, the VIP (female) is concerned with saving, protecting, and caring for the refugees. She is a touchy-feely humanitarian type, and so her reflex is to be concerned for others. (Eileen Jones notes that a similar dynamic occurs in PREDATORS, and that it's often a problem for female characters in action movies: male characters grapple with weighty issues of morality, while female characters "carry the burden of femaleness" and argue on behalf of inflexible conviction -- usually, when it comes to caring about the welfare of somebody not themselves whose very existence is a threat or inconvenient.) When Bruce Willis agrees with her, however, his choice has moral weight. Because for him, unlike her, it *is* a choice, not a reflex. In the Western, characters have a lot more choices, and a lot fewer reflexes.

None of this is why I'm writing about the Western.

The reason I'm writing about the Western is this: if the culture can change to such a degree that the Western, once the most popular of popular genres, sputters and goes out, what does that mean for the bulge of science fiction and fantasy productions we've been having of late?

And what does it mean for fandom?

In recent years, fandom has absolutely exploded. It’s also changed. Fandom is increasingly pornographic, which I think is a failure of imagination; more than that, fandom is increasingly awash in novelty. It used to be that any new genre show was cause for excitement; now we're awash in genre shows. It used to be that very few shows spawned active fandoms, and fandoms didn't just celebrate shows while they existed, but kept the love of those shows alive. Nowadays, there are lots of fandoms, and they swell in popularity when there's new product; then they peter out over time. Fandom is well on its way to becoming pure stimulus-response: love the movie? KINK MEME.

Suppose there is no stimulus. Then what?

What I'm wondering, and have been wondering for a while, is, "What happens when the boomtime ends?" Entertainment changes. Superheroes, science fiction, and fantasy will go out of fashion again. What's the new crop of fandom going to do, if they have nothing new to get excited about?

One possibility is that fandom is going to downsize. I think that's a serious possibility. Graying has happened to mainstream SF fandom; there is no law of the universe that says it can't happen to media fandom, too. If fans who are accustomed to bonding over content don't get new material that inspires them to create content, we could be seeing a lot less fannish activity, and a lot less people in fandom. I don't think that modern fandom encourages long-lasting devotion the way fandom used to. Look at SMALLVILLE; it used to be The New Hotness, and everybody was writing it and reading it. I had an flist that was chock-full of SMALLVILLE; I couldn't get away from the goddamn thing. SMALLVILLE has been on the air for ten years, and it's about to have its grand finale, but lots of its fans have moved on to other things and slashier pastures. People wrote STAR TREK when STAR TREK went off the air. People are still writing DUE SOUTH. Will people be writing MERLIN fifteen years from now? I really doubt it. Something new and slashier will have come along, and people will be writing that. If they're writing anything.

Another possibility is that genre fandom will have a downturn, and the rise of slash will continue. Slash, I think, is on the verge of becoming a genre unto itself -- ie, fans don't like a show and then come up with the slash pairings; the fact that there are slash-suitable pairings draw fans to the show. (I think this pretty much explains the existence of HAWAII FIVE-O fandom, and MERLIN for that matter.) I think this represents a sea change for fandom, and I think SUPERNATURAL may have been the last of the "show-first" slash fandoms -- ie, people liked the show first, and the slash fandom came along later. Now slash fans are actively looking for slashy originals, to the point that slash is the first thing that gets written. So we may see much less in terms of genre content, while slash will rise to become the dominant form (not that it isn't pretty much there already, but if the genre draw is lessened, then slash is going to be fandom's sole driving force). While I'm more worried about fandom as a whole shrinking, I think the Triumph of Slash is more likely to be the case: as the inevitable genre bubble burst comes, fandom will shift from a genre-heavy zone to take up a focus more limited to shows set in the here-and-now that have slash-friendly casts and story angles.

(Though it's going to be interesting to see what happens as gay themes get more mainstreamed, and slash is increasingly co-opted by the mainstream. Will fandom grow, or become marginalized and disappointed, because the stuff they love will not be done by them or for them? That's going to be interesting to see. I remember the days of slash fans saying they didn't *want* to see slash pairings made canon, because that would ruin things; nowadays, as queer fandom increasingly asserts itself, we're seeing fandom argue for more canon pairings. It's interesting development)

I don't know what's going to happen. But I think we're living in a time of plenty right now, and we should enjoy it, because -- to borrow the House Stark phrase of George R.R. Martin -- Winter is Coming. Like the Western, we've had a long damn summer. But the Western's ended, and ours will too.

I don't know when it's coming. But it will come, and it's going to leave a mark on fandom when it does.

Originally posted on my DW. | people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.
Tags: fandom, meta

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