Wednesday, July 28, 2010

He Was Some Kind of Man: Masculinities in the B Western. By Roderick McGillis.
Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, May 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-55458-059-0, $29.95. 222 pages.
Review by Laurence Raw, Baskent University, Ankara

Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Larry "Buster" Crabbe – all were stars of the B western, that highly popular genre that dominated American screens from the earliest days of the talkies to the mid-1950s, when television took over. He Was Some Kind of Man is an affectionate tribute to these heroes, written by someone who spent his formative years taking them as role models. The book is sprinkled with autobiographical reminiscences – for example, an occasion in 1954 when the author was photographed as a nine-year-old in a family group with two toy pistols at his side: “What is clear [from the photograph] is how pleased I was with the gun, how proudly I wore the holster; and how engaged I was in performing the quick draw. I was, of course, emulating the cowboy heroes I saw in the movies” (61).
At the same time McGillis tries to account for this popularity by showing how the B western hero communicated a view of masculinity that seemed particularly appropriate for the time. He argues, for instance, that the cowboy code was very similar to that of the Boy Scouts: both stress the importance of duty to God and country, helping other people at all times, and individuals’ keeping themselves strong and healthy at all times. The western hero had to be strong and powerful and exhibit “no sissy stuff” (such as bursting into tears), yet at the same time understand the importance of collective action to stop the kind of male posturing that leads to mindless violence (43).
On the other hand, the western hero offered a vision of freedom – especially for young boys brought up in the confines of the urban environment. Many of the films were set in a consciously fictional, almost nostalgic world of the American West, a world where good invariably triumphed over evil and the hero lived to fight another day. Young boys recreated these fantasy worlds for themselves. For McGillis “the identification with the cowboy provided a complex cover and compensation for a troubled home life. To enter the world of the cowboy was to escape the anxiety of home” (58). His comparison between the world of the B Western and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is very apt here. The fact that B Westerns are basically fantasies is also important in looking at the way they deal with guns: “What the cowboy heroes […] offer is a clear-cut fantasy. Their guns, like their clothes […] remind us that they are the imaginary, impossible ideals that have life only in the world of play and pretend” (81).

Yet the screen representation of the western hero incorporated some ambiguous elements – especially in the way they dressed. McGillis shows how stars such as Rogers and Autry wore the kind of jeweled clothing never actually seen in the real West; rather, they made a kind of fashion statement, emphasizing their feminine as well as their masculine sides: “These are camp cowboys. The self-conscious assumption of a costume, the flaunting of the masquerade, signal immaturity. Camp is a guilty pleasure because it subverts the norms of straight living, and also because it keeps us loving childhood” (101). This is an important point: B Western heroes could never be accused of homosexuality. Rather they inhabited a childlike world in which adult distinctions between masculinity and femininity did not prevail. It was a world where women took little or no part, and where the hero cared more for his horse than anyone else: “the attractions of the cowboy and his horse appeal to our spectacular imagination, they are the imaginary” (128).

But McGillis also suggests that this image was a product of its time when white America reigned supreme and members of other cultures were either marginalized or othered. Mexicans or French Canadians were portrayed as sexually rapacious, while African-Americans were excluded altogether. It was only in films such as Harlem Rides the Range (1930), or Harlem on the Prairie (1937), intended specifically for African-American audiences, that more positive images could appear. However they seldom attracted mass attention, as they revealed the seamy truth lurking behind the fa├žade of the white westerns: that the heroes were not always perfect in their treatment of other people (139).

The dominance of the white male in B Westerns also made sound commercial sense, as the studios marketed a range of products designed to help children relive their screen experiences. They included Hopalong Cassidy bicycles, crayon and stencil sets, tablecloths, wrapping paper, pocket knives, pins, comics, and of course guns and holsters (168). Many stars became successful business people in their own right, trading on their image to attract customers. Most of them have now passed on, but their lives and work are commemorated in museums: for example, the Roy Rogers/ Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, or the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles. The image of the Western B hero lives on.

And what of the hero today? He has been consciously appropriated by military leaders such as Norman Schwarzkopf and politicians such as George W. Bush as a way of justifying foreign interventions. However, McGillis argues that this is a “one-dimensional” version of the image, designed to validate the cowboy virtues of aggression, enterprise, and expansion. It neglects the more human side, which had its parallels with the Boy Scout movement. And perhaps it is these qualities, rather than the aggressive aside, that renders the B Western hero enduringly attractive even in a pluricultural world. Skillfully combining cultural history, critical theory, and reminiscence, He Was Some Kind of a Man reminds us of just how powerful an influence the Poverty Row products of the mid-twentieth century had on American popular culture. I thoroughly recommend the book to all readers.

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