Homeless on the Range: Masculinity and the Orphan Myth in the American Western, 1950-1990

Ann Barrow
Communication and Culture, York University
January, 2005
 

Abstract

The iconic American cowboy operates in American culture as a self-protective persona mutating to reflect the socio-economic changes within the historical United States. Modernity and its media have capitalized on the ideology and mythology of the cowboy in search of maturation because his struggle parallels the seductive quality of the repetition compulsion to resolve the paradoxes of modern life and gender constructs. American culture has produced the Western, a genre about masculinities, that offers an excellent vantage point from which to examine this male subjectivity. The fight for the orphan myth’s antihero exists in proving himself a worthy son to his remote father. The lack of a paternal relationship impacts negatively on the son, who becomes confused over the definition of his own masculine role.


This dissertation examines a series of instances in the American Western in which this struggle for masculinity is particularly evident. John Wayne, as the iconic cowboy, is the heroic defender of capitalism, of hegemonic America, of community, and of the orphan. In the book, Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Hud (1963), the film made from that book, the cowboy becomes the antihero, who embodies radical individualism and marketplace greed. Midnight Cowboy (1969) depicts the iconic westerner in terms of marketplace masculinity, traditional masculinity, hyper-masculinity, and homosexual masculinity. In Little Big Man (1970), the protagonist is an unlikely antihero, who maintains a tenuous hold on his sanity and life as he desperately tries to survive frontier masculinities’ egocentrism and cruelty that unleashed their power to destroy whatever or whoever came in their path. Unforgiven (1992) presents an avenging antihero, who embodies a primal masculinity that satisfies the viewer’s hunger for revenge and judgment upon societal injustice as well as a nurturing masculinity that includes the ability to offer paternal care. In the end, the iconic cowboy or outlaw remains an index to what never existed: a unified, non-paradoxical, construct of traditional masculinity.
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