John Wayne in one of many Westerns, Tall in the Saddle

Westerns: The Founding of
Civilization As the
Bridling of Masculine Desire

by Ken Sanes

Of the various genres of fiction, one of the most popular in America has been the frontier story, which tells about characters who establish and protect outposts of civilization. Typically, the outposts of civilization depicted in these stories -- whether they are space stations, ranches, towns or forts -- exist in a sea of dangerous nature that can close in at any time. Just as typically, they are threatened from within by characters who seem to have a little too much in common with the raw nature on the outside.

The classic frontier story of America, of course, are TV and movie Westerns, which depict the conquest of nature and the establishment of towns and ranches in the Old West in the latter part of the 19th century (even if it is now largely replaced by stories about the conquest of space). The nature that is conquered in Westerns isn't the feminine and engulfing nature of jungle movies, with its promise of hidden treasure somewhere in the interior. Instead, nature in Westerns is a masculine force; it is an open plain that extends as far as the eye can see. It offers few if any mysteries; only danger from forces that are stronger and tougher than oneself.

The theme of Westerns, in many ways, springs from this setting: it is about  the conflict of man against wild, masculine, nature, and of good men against wild men. In other words, it's about the bridling of masculine desire. In the battle with nature, the men capture and break horses and cattle, in a conflict of control and strength versus wild power, and they ritually reenact this civilization-founding act in rodeos. They subdue and kill the American Indians they are replacing, who are often portrayed as wild and dangerous. In addition, the good men stand up to, subdue, and kill wild men with unbridled desires, who get drunk, rob, threaten, make noise, steal and kill by nature.

Westerns, in both movies and television, include a number of prototypical settings where this theme can unfold. The most important are the towns, full of dust and dirt, wooden boardwalks and rawhide, laid out with straight lines and wide main streets. The male characters who run around this setting are adorned, as we all know, with phallic symbols: pointy boots and badges; tall rounded hats; horses that extend out from between their legs; and guns that dangle down ready to be drawn out, stiff, ready to shoot, pierce flesh, and destroy opponents in face-to-face encounters that are, in some ways, like violent caricatures of sex.

The towns have a number of prototypical settings within them, each of which plays a role in the larger theme. There are the main streets, sheriff's offices, general stores, churches, homes for townsfolk, ranches and stables, and the doctor's offices where grimacing, unbathed, men are patched up after being shot, with a shot of whiskey to make it less excruciating.

When they aren't out subduing nature, many of these men can be found in the richest symbolic setting in the town -- saloons -- which are carnival-like places of mirth and music where civilized comforts are put into play to serve the unbridled desires of wild men. In the saloons, the men find a setting of civilization that suits their character. They drink to excess and lose control. They gamble their earnings on Lady Luck, and get in shoot-outs over petty insults and cheating at cards. They laugh uproariously, make noise, and indulge in interior-destroying brawls and gunfights that spill out into the streets. They waste their money on drink and on women who are objects of desire, there to be pursued and subdued like most everything else. Then they sleep it off upstairs.

Saloons are places of civilization dedicated to playing to the wildness of masculine nature. Not too wild, though, because then the good men have to reassert control.

Another prototypical setting are the plains and rocky hills, which are outside the towns and outside the law. This is generally the place of maximum danger, because no law imposes itself on desire. Nevertheless, townsfolk and other civilized people have to travel through these domains to get between the various towns and ranches, and they do so with wagons and horses, or they take some of the comforts of civilization with them, with stagecoaches and trains. This is also the place where hard men sleep on the hard ground and get into shootouts amid boulders and rocky cliffs. Whoever they are, all face the danger that Indians, "outlaws" and rattlesnakes will make off with various combinations of their purse, their virtue, their life or their scalp.

There are also the ranches, which are smaller outposts of proto-civilization in which each owner is a law unto him or herself. And there are the mines in the hills, with deep (but masculine) bowel-like tunnels where clumps of gold treasure can be dislodged and scooped out.

But, as noted, even life in the islands of proto-civilization, the towns, isn't safe since wild nature is perpetually threatening to flood in or break out from within. Indians invade. Cattle rustlers and brawlers come to town, get drunk and make trouble. Lust for money, women, power and revenge: untamed aggression and general wildness, are always just below the surface. 

Characters in Westerns

Westerns also include a number of primary character types, which tend to be associated with  particular settings. As noted, there are the wild men, who are something like the wild land, with its stallions and Indians although, unlike these, they are typically petty and lacking in nobility. They do have a rule though, at least when they are in the towns: when in a gunfight, each side is to be given a chance to face the other and draw, so the best man wins. Of course, they break this rule all the time.

Second, there are the overly civilized and feminized townsfolk, including the  mild-mannered store clerks and the disapproving lady churchgoers, who are not to be confused with the masculinized frontier women in jeans who shoot their rifles through the window when the Indians surround the house.

Third, there are the good but still tough men, with and without badges, who are the primary civilizers. They partake of both worlds. They are civilized in the sense that they respect other people's rights and have bridled many of their desires. But they also typically partake of the wild world, of saloons and drinking, horses, guns and cards. They use the toughness they derive form their masculine virtues to civilize and tame the men who are driven by unbridled masculine desire.

Third, there are the Indians. (What is being discussed here, of course, is fictional Indians, as they are depicted.) The Indians may add a hint of mystery and embody masculine virtues even as they are also a partly feminine symbol with their long hair, adornments, mysterious ways, and mystical religion, including their mystical tie to the land. When they are depicted as savages who kidnap and scalp, they are symbols of a more primitive form of desire, one that exists before conscience.

Like all fiction, Westerns are a parable of the self. They allow audiences (or computer game players, theme park riders, et al) to participate in a world modeled after masculinity, which is rough, hard, powerful and free. They are like football games, leather bars, and the world of Tim the Tool Man, where feminine influences are excluded or minimized, so men can revel in, and confirm, their masculinity, and shore up their defenses against the real threat: femininity.

At the same time, Westerns give audiences a chance to feel what it is like to bridle this power and put it in the service of good. Here, perhaps, the towns are each person's ego, amid a sea of unbridled aggressive and sexual desires. The sheriffs and other civilizers are the psychological defenses and conscious will that keep the wild nature found in the rest of the mind at bay. The psychological defenses (the civilizers) keep unbridled desires from erupting into the ego (the towns), and the ego, in general, keeps expanding its domain into the wild frontier. In other words, Western are a Freudian parable about the ego subduing and replacing the Id. As Freud said: where Id was, there shall ego be.

This parable lets audiences have it both ways, which is what happens when people design their own worlds. On the one hand, they get to covertly identify with, and enjoy, the violence and wildness of the villains. On the other, they enjoy the legitimate violence of the heroes, and of standing up for what is right. They get masculinity, violence, power and morality, on horses, all culminating in a happy ending, which isn't a bad deal.

The creators of Westerns obviously didn't make all this up to express our states of mind. They found something in the world that could express a set of fantasies in themselves and their audience, about the founding of civilization, the bridling of masculine desire, and the connection between the two. They then accentuated the characteristics that suited the fantasy.

Of course, Westerns can also be read as a story about our society, whatever society we live in, since barbarism is always waiting to erupt among people, and good "men" have to marshal their courage to protect civilization. And they can be read as a mythical version of our history. Here, the Indians represent the land's distant past. The uncivilized men its more recent past. The civilizers its present. The shopkeepers and others represent the more civilized and less masculine future.

Of the more distant future, when the Old West would become an image in a wilderness of images, there is already a hint of that, as well, in the newspaper people who glorify and reinvent the gunslingers to sell the public exciting fictions. In portraying these reporters and writers, the people who create television and movies are showing us themselves in their own stories -- people who invent a virtual Old West so it can settle in the West of each audience member's semi-bridled imagination.

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* Image via Wikimedia Commons: John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle Trailer 1944.

* American Indians are also frequently portrayed as victims of white conquest and prejudice, and as a noble people close to nature, depending on the Western and the sensibility it embodies.

* The basic idea that Westerns are about the founding of civilization and perhaps the taming the masculine desire comes from an essay I read many years ago. Unfortunately, I don't have the name of the essay for attribution.