American Patriotism and the Western

This post is an adaptation of a reflection paper I wrote a few weeks back in my Transnational Media Theory class. Since it was originally a reflection piece, this post is really a loosely organized collection of thoughts about the Western and patriotism rather than a centralized argument about something specific. I’m also still recovering from being sick, so my apologies if there are some incoherent thoughts.
If you have any thoughts about the Western and patriotism to add to the mix, please share below because I’d love to hear them!

In Virginia Wright Wexman’s essay, “The Family on the Land,” she talks about the self-sufficient family farm as an ideal of American patriotism, especially as portrayed within the Western–a genre that has functioned as a national mythology for the U.S. The self-sufficient family farm is not as prominent in today’s society (though yuppie organic family farmers are reviving the practice), so I was wondering how that same identity manifests in contemporary media. Today’s American dream is still rooted in individualism but an even stronger individualism where we look to the self-made man or woman who pulls themselves up by the bootstraps and creates wealth and recognition for themselves in urban or suburban society. I’d even argue that, though this self-made man (originally largely a masculine notion) used to be identified by his ability to financially provide for his family, now that ideal is more centered on an individual’s (masculine or feminine) ability to establish their own personal identity and welfare, which may include one’s family but also may not. In either instance, the farm has shifted to the city or suburbs and refers more to whatever space the individual chooses to create for herself and her family. These patriotic themes of self-sufficiency and the American dream show up regularly in our media, ranging from movies like Rocky to television shows like American Idol

But Americans don’t always feel very patriotic and you can actually trace the collective American mood through history by looking at what genres were most popular at any given time. In Camera Politica, Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan point out that during the 60’s, a time of cultural radicalism, camp parody dominated. In the 70’s, a season of dark pessimism, we saw a noir revival and influx of conspiracy films. Then after 1977, after the peak of pessimism, the prominent genres were fantasy adventure, sports success, neomilitarist war films, mindless musicals, urban neowesterns, and conservative family melodramas–a return to patriotism.

The traditional Western, however, for the past decade (if not longer), has suffered in the box office, most notably seen with Disney’s recent massive failure with Lone Ranger. For similar reasons, people are speculating as to whether next year’s The Magnificent Seven will garner any interest, despite its all-star cast. That being said, the Western hasn’t actually died. It has just adapted to contemporary aesthetic preferences, maintaining its position as the stronghold of American patriotism. Clint Eastwood’s films all largely fall into this category, American Sniper being the most recent example. Instead of the “cowboy vs. Indians” trope, American Sniper juxtaposes the American soldier against the Islamic terrorist, setting up a new equally simplistic and problematic binary that imagines the soldier as our 21st century cowboy, patrolling international and ideological borders.

Still from Clint Eastwood's American Sniper.
Still from Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.

I am also intrigued with the transformation of the Western into the Space Western. Kellner and Ryan note that this trend began with Star Wars, but the blend of the genres became more obvious with Joss Whedon’s Firefly. This is a TV show about a group of rebels trying to survive in the New Frontier of space that blended Western and “Orientalist” themes to speculate a new futuristic society. (I recommend reading Lisa Nakamura’s Cybertypes for her fascinating analysis on filmmakers’ use of “Oriental” tropes to designate futuristic tech-saturated societies in sci-fi.) 
The show aired at the end of 2002, just a year after 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror, when patriotism and faith in the U.S. was still running high. Thus a show about a band of space outlaws who could also be conceived as terrorists resisting the state, probably didn’t sit well with contemporary audiences. It was cancelled after just one season, though as time has passed, the show has built a huge and faithful following—perhaps correlating with the gradual build of cynicism with the U.S. government’s largely ineffectual presence in the Middle East.

Still from Joss Whedon's Firefly
Still from Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Now, we are seeing another wave of space movies that also play into Western themes of independent human survival at the edge of the frontier, for instance, Gravity, Interstellar, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and The Martian. With modern technology, man is slowly learning how to conquer the universe. Simultaneously, though, the universe is pictured in its overwhelming awe, just as the traditional Western represented the beautiful but dangerous, wide unoccupied expanses of the frontier. There is also a particularly capitalistic bent to our current mentality about space, as companies like SpaceX, Mars One, and Virgin Galactic steal media time from the classic and government-funded space organization, NASA. Finally, political attitudes on Earth are increasingly pessimistic what with climate change, refugee crises, and perpetual war. We are destroying our planet on a daily basis, so it’s natural that we turn to space for the hope of a new life and a second chance for humanity, just as pioneering settlers once turned to the West.

Matt Damon in The Martian surveying America’s new frontier.

Works Cited
Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1988. Print.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. “The Family on the Land.” The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. By Daniel Bernardi. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996. 129-69. Print.

This week’s featured image was taken by Moyan Brenn and reproduced here under the CC 2.0 license.

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