Popular westerns are capable of performing an astonishing-even frightening-range of cultural work. The genre can act as an interpretive grid for globalization, genocide, femicide, homophobia, governmentality, domestic and overseas imperialism, even for the limits of its own mythic frame . . . and these are just the possibilities explored in this special issue. Decade by decade and century by century, the western keeps returning, but-as the essays here show-its cultural uses and the questions we ask of it continue to change.
Popular, of course, is a fraught and infinitely variable term. We like Morag Shiach's deft formulation in her 1989 study, Discourse on Popular Culture: "'Popular' refers to a cultural form which is 'intended for ordinary people,' whether in terms of accessibility, of mode of address, or of the facts of reception" (27). With this issue, we want to probe some of the most widely circulated fictions of the West-whether in print, performance, television, movie, or other new media-to compute their broad impact and reflect on their powerful meanings.
On the evidence of this scholarship, the "mythic space" of the western (in Richard Slotkin's term) remains dominated by men, but it no longer parades their masculinity with triumphant nationalism. Westerns tell uncomfortable truths about manhood in America (and about America as a manly nation). Sometimes a critic extracts that insight by reading against the grain of a text's dominant meanings. See, for example, the hard questions that Deborah Madsen poses about Larry McMurtry's representation of violence against women and non-Anglo peoples on the frontier, or the simultaneously riotous and deeply disturbing analysis that Chadwick [End Page 115] Allen mounts in reading Tonto comics as justifications for the US legal system stealing Indigenous peoples' lands. Sometimes western makers themselves interrogate easy myths of masculinity: Christopher Le Coney and Zoe Trodd explore how the International Gay Rodeo Association and New Mexican artist Dell Howe open the space for difference in queering the frontier; Neil Campbell limns the deeply unsettling insights of Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, transformed to screen by director Ang Lee, into consequences when that space refuses to open. Some critics dig deeply into structures and subtexts to reveal the unexpected politics of the popular-as, here, Jefferson Slagle reads dime novels introducing readers to the cultural codes of modernity and Daniel Worden shows how the foul-mouthed musings of Deadwood's characters take us to the heart of neo-liberalism and its limits.
From these perspectives, the creative and cultural paradigms at work in the western are both familiar and deeply changed. The same-sex desire manifest in the narrator's longing gaze at the eponymous cowboy hero in Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian or in the famous scene of mutual gun admiration in the 1948 film Red River has transmogrified into the complex dynamics between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain or, indeed, between Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood. The western's automatic homage to individualism and self-reliance-thousands of lone heroes, from Natty Bumppo to Shane to William Munny, riding into town and off into the sunset once their work is done-is greatly complicated when focused through the lens of neo-liberal economics and ethics. The fluid relationship between film and print is both similar to and different from the cross-fertilization of performance and print in an earlier era.
For all the changes that have been rung on the white, straight, masculine western, the genre remains resistant to certain forms of difference. There is a lineage, close to two centuries long, of women popularizing the West in different terms-from at least Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie in 1827 to Maggie Greenwald's The Ballad of Little Joe in 1993-yet women myth-makers do not come immediately to mind in most discussions of the popular West. Mario Van Peebles opened his black, revisionist western Posse (1993) by pointing to a long line of African-American makers of western myth-the black cowboy Nat Love who published his fictionalized autobiography, the black 10th Cavalrymen who [End Page 116] fought in Cuba then...