- He Was Some Kind of Man: Masculinities in the B Western
Roderick McGillis analyzes the portrayal of masculinity in the Saturday afternoon western films of the thirties, forties, and early fifties, the B westerns of the early sound era. He approaches these films as a version of children's literature, since they were aimed at and primarily viewed by boys. He considers various standard images, including those of women, of Indians and blacks (the racial Other), of guns, of clothes (sequins, fringes), of horses, and of the western landscape. His analytic tools include references to queer theory, psychoanalysis, and the needs of the market. He was a fan of these films as a child, he remains a fan today, and he wants to understand the effects of these films on our current concepts of manliness.
His discussion is often thought provoking and insightful, particularly for those of us about his own age (he tells us) who saw some of those films as young boys. They are certainly worth remembering in the modern context of gender, racial, and cultural identities. He covers the familiar aspects of Wild West imagery - male dominance, violence as justice, white superiority - but he also notices the more interesting and strange discrepancies in these [End Page 284] B cowboys versions of male heroism - singing in the saddle, brightly decorated clothes, always leaving women to be with men.
The issues he raises, however, are somewhat more engaging than the analysis he presents. He interprets images from the perspectives of nostalgia, desire, queer space, and the market, and these perspectives are revealing, but they do not cohere into an analytic focus. He wants to stress the disjunctions in the B cowboy images, meaning the confusions of macho men who sing, wear sequins, and avoid women, but these disjunctions, as he points out, do not characterize the more standard (adult) cowboy/frontier image, so his argument rests on the specific significance of these juvenile B westerns. He brings his queer/psychoanalytic efforts to bear on their odd qualities - singing, a ventriloquist's dummy - but he neglects some apparent connections for boys of the time: for example, between the fancy clothes of B cowboys and the fancy costumes of superheroes in comic books, where superheroes were also seemingly indifferent to women (but presumably did not sing).
Because he needs these matinee films (with their macho strangeness) to be specifically influential today, his argument cannot rest on the significance of the cowboy image in general, and this is the point where it seems weakest. He claims these films still shape our cultural sense of male identity, but in fact they stopped being available as versions of children's literature in the early 1950s. The specific weirdness of the B cowboy (his focus) lasted for two decades perhaps and then vanished - nearly sixty years ago. In contrast, the standard image of the American frontier hero has been important for nearly three centuries and the cowboy version for over a century with clear resonances today. McGillis wants to stress the differences in these images and claim that the specific, juvenile qualities of the B western, with its distortions of the standard image, still have impact today. It is an interesting and stimulating claim, but it seems less convincing than he would hope. Even the standard adult version of the cowboy now seems to be fading as a male role model (with westerns and the Marlboro Man disappearing), as the frontier recedes in memory and racial and sexual Others achieve more equality. The matinee westerns he examines have fascinating, particular qualities, and he makes them even more fascinating through his interpretations. But they seem more relevant to historical juvenile contexts than revealing of current cultural roles.
Will Wright, Department of Sociology, Colorado State University-Pueblo