“When a father, absent during the day, returns home at six, his children receive only his temperament, not his teaching.” – Robert Bly
From the early-1950s to the late-60s, there were over a hundred Western series that aired on the three American television networks. Men such as Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger became the heroes to countless children. The real-life exploits of such historical figures as Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Daniel Boone were dramatized in hour-long and half-hour programs. Store shelves were crowded with a plethora of merchandising products such as imitation guns with holsters, genuine coonskin caps, and lunchboxes emblazoned with images of cowboys. The only similar pop-culture phenomena are the current obsession with Marvel and DC Comics superheroes. Although these two movements are 50 years apart, they reveal the same cultural problem.
The baby-boomers of the 1950s were among the first American generation who grew up significantly more “well-off” than their parents – the children of the Great Depression. After the devastation of the Second World War, which nearly destroyed Europe, the United States was the unquestioned economic and manufacturing powerhouse on Earth. In addition, the major transformation away from an agrarian society, to a largely urban population, was solidified. In the 1950s, another shift occurred – away from city centers and out towards the suburbs. By the time the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story” opened in New York City, the urban landscape was increasingly viewed as a tenement for the poor and warring factions of punk-kids and immigrants. But in the middle-class suburbs, America was thriving. But at what cost?
Probably the most significant cultural change occurred when family-owned farms, craftsmen, and apprenticeship were replaced by mass production and the service economy. Fathers literally disappeared. Even in post-Industrial Revolution America, when store owners or their workers lived near a shop – or above it – suburban sprawl and the ubiquitous closing of the so-called company-town, that became most associated with the steel, mining, and lumber industries, removed fathers from (or even near) the home. In the 1960s and 70s, this situation gave rise to the blighted landscape of empty factories in rust-belt Middle-America. The image of the manual laborer, or “working man,” nearly vanished from public consciousness until Mike Rowe hosted the docu-series “Dirty Jobs.” Unlike had been the case for thousands of years – since prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies – boys no longer lived or worked alongside their father; they didn’t accompany men into the wilderness in order to obtain food. Initiation rituals – except in certain indigenous cultures or among Orthodox Jews – ceased to function as a means for boys to reach manhood. Boys and young men were no longer apprenticed to older craftsmen; later, vocational schools ceased to operate; high schools no longer offered so-called “shop” classes, and young men were directed into liberal arts colleges and careers in corporations. Men went from fixing a cog in a tractor – to being the cog. This rush towards depersonalization was beautifully portrayed in director Kind Vidor’s masterful 1928 film “The Crowd.” The dissatisfaction and psychological stultification of urban life was earlier explored by San Francisco-born novelist Jack London in his 1913 back-to-the-land novel “The Valley of the Moon,” which details how a young working-class couple from Oakland goes in search of a better life on their own farm. By mid-century, the increasingly staid and prosaic bourgeoise experience in America created a longing for the frontier days of the Wild West. This was also witnessed in the post-Victorian appreciation for the hand-made in the work of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
In his 1930 book “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Sigmund Freud wrote:
“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
During the 1930s, the child actor Jackie Cooper starred in a series of films that explored the plight of a young boys in Depression-era America. They stem from the “Horatio Alger” books of the late-19th century – which told almost the same story over and over again – about an impoverished boy who works hard and goes from rags to riches. These stories were the uniquely American-version of Charles Dickens’s novel “Oliver Twist.” But they all had in common the plight of boys and young men struggling to survive in the urban jungle. The best of the Jackie Cooper movies was the heart wrenching “The Champ,” the Western “Lone Cowboy,” and the father-son crime-drama “Boy of the Street.” Only a few years after the advent of the “talkies,” these remarkable films were powerful and highly emotional examinations of fathers who fail; fathers who redeem themselves; and good men who step into the void.
In the Post-War years – and into the early-1950s – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the same studio that produced most of Cooper’s tough-luck boyhood films, created a number of vehicles for the incredibly talented child actor Dean Stockwell. Most notable in “Down to the Sea in Ships,” and the two Westerns: “Stars in My Crown,” and “Cattle Drive,” Stockwell played neglected or fatherless boys who are mentored by a compassionate and rugged man. However, such foster-fatherhood, particularly when involving a vulnerable child, is sometimes susceptible to manipulation and abuse. From Grimms’ Fairy Tales to the predatory priest in the play/movie “Doubt: A Parable,” there are numerous examples in Western literature concerning the depraved adult who targets an at-risk boy or girl.
“Fellows get mighty close together on a cattle drive…sometimes it hurts a little when cow-hands have to split-up at the end of the trail.” – “Cattle Drive” (1951)
In “Cattle Drive,” a 14–15-year-old Stockwell played the wayward son of a distracted wealthy businessman. Through his own desperate and mischievous attempts to gain his father’s attention, Stockwell is left stranded in a desolate stretch of the American-West. In the middle of the high desert, Stockwell runs into probably the most fatherly of all the Hollywood Western stars – Joel McCrea. Although initially resistant and steadfastly committed to his spoiled rich-kid persona, Stockwell eventually accepts friendship from cowboy McCrea and becomes a de facto mascot for the cattle drive outfit that he works for. In the television series “The Virginian,” which repeatedly featured a similar storyline (most notably in the episode “The Crooked Path” from 1968) of a lost young man (with a deceased, distant, or abusive father) who somehow winds up with the rest of the ranch-hands at Shiloh Ranch in Wyoming. Initially, the young man inevitably has a bad attitude. In order to knock the kid off of his proverbial high-horse, the cowboys subject the young man to some sort of semi-humiliating test. After gaining humility and needed insight, the young man is seen as fit to join the company of men. The last semblance of these rituals persist in violent gangs where new recruits are required to endure a severe beating by other members, or worse – partake in a murder. In the gay male subculture, a certain initiation rite involves the sex-act, specifically receptive anal sex.
Beginning very dramatically in the 1950s, fathers were no longer viewed as heroic, symbolized by the frilly-apron-wearing and hen-pecked dad of James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” from 1954. Although he later defends his son, such a hapless man prefigures the infantile sitcom dad of the 1980s and 90s who is just another child in need of constant supervision by a multi-tasking super soccer-mom. At the same time, fathers escaped into their basement “man-caves.” The great self-sacrificial fathers of English literature and fiction were gone; for example, the dad in “The Swiss Family Robinson” by Johann David Wyss, Bob Cratchit from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and Fenton Hardy, the father in the fictional series of books about “The Hardy Boys.” Boys no longer bonded with their fathers in the work-space – except on a yearly bring your son to the office day. The modern educational system furthered this alienation – which was modeled on the college lecture approach; young men with a propensity towards hands-on work were forced into a desk for various periods of 50 minutes. The angst caused by these behavioral modification programs, and the absence of male mentors, helped to fuel the increase in juvenal violence, suicide, and substance abuse.
Later, divorce would take more men out of the homes than the changing jobs market.
Parents started to believe that quality time with their children was more important than quantity. But both are a requirement: quality and quantity. In addition, the sort of passive interaction between parents and children – involving playing video games or watching TV – does little to foster a genuine relationship. Unlike women, men are far less apt to verbally relate to each other. For this reason, men are generally more visually acute than women – hence, the greater numbers of truly genius-level male artists. With this concentration on the visual – males are also susceptible to obsession – for this reason men are much more likely to become compulsive viewers of pornography and women tend to favor erotic literature; such as “romance” novels. Through my observation of the excellent reality-show “Forged in Fire,” and after years of watching my own father manually labor with other men, males are at their most focused when mind and body work in unison. The separation of men, and all human beings, from physical activity contributed to the rise of depression, obesity, and childhood diabetes in the West. Just as the neglected motherless boy in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” is caused to become physically ill when his endlessly sulking father refuses to ever see him again.
Every gay man I knew, could distinctly remember the day, the hour, and even the exact second when he realized, “I like men.” Usually, this moment of self-realization occurred while watching television as a boy. They saw some exceptionally masculine actor; for those growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the object of their affection inevitably appeared on one of the numerous TV Westerns which crowded the daily programing schedule. Those mentioned most often included the robust actors: Robert Horton, Hugh O’Brian, and Clint Walker. The incredible popularity of these shows, depicting a manly, often lone hero, fighting against the barbarism of the Old West, arrived during an era when fathers increasingly worked in a distant urban landscape – far removed from their sons. As in the classic sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” women stayed at home and functioned as an almost sole arbitrator of domestic life. Later, in the 1960s, the often absent but involved Ward Cleaver is replaced by the manically frustrated Darrin Stephens in “Bewitched” who commutes from New York City to the suburbs, collapses daily near the proverbial drink cart, and proceeds to shut down while the home literally descends into pandemonium. At the center of the madness is a manipulative and overbearing woman: his mother-in-law. The men in the TV Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s were antithetical to the white-color dad in a suit & tie centered sitcoms such as “Father Knows Best,” “Make Room for Daddy,” and “The Donna Reed Show.”
Far removed from the female-driven households of staid decorum, several Westerns centered on all-male enclaves in the savage frontier; the best examples are “Rawhide,” “The Virginian,” and “Wagon Train.” Usually overseen by an older benevolent leader, disorganized bands of young men, still reeling from the trauma of the Civil War, coalesce around a strong-willed man. A 1963 episode of “The Virginian,” starring a boyish Robert Redford, is the preeminent example. On the sprawling ranch of Judge Garth, the title character known only as “the Virginian” supervises a disorderly group of cowhands; without a proper name, he represents every compassionate and masculine father, brother, and friend that we wished we had. They sleep in the same bunkhouse, eat at the same table, and bath at the same trough. Under the direction of “the Virginian,” the men are loyal to their mentor and to each other. But sometimes there are newcomers. In one such case, Judge Garth and “the Virginian” hire a wayward ex-con and former hard-luck orphan, named “Matthew,” played by Redford. He is a damaged young man: untrusting, jaded, but also incredibly needy for approbation. Through the direction of other men, Matthew overcomes his past ordeals and can finally love someone else – a local dressmaker with a patient and caring temperament. The abuse and trauma experienced by this broken man heals through male strength and compassion.
(Go west) Life is peaceful there
(Go west) Lots of open air
(Go west) To begin life new
(Go west) This is what we’ll do… – The Village People (1980)
Before I hit puberty, one of the first record albums I bought was “Cruisin’” from The Village People. Shot at the famous Vasquez Rocks outside of Los Angeles, a favorite filming location for the numerous TV Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, the masterful cover photo for the album featured each member astride a motorcycle, a horse, driving an Army Jeep, or laying on top of a massive bulldozer. Here, the record producers were consciously playing with gay male tropes which had their roots in Baby-boomer adolescent fantasies from their childhood. This methodology would be endlessly repeated in hardcore gay pornography that frequently portrayed a masculine “daddy” figure coupled with a much younger male partner.
Into the 1960s, the benevolent cowboy from the TV Westerns of the 50s were replaced by the violent anti-hero of the “Spaghetti Western.” This transformation of the West from an imaginary land were good often triumphed over evil mirrored the Baby-boomer disenchantment with America, the nuclear family, and even Christianity. As the Baby-boomer generation (during the 1960s – in their teens and 20s) became angrier and more antisocial, so did the image of the cowboy. By the 1970s, the Baby-boomers had somewhat mellowed and the so-called “Me Generation” was more interested in recreational drugs and disco than protests. In the meantime, the cowboy became a “gay icon” with the “Marlboro Man,” the homoerotic art of Tom of Finland, and the cowboy from “The Village People.” On television, the nightly programming was dominated by the comedy sitcoms of Norman Lear that were averse to the semi-mythical men of the TV Westerns. For the most part, television during the 1970s centered on the changing social and cultural conventions that had overtaken America since the late-1960s. The changing role of women was showcased on “Maude;” the impact of the sexual revolution with “Three’s Company;” and the generation gap on “All in the Family.” But in the midst of this revolution, a rather young veteran of the TV Western provided the genre its last moment of recognition.
Michael Landon was born in 1936 to his Irish Roman Catholic mother and Jewish father. And from the beginning, it seems that the marriage was an unhappy one – primarily due to his mother’s mental illness. During a 1987 interview, Michael Landon described what it was like growing-up with her:
“She was a stabber, a kicker, and a wacko…She was off her rocker. She was very abusive. My mother would sit on the sofa in her nightgown – she always wore her nightgown when she was upset—holding a Bible, asking God to kill me.”
In addition, frequent suicide attempts by his mother caused Landon to experience intense trauma – which often manifested itself as late-onstage bed-wetting. Then, like many other young people who felt unloved or neglected at home, Landon pursued a career in the entrainment industry – moving out to Hollywood. Fame arrived rather quickly to the handsome young actor when he was hired to play the youngest son (Little Joe) of patriarch Ben Cartwright on the TV Western “Bonanza.” Centering on the action and drama that took place at the Cartwright’s expansive Ponderosa Ranch, Ben is a widower living with his three adult sons. Most episodes dealt with the many adventures that the Cartwright boys encountered, however numerous storylines involved various fatherless or delinquent boys who visited the Ponderosa and eventually benefited from their time with the Cartwrights. Notable episodes included: “Feet of Clay” which concerned one of the Cartwright sons befriending a lost and abandoned boy whose father is in jail; “The Trouble with Jamie” about a difficult boy with a neglectful father; and “The Sound of Sadness” about a widowed farmer who bonds with and wants to adopt two abandoned and psychologically damaged boys.
Other notable episodes from TV Westerns:
- The “Cheyenne” episode “The Idol;” about a fatherless boy who idolizes a crippled gunslinger who proves to be the boy’s protector.
- The “Rawhide” episode “Incident of the Prodigal Son” which is a standard plotline for many TV Westerns of the 1950s and 60s that details the struggle between a group of adult men and boy with a chip on his shoulder
- The “Tales of Wells Fargo” episode, “The Happy Tree,” is about the son of an executed murderer who is following in his dad’s footsteps; but he is adopted by a kind family – with a stern, but compassionate father.
- Also, the characters of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp in “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp;” with Bat under the direct tutelage of the older and more experienced lawman Wyatt. The character of Jamie Cartwright, the adopted son on of “Bonanza” patriarch Ben Cartwright; and the father and son duo of Lucas and Mark McCain in “The Rifleman.”
During Bonanza’s long run on television, Landon occasionally wrote and directed some of the episodes. Then, when Bonanza was finally cancelled in 1972, Landon began work on his own TV Western series, “Little House on the Prairie.” Based on the autobiographical works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Landon played the father (Charles Ingalls) of Laura and her three sisters and adopted brother – Albert. While much of the storyline in each episode is seen through the eyes of Laura, oftentimes Charles, and his steadfast wife Caroline, are always there to set things right and instill the lesson to be learned from one of the precocious Laura’s many calamities. The relationship between the masculine and assertive Charles with his dutiful (but strong-willed) wife is subliminally contrasted with the Olsons; unlike the rather well-behaved and compassionate Ingalls girls, the Olson children are spoiled and vicious – especially the spiteful Nellie. Not surprisingly, Mr. Olson is a weak hen-pecked husband, who rarely musters some nerve, and his wife is a domineering harpy. This imbalance is reflected in the behavior of their children.
Like most TV Western series of the 1950s and 60s, “Little House on the Prairie,” although the Ingalls family is primarily composed of females, Landon still frequently explored the psyche of wounded men and the troubled relationship between fathers and sons; this was accomplished through subplots concerning the Ingalls’ neighbors or travelers and visitors passing through their hometown of Walnut Grove. There are numerous examples, but perhaps the most memorable were:
- “Child of Pain” (1975) – A motherless boys is being beaten by his alcoholic father; until Charles intervenes.
- “His Father’s Son” (1976) – Charles’ friend, Mr. Edwards, has difficulty bonding with his very different poetry writing son.
- “The Election” (1977) – A bullied boy with no friends – except the Ingalls girls – is ashamed before his equally embarrassed father.
- “The Stranger” (1978) – A spoiled rich boy is staying with the Olsons; since Mr. Olson cannot manage the boy, they drop him off at the Ingalls home. Of course, Charles, through responsibility, work, and mentorship, is able to successfully change the boy’s outlook and attitude.
- “The Craftsman” (1978) – Albert becomes apprentice to a local Jewish carpenter – who is often the subject of discrimination.
- “The Family Tree” (1979) – Albert’s birth father returns; but Albert wants to stay with the Ingalls – especially Charles who he considered his real father.
- “Fight Team Fight!” (1980) – A former college football star pushes his unathletic son into the sports arena. When he starts coaching the other boys in Walnut Creek, they begin to hate football because of his overly zealous expectations. Once his wife intercedes, the coach recognizes his errors; he remains the coach, but instead of being a maniacal tyrant, he is unwaveringly masculine yet kindhearted.
The greatest of all “Little House on the Prairie” episodes that tackled the problem of the father-wound was “The Angry Heart” from 1979. Again, instead of focusing on the Ingalls family, Landon moves the storyline to a neighboring elderly couple who have taken-in their city-dwelling grandson; violently abused by his drunken father – now a young man, his frustrated and desperate mother sends him to live with his grandparents. Almost immediately, the boy’s volatile temper emerges and he hits his grandfather; in addition, he steals a prized pocket-watch from Charles and quickly loses it in a poker game. When Charles discovers the theft, instead of turning the boy over to the authorities, he allows him to work-off the value of the watch at the Ingalls farm. He begrudgingly accepts the offer and fulfills his side of the bargain. But with Charles, he is most adamant about not being referred to as “son.”
At the end of the episode, when the young man is ready to leave, Charles gives him a shirt as a sort of job-well-done gift. Immediately, the shirt reminds him of his father – and he is violently triggered. What follows is probably one of the most intense and dramatic scenes in television history. When the boy attacks him, the more powerful Charles is able to successfully fend the boy off; he holds the struggling young man who goes into a hateful tirade against his dead father. Standing-in for his abusive father, Charles accepts the hate. And eases the boy’s loathing by showing him compassion.
Landon utilized his time spent in the genre, because the mainstay of many Western TV episodes is the conflict between the regular characters and a wayward newcomer who is either arrogant or wounded – or both. The rest of the plot is sometimes a forgone conclusion: the formerly abused young man is treated kindly by the other cowboys, ranch-hands, or benevolent patriarch; although, initially, there is a fair amount of good-natured teasing aimed at the stranger; inevitably the new guy does not react well to either kindness or any kind of ribbing; he is think-skinned, over-protective and immediately suspicious. The archetypal example from the TV Western era was the young Randy Benton on “The Virginian;” played by the juvenile actor Randy Boone. He arrived unwittingly at the Shiloh Ranch as a somewhat petulant and frightened kid – and after several years – grows into a trusted ranch-hand and accomplished man. Like a number of these fictional characters, in many wounded and traumatized boys – a tough exterior masks a troubled heart and shattered psyche. For the most part, those best suited to help the healing process in these men are other men who have dealt with loss, trauma, and violence – the American Civil War veterans who drifted westward.
Despite his dysfunctional childhood and two failed marriages, Michael Landon served as a near “perfect” father figure for a generation of children during the 1970s – just when divorce-rates began to skyrocket in the United States and men where even further removed from the home. But this public image of Landon wasn’t far removed from reality as many of his biological children, since his early death in 1991, have come forward to pay tribute to Landon as both a man and a father. In his scenes with actors who were portraying damaged men and children, Landon displayed a special empathy. For this reason, the emotional level in these particular episodes, which could have lapsed into the melodramatic, always remain in the realm of the believable and the heart-wrenching.
In a healthy society, adult men should foster and mentor boys through apprenticeship and an introduction to physical labor, which remained the case in most pre-industrial societies. In the post-modern age, disassociation from such male initiation rituals caused the overmedication of enthusiastic unguided boys and necessitated the rise of inferior substitutes such as urban gang violence, the overwhelming popularity of role-playing artificial realties, psychotropic drugs, homosexuality, and pornography. Until the emergence of Tim Allen on “Home Improvement” as a cultural pop-culture figure, Charles Ingalls was the last icon of altruistic masculinity in America.
“They do not find love in God, in the family, in church, in the society. And so, they grasp at this ideal of sexual love, which gives a temporary warmth and then fades away to nothing.” – Fr. Seraphim Rose
After “Little House on the Prairie” left the airwaves in the early-1980s, the TV Western, as well as the movie Western, nearly disappeared; except for the “revisionist” Westerns of the 1980s and 90s. These television shows and films employed the Western genre as a form of social commentary; for instance: the plight of Native-Americans in “Dances with Wolves;” the role of women out West in “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman;” and anxieties over environmental issues in “Pale Rider.” While these films incorporated contemporary concerns, they would not properly be considered as propaganda. But I would argue that “Brokeback Mountain” from 2005 is propaganda. This does not mean that “Brokeback Mountain” is of lesser quality than those other revisionist Westerns; in fact, it’s a rather superb piece of film-making. Masterfully directed by Ang Lee who had previously explored issues of trauma in men with his revisionist Western “Ride with the Devil” and later in “Life of Pi;” superbly acted by all of the lead and supporting actors; and beautifully filmed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. No piece of propaganda had been so ably presented since perhaps Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary honoring the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin – “Olympia.”
“Never taught me a thing…never once came to see me ride.” – Jack Twist, “Brokeback Mountain”
“Brokeback Mountain” tells the unlikely story of two cowboys who begin an emotional and sexual relationship during the 1960s while herding sheep in Wyoming. Both young men experienced heartache and trauma during their childhood: Ennis was abandoned by his parents when he was a boy – and practically raised by his siblings and then left on his own; while Jack came from an intact family, but his father was cold, distant, and impassive. Consequently, both of them wander about the West looking for temporary work. They are lonely men. During their extended employment as sheep-herders, Jack, the more forward of the two, initiates a physical encounter with the heavily inebriated Ennis. Years later, although both men marry women and have children, they continue to meet and engage in sexual activity as well as “male-bonding” ventures usually thinly disguised as fishing-trips.
Although the gay case is stronger for Jack, but I would argue that neither of these men (nor anyone else) are inherently homosexual. With Ennis and Jack, they are both emotionally damaged in need of male companionship and camaraderie. And, the Western genre was actually the perfect forum to explore the question of male vulnerability. Because, as made iconic by the stone-faced John Wayne, men should be stoic and almost emotionless. They need no one except their horse, their dog, and a gun. But as ever rising suicide rates among men in the Western world will testify – men need more than that; they also need more than a great job, a nice car, and NFL fantasy football. Even men with caring and attentive wives need male companionship. But in the post-Stonewall era, such suggestions are immediately met with implications of homosexuality. I first encountered such misconceptions when researching the life of author Jack London. In his personal letters to one male friend in particular, the poet George Sterling, London displayed a level of affection towards this man that sounds homoerotic to late-20th and early-21st century ears. While some of the other grad-students saw homoeroticism, I thought nothing of the kind.
“A woman simply is, but a man must become. Masculinity is risky and elusive…and is confirmed only by other men.” – Camille Paglia
When fathers are absent, neglectful, abusive, or fail to establish a meaningful relationship with their sons, these boys will begin to act-out that frustration; either through violence, substance abuse, self-destruction, urban-warfare, or homosexuality. These band of “lost boys” unite into sub-cultures from urban criminal gangs to all-male online gamer groups and gay fetish circles; many find a sort of temporary intoxication within the bottomless pit of pornography. Self-isolation only creates more loneliness and anger; young men marry much later, or not at all. Oftentimes, an all-encompassing career or a pet replaces a family; or a middle-aged couple utilizes fertility technology in order to produce one highly-prized and overly-indulged child. This scenario most often plays out within upper-middle glass white collar professionals. While the working-class poor, a new and ever larger demographic in America, suffers from a different set of stressors: the collapse of US manufacturing, the advent of corporate farming, and the scourge of prescription drug abuse in Middle-America. In “Brokeback Mountain,” we see the first implications of this changing society with the often chaotic and aimless lives of Ennis and Jack. Together, they create some sense of stability and structure that was missing in their lives; they create a community (of two men in the wilderness) which is both affirming and empathetic.
“You made me this way. You are the reason I am like this.” – Ennis, “Brokeback Mountain”
While the TV Western created the image of the archetypal father, there exists another image of the masculine: all-powerful, superior, distant, remote, unattainable, but also disapproving and ultimately rejecting. I label this the “Wolf Larsen” type after the hyper-masculine tyrant in Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf;” other examples are Michelangelo’s funeral sculpture for Giuliano de Medici, baseball player Ty Cobb, Charlton Heston in “The Private War of Major Benson,” the father in Pat Conroy’s novel “The Great Santini,” the maniacal super-jock dad, played by Vic Morrow, in “The Bad News Bears,” and the egotistical bodybuilder from The Village People song “Macho Man.”
Many young men have recently grouped themselves around the father-figure of Jordan Peterson – who demands accountability” “clean your room,” while maintaining a supremely compassionate persona. Within these sorts of brotherhoods which have gathered about other such figures as Joe Rogan, men often feel free to express themselves; I’ve seen this online with clever memes that ridicule concepts like “toxic masculinity;” often featuring the “Chad” character. But this is essentially an artificial reality unless it also manifests in the real world. Consistently, in 21st century America, the outlets for male interaction were mainly in the sphere of competitive sports; only this leaves behind a large swath of boys and young men; but thanks to social media, I am also seeing the same phenomena with men in organized religious groups – particularly in Roman Catholicism with the popularity of the Traditional Latin Mass amongst young people and in Eastern Orthodoxy where increasingly fearless men have come to the forefront – such as Fr. Josiah Trenham. Men are naturally attracted to strong male leadership – hence the success of fascist dictators who prey upon fear and loss in young men during times of social upheaval.
I rarely read fiction, but one of my favorite modern novels is “Fight Club” by Church Palahniuk. Published in 1996 and written by a gay man, “Fight Club” brilliantly bares the dark and vacant heart of struggle and depression that relentlessly beats within each man; and the desire to fill that emptiness with something. In “Fight Club,” the protagonist becomes obsessed with participating in underground boxing matches and with the man at the center of this domain. The book is incredibly funny, but also tragic. And demonstrates just how quickly a male subculture (that is attractive to desperate and lonely) men, can go wrong very quickly. One of the characters in the book says:
“If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?”
“What you end up doing, is you spend your life searching for a father and God…What you have to consider, is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us.”
Where “Fight Club” is an honest look at the problem of modern masculinity, “Brokeback Mountain” is a fantasy; not unlike the mythos of the benevolent patriarch in the TV Western. But at least these shows represented a society that once was or could have been; where the father-wound could be healed; and, subsequently, the God who “hates” you could be transformed into a loving and forgiving God. But “Brokeback” remains an illusion. I think it wasn’t an accident that the film barrowed heavily from the aesthetics of the TV Western “Laramie” that starred Robert Fuller and John Smith as pair of best-friend cowboys who run a secluded stagecoach-stop in Wyoming; the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Jack, looked remarkably like Fuller and Heath Ledger passingly resembled Smith. The film was a homoerotic romance-novel brought to the screen. And all would have ended happily if only gay-marriage had been available. No AIDS, no rampant STDs among gay men, or high rates of mental illness in the LGBT community. But probably the most revealing line from “Brokeback Mountain” is uttered by a frustrated Ennis to Jack: “You made me this way.” And, in a sense he did; while Jack had absolutely nothing to do with the way Ennis was raised and abandoned – Jack did provide the supposed ointment for these wounds: homosexuality. And once someone buys into some sort of quack-medicine that lessens their pain – whether its drugs, alcohol, or sex – it’s the toughest addiction to kick.
In my favorite TV Western – “The Virginian” – the no-named title character prophetically said the following:
“It was a time when life was cheap, and man lived for today. The odds were against his being around tomorrow, and he knew it. What’s more, he liked it that way. This breed of man loved his life. It was everything he wanted. It was adventure, and excitement, and fun. When he worked hard, he fought hard, and he sure played hard. Then suddenly, one day his world was gone. The prairies and the mountains were the same. The cattle and the horses were the same. The west had grown up. It had changed. But this breed of man was still there. Still looking for the fun and headlong adventure.”
In other words, men need a challenge. And they need to conquer – even their own wounds. From time primordial – men have ventured far from the fires of home, around which women and the children huddled about for warmth, and they sought sustenance for themselves and those who remained behind. Once everything could literally be purchased in one-stop-and-go mega-market, men were free to do other things: including creating great art, architecture, and literature; or setting up shops, craftsmen’s guilds, or farming co-ops. When even those structures were devoured by mechanization and multinational corporations, men began to permanently physically and psychologically give-up. The struggle turned inward. And men began to fight battles within their families and inside of their minds. As men destroyed themselves – through substance abuse, pornography addiction, and even suicide – they devastated the family. To make matters worse, in the past, when men failed – specifically as fathers – there were other men who would intercede in an attempt to help. But dysfunctional families have become endemic. As a result, boys and young men are preyed upon by evil rogue men. Now, we are all living with the aftermath: the rise in violent assaults, mainly perpetrated by young men, countless fentanyl deaths, and gender-confusion.
But there is hope. One of my all-time favorite Westerns is the 1953 film “Shane.” Also set in Wyoming, a group of homesteaders and their families have settled in a valley once solely inhabited by lone ranchers and cowboys. Here, is the clash between two distinct stages in masculine development – from single adventurer to self-sacrificial husband and father. The film clearly presents the latter as the ideal, but sometimes a brave champion is necessary. In the movie, he arrives in the form of the wandering gunfighter Shane. Beforehand, the homesteader men have been intimidated by the local cowboys; fearful for their lives and those of their family, they have largely remained acquiescent to those threats of violence. Shane takes a liking to one family in particular: Joe Starrett, his wife, and son Joey. The little boy idolizes Shane as a sort of legendary figure; while his good father seems rather ordinary. But together, the two men are able to overthrow the old violent order and inspire the other men. Sometimes situations require a lone brave man to confront evil – then, hopefully, other men will be inspired to act.