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The Western  
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Film critics repeatedly have proclaimed the death of the Western, but this is belied by the popularity of movies such as James Mangold's 2007 remake of Delmar Daves' 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma.

Male Intimacy in American Western History

As contemporary historians of the American West have shown, popular Western narratives depart in many significant ways from what is known about the actual history of the frontier.

Most fundamentally, to present white Americans as defending themselves against Indian aggression erases the record of deliberate destruction of Native American cultures and rationalizes the process of imperial conquest. In addition, the idealized adventures of the cowboy hero of literature and film are very different from the actual experience of men in the cattle industry, who worked hard for low pay, often for absentee owners. The development of the American West was shaped far less by lone adventurers on horseback than by those with capital to invest.

Also, the usual representation of the cowboy hero as a white man distorts the racial history of the West: according to historians who have studied the social and economic history of the cattle business, a substantial number of those employed as cattle workers in the later nineteenth century were African American, and many others were of Mexican background, part Indian, part Spanish.

The image of the cowboy hero also probably distorts sexual attitudes and behavior. Social historians who have studied male work communities, such as those of loggers, miners, sailors, and transient hoboes who did seasonal agricultural work, have found that male-male sexual relationships were relatively common and accepted, and have speculated that such communities may have attracted men who desired intimacy with men.

While there is little direct evidence about sexual relationships among men working in the cattle business in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, memoirs, records of observers, and photographs show that cowboys lived on intimate terms with each other. They slept in close quarters in bunkhouses and on the range, bathed together, and shaved and groomed one another. They also socialized together, holding stag dances where men danced with men.

Viewers today are startled by the affectionate gestures in late nineteenth-century photographs of cattle workers. In these photographs men pose with their arms around each other's shoulders or their hands resting on each other's thighs. Exactly what degree of intimacy such gestures signified to these men is difficult to know, but, given the evidence of the relative frequency of sexual relationships in other male work communities, it is likely that such relationships occurred among cowboys as well.

The Cowboy Hero

Following Cooper's construction, in popular Western narratives the cowboy hero often confronts enemies, particularly Indians and outlaws, who threaten the white agricultural and commercial society expanding across the frontier. He is commanding in his competence, knowing and controlling not only his weapons, his horse, and the men he leads and opposes, but also the landscape, which he assists American society in dominating.

However, he himself is a highly individualistic figure who frequently is depicted as having to struggle to direct his violent skills in ways that will protect the dominant society. Often he is shown as having learned his abilities from his adventures with Indians or as being a gunslinger or even an outlaw.

While ultimately he usually protects white society, sometimes he is presented as being so concerned to maintain his own freedom that he ends up escaping the very social order he validates; especially in Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, he often is depicted as an anti-hero whose intense individualism makes him a rebel.

Sometimes he settles down with a woman, endorsing the family and gender structure of the society, but often he remains undomesticated, continuing on his way alone or with a male sidekick. Whatever happens, the main tradition of the Western narrative presents the cowboy hero as exemplifying the resolute independence that many Americans like to think is characteristic of the self-made man of the American Dream.

Homosociality in the Western

Although the heterosexuality of the hero of Western narrative usually is taken for granted, the frequency with which he is presented as retaining his independence from women suggests considerable ambivalence about the responsibilities of heterosexual domestic relationships.

His most significant relationships are with other men: the rivals and enemies he must confront and overcome; other, weaker men he must lead and defend; and the sidekick who often accompanies and assists him. While some Westerns may feature significant relationships between the hero and a woman, all of them necessarily feature intense interactions between him and other men.

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