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The Western  
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The Western is a distinctive American narrative genre that has developed over more than two centuries and now is recognized and consumed worldwide. Its most familiar expressions are in literature, popular fiction, film, and television, but it also is important in painting, photography, music, sport, and advertising.

Heroic Western narratives have served to justify transformation and often destruction of indigenous peoples and ecosystems, to rationalize the supposedly superior economic and social order organized by European Americans, and particularly to depict and enforce the dominant culture's ideals of competitive masculine individualism.

The celebration of male power, beauty, and relationships in Westerns is compelling to many readers and viewers. Although the form of masculinity idealized in the Western is in opposition to the majority's stereotypical constructions of male homosexuality, both man-loving men and those who claim to reject same-sex attraction have found a great deal of interest in the narrative.

Development and Form of the Western

The national fantasy of the Western has its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the wars between Native Americans and European colonists. It developed during the rapid westward movement of settlers and the continuing conflict with native peoples after the American Revolution.

Building on the careers of actual frontiersmen, particularly Daniel Boone, white Americans constructed an ideal image of the pioneer hero that articulated what they wanted to believe about themselves. This heroic ideal was widely expressed in the popular press, oratory, painting, sculpture, and popular lithographs.

The most important early statement of the heroic Western ideal was by James Fenimore Cooper in his five "Leatherstocking" novels [The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841)]. Although his novels are set on the older frontier east of the Mississippi, Cooper established patterns of continuing importance in the development of the Western: his pioneer hero is an agent of white society, defending women, who are constructed as embodying civilized values, but he resists domestication, which would limit his individual freedom, and his strongest bond is with another male, the Mohican warrior Chingachgook.

In the period after the Civil War, popular dime novels, which were published in huge numbers and were very widely read, developed a related narrative form dealing with adventure on the Great Plains, in the Rockies, and in the Southwest, and began the idealization of the cowboy.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and similar popular entertainments dramatized representations of cowboy life and battles with Native Americans, anticipating the popularity of Westerns in motion pictures.

Artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell also developed a rich tradition of Western painting and sculpture in the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Owen Wister defined the cowboy hero further in his highly popular novel, The Virginian (1901), which helped shape the evolution of heroic Western narratives in the movies as the medium emerged. Later popular Western adventure fiction such as the novels of Zane Grey, Max Brand, Luke Short, Jack Schaefer, and Louis L'Amour also strongly influenced the development of movie and then television Westerns. Emotionally intense relationships between men characterize many of the popular Western novels of the twentieth century and the movies and television series that often were based on them.

In the twentieth century the cowboy became the most widely recognized American cultural ideal of manhood, the subject not only of popular fiction, movies, and television shows, but also of country and western music and of advertising campaigns, particularly that for Marlboro cigarettes.

For many Americans, their ideals of masculinity still are expressed by the roles John Wayne played in John Ford's series of classic Westerns.

Contemporary artists have continued the tradition of Western painting: for example, in the work of photorealists such as James Bama, who paints beautifully detailed depictions of working cowboys and rodeo cowboys, and in the luminous watercolor "cowboy landscapes" of Texas artist Brad Braune.

In the new millennium, Western motifs are omnipresent: just about every week, huge television audiences watch the daring, dangerous competition of Professional Bull Riding; Western clothing is widely popular, particularly in the West and South; and some politicians, such as George W. Bush, continue to invoke Western imagery and rhetoric. Indeed, shortly before he ran for President of the United States, Bush--perhaps imitating Ronald Reagan--purchased a ranch to cast himself as a cowboy.

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The cowboy member of the Disco group The Village People wears a costume derived from those found in the Hollywood Western to create an instantly recognizable hypermasculine persona.
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