Myths of the Western Genre:
Are American Men Just a Bunch of Cowboys?

The Westward expansion of U.S. civilization gave rise to a distinctive view of what a man should be and how he should relate to the world: a self-reliant outsider who defends himself and others with a gun, who prefers the wilderness to civilization, and who, if he must associate with others, prefers the company of men to that of women.

The myths surrounding the Western hero were first popularized in books and movies that comprise a genre of fiction called the Western. This literature has had a strong and lasting effect on U.S. culture despite the fact that the frontier West was a particular geographic part of the country at a unique stage of economic, social and technological development which ceased to exist more than a hundred years ago. Myths surrounding the Western hero still: 1) affect how many people act in everyday life; 2) appear repeatedly in many types of literature, film and popular music; 3) are used by some politicians to gain votes; and 4) are employed by advertisers to sell products.

The world-view of the Western genre was strongly influenced by the sparse population of the early West, the fact that there were very few women, the harsh environment, and the near absence of social institutions such as the family, churches and the law. Existing myths and values of European/American culture, such as the love of nature, the child savior, and the American dream also had a strong influence on the world-view of the Western genre.

Books and movies about the frontier West have been popular all over the world and have had strong cultural influences in English speaking countries with conditions similar to that of the American West, particularly Australia and Canada. For the U.S. and these countries, understanding the Western genre will help citizens gain the self-knowledge to make informed decisions and to understand aspects of their culture and actions of their fellow citizens.

The American Adam Myth: An Adam myth is a concept of the ideal male. The Western genre developed a peculiarly American myth of the ideal man which underpins the concept of the American Hero. The following attributes are essential requisites for male status as an American Adam described in Westerns.
a. Intelligent and experienced. The ideal male must have the brain power and background knowledge to solve any problem that presents itself. His intelligence largely consists of street smarts rather than formal education; book learning is seen as a handicap in that it is removed from experience.

b. Physically fit. The American Adam of the Westerns possesses the physical strength and stamina to survive and to triumph whether his antagonist is nature, other men, battalions of men, or whole tribes.

c. Enough wealth to live as he chooses. The ideal male lives well, but his riches vary culturally and do not always involve having large amounts of money. In the Western environment, this means that he has the fastest horse, fine armaments and all the equipment necessary to make his life a success according to his own standards.

d. A member of the mainstream culture. In most Westerns the American Adam is Caucasian, but that is not essential. Rather than being white skinned, the ideal male must be a member of the mainstream culture, capable of being a part of the establishment while at the same time rejecting the role. Minority males in most films and novels are a part of the mainstream of the subculture in which they reside and ordinarily are accepted by the dominant culture.

e. Single. Although attracted to women, who are indeed attracted to him, the ideal man loses his status when he commits to a relationship. The married man is domesticated; he is not a Western hero.

f. Principles, disdain for authority, and outsider status. The American concept of individuality demands that a hero adhere to his own principles and, if necessary he will act alone and without the support of others. He has a disdain for authority and will resist pressure by the establishment to conform. As a result, the American Adam of the Western genre is, by the end of the story, if not at the beginning, always something of an outsider.
In analyzing fiction, the concept of the exemplary exception is very important. There are indeed heroes who do not share all of the attributes of the American Adam Myth of the Western genre. These men are the exception to the rule; they do not negate the rule but show that extraordinary individuals can rise above what is usually required.

The Edenic Myth: This is a clear allusion to the biblical story of paradise. It suggests that nature is the perfect place. The longing to find Eden informs Westward expansion. Virtually all Western films are set in a romanticized Eden such as Monument Valley, grassy windblown plains, and riparian areas with mountainous backdrops. Even films using harsh, unforgiving landscapes, such as Death Valley, play upon the audience's love for nature. This biophilia is an important value to Western heroes; it informs their sense of self and explains their unmitigated physical allegiance to the land. The fabled ride into the sunset is a return to Eden.

The Child Savior Myth: While not common to all Westerns, a child savior appears often enough to be considered an important part of the paradigm in which the characters in these films operate. The myth evokes the image of youth as innocent and incapable of dishonesty, ready to teach errant adults important lessons and to set them free from their cynicism and double dealing. Thus, children bring out the best in adult behavior. This idea underpins Christian imagery, is used frequently by the advertising industry, and, with a properly placed kiss, can get politicians elected.

The Myth of Male Camaraderie: In the Western genre, the American Adam prefers the company of other men. This suggests that men are happier, more fulfilled, more male in the presence of men rather than women. The Western hero eschews domestication. From ancient times, hunting and warfare required male loyalty; however this is an atavistic value. It is no longer the case that men need to bond to one another in order to survive. The concept of individuality, coupled with the competitive nature of capitalism, seems to have driven this sense of brotherhood into the shadows. Still, it is apparent not only in film, but in advertising, sports and in the mythology associated with the military. It manifests itself in the insults hurled among high school boys when one member of a friendship circle lands a girlfriend and spends less time with the guys.

The American Dream: The American version of the rags-to-riches myth holds that in the United States hard work, luck, and perseverance will allow anyone to succeed. It is a social ideal that motivates individuals to seek prosperity with the confidence that they will one day have a comfortable life, own a home and enter the middle class. Equalitarian in nature, the American Dream developed from the Puritan assertion that your value to society is determined by how much you produce. This individualistic drive, though not apparent in the Western hero, informs the motives that propel everyone else in the Western setting including ranchers, settlers, farmers, prospectors, saloon keepers, bar girls, shopkeepers, and even sheriffs. Most people pursue the promise of wealth, or at least survival with a degree of comfort.

The American Eve Myth: This serves as the female counterpart to the American Adam Myth. However, in the Western genre, beauty is its only universal attribute. Characteristics such as intelligence, wisdom, fertility, or wealth are irrelevant. Because the Westerns are concerned with the struggles of male characters, the American Eve myth is not well developed in the genre. Women serve as school marms, bar girls, settlers' wives and occasionally entrepreneurs; but ordinarily women provide motivation for male action or appear as ancillary characters. Of course, there is always the exemplary exception.

The answer to the question, "Are American men just a bunch of cowboys?" is most assuredly "no." However, there is a lot of the Western hero in American culture. Many contend that the myth of the Western hero has not served individuals or the country well during the 20th and 21st centuries. They contend that some of our mistakes have occurred when our actions have relied on this myth while our triumphs have been based on our ability to recognize changed conditions and to work cooperatively together in large organizations. The latter is inconsistent with the myth of the loner American hero.

This article on Myths of the Western Genre was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden.