Film & Media: Toxic Masculinity, Spectral Homosexuality

two people riding horses
September 23, 2022

Read Professor Damon Young‘s piece on Power of the Dog and the Western in Public Books. (Read an excerpt below.)

Toxic Masculinity, Spectral Homosexuality
Of the film genres that shaped Hollywood during its classical period from the 1930s through 1960s, none contributed more to America’s self-mythologization than the Western. The genre’s avatar was the white cowboy, who—taciturn, self-authorizing, phallic—transmuted the genocidal violence of the frontier into the erotic spectacle of masculine heroism. Abjuring domesticity (and, for the most part, women), this Founding Father astride a horse was set off against a hostile natural landscape. The rugged man in the rugged land occasioned the genre’s display of cinematographic virtuosity, its celebration of film as a visual medium.

It is perhaps because Westerns give such full expression to the conjoined myths of nation, whiteness, and masculinity that the genre has remained an object of revisionist fascination—from its countercultural reimagining in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to the reversals of its rules along the lines of gender (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), sexuality (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), and race, as in Netflix’s current release, The Harder They Fall (2021).

The secret of the Western is that its mythology nurtures a queer fantasy, hiding in plain sight. The genre encodes a fascination with men’s moral and physical relations, the capacities of their bodies, what they cannot say—but what they can do—with and to each other.

At the outset of Red River (1948), John Wayne rejects the entreaties of glamor-lit Coleen Gray to take her to Texas, explaining that “it’s too much for a woman.” Minutes later, Montgomery Clift arrives on the scene, every bit as glamorous as Gray. The cowboy thus acquires a son without any need for a mother. In a film whose homoerotic double entendres still delight bloggers 70 years later, the daddy-son relation is dislodged from biology and swept into the incestuous undercurrents of patriarchal fantasy.

Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, adapted from the 1967 novel of the same name, by Thomas Savage, revives the homosexual eros that gives the classic Western its libidinal force and sentimentality. The film sets up a traditional gender binary, counterposing Rose (Kirsten Dunst)—delicate as her namesake, a creature of the domestic interior—to Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who castrates bulls with his bare hands and never showers. There are other masculinities on view: for example, that of Phil’s brother, George (Jesse Plemons), whom he calls “Fatso”; the urbane and gregarious Governor; and Mr. Burbank senior, the brothers’ father, who is also a city man. In succumbing to coupledom, these men have broken the contract of the Western, whose masculine heroes choose a perceived freedom over domestication.

Department of Film & Media