What do they say? Perception is reality? Well perception certainly helps create some realities.
I cringe (for more than one reason) when I think of Mel Brooks’s 1974 movie Blazing Saddles. It fostered a perception about Westerns that, according to some, brought about the demise of the genre.
The perception? That Westerns are racist and sexist. True or not, it’s an opinion that a sizable segment of society seems to hold. But does this perception match reality?
It would appear that political correctness prompts a good number of potential readers to steer clear of Westerns without ever giving them a chance. I, for one, believe the loss is theirs. And it’s sad. A lot of folks are missing out on some very captivating stories–tales that not only entertain, but that also provoke deep thought about a lot of meaningful issues.
So let’s examine political correctness and the Western genre of fiction and film.
“Diversity” and “acceptance” sit at or near the very top of the list of twenty-first century buzzwords. Schools, corporations, and all types of media have fought long and hard to entrench these twin concepts in the hearts and minds of citizens of all ages. We are simply too connected to a vast array of people from every inhabited continent on Earth to ignore those who are different from us.
So when global citizens of the twenty-first century encounter the characters of classic-style Western novels and movies, it’s quite understandable that their first reaction may be, “Wow! How racist!” or “How sexist!” But…when they promptly drop the story as though it were a piece of hot, trans-fat-infused fried chicken, it’s more than unfortunate.
Why? Because a number of recent Westerns delve quite intentionally into the stories of men and women struggling with issues of race (mixed-ethnicity outcasts, for example), gender (a lone, young widow in a hostile environment), and a number of other issues of universal human interest.
To those who charge the Western genre with perpetuating archaic values in terms of race and gender, I have several lines of response. In this post I’ll address the first of these.
The Treatment of Ethnicity in Western Novels
First of all, it’s unfair and illogical to hold people of the past to the same points of view that society at large embraces in the twenty-first century. Think about it: the nineteenth century American’s point of contact with the many people groups of the world was vastly different from our own. Yes, some were immigrants to the US, but their birthplaces–Ireland, Germany, China–were much more ethnically homogeneous than the cities and towns where most of us live today.
An author would be untrue to the times were he or she to create characters in an Old West setting who held all the same values that we do today in our polyglot twenty-first-century cities.
How many black people would an Irishman have seen in his life prior to immigrating to the US? How many conversations would he even have had in Ireland with regard to blacks in Africa or in the Americas? He would have been immensely more concerned about English domination of his homeland than he would have been about most any international issue.
What would the Irish immigrant have thought upon his first personal encounter with a black man or woman? There had been no radio, television, or internet to prepare him for the experience. Think about that–no twenty-four-hour news cycle. No images of Syrian refugees one minute, then Korean diplomats the next. Sure, there were newspapers in Ireland. But they had few illustrations and even fewer photographs. Plus, he had no control over the content of the media he was exposed to. And the burning issues of the day in Ireland were not the same as ours.
The typical Irish or German immigrant to the US in the mid- to late-1800s would have been consummately preoccupied with scratching out a living in a new land. It would be natural for him or her to be aware of those who competed with him for a potential job–whether a competitor who was already in America (perhaps a black man) or another immigrant (maybe someone of Chinese origin).
Then there were the native-born Americans. By the later 1800s, these included many, many whites, as well as members of the First Nations (as our Canadian neighbors now refer to them). Every day, more and more foreign-born folk were moving into their world–people with strange languages and unusual customs–at least from their perspective. It would be easy for those already here in America to be unsettled by the arrival of strangers.
Yes, it’s plain for anyone with eyes to see: human beings of every color and language are still human beings. We all have equal value. We all bear the image of our Maker. Nonetheless, to hold the nineteenth-century American to today’s standards of ethnic openness is unrealistic and unfair. His or her level of exposure to people of other ethnicities was nowhere near what ours is in the expansive urban centers of the twenty-first century.
So when in a Western, a character sounds racist, he may in fact be racist. But then again, he may simply be someone in a very different time coming to grips with his own changing world. And the story may well be enhanced by this character’s worldview struggles.
Were an author to create characters in an Old West setting who held all the same values that we do today in our polyglot twenty-first-century cities, he or she would be untrue to the times. The characters of historical fiction have to be given the opportunity to grow–to grow within their own time and place.
And such an author would be doing the reader a disservice. We need to be able to examine the past as it was in order to learn and to grow ourselves. Without glorifying or seeking to justify racism (which is unjustifiable), the author needs to tell a story according to the times–showing the struggle and its consequences.
So rather than tossing away a Western–an otherwise gripping story, full of fascinating characters and spine-tingling action–simply because it does not, on the surface, treat matters of ethnicity and gender the way we might today, why not read it all the way through? We might be pleasantly surprised. And we might find it a much deeper story than we expected.