(This is a post for Western106, an open online digital storytelling course, that will focus around the Western genre. I’m dipping in with my own experiences with the Wild West narratives.)
When each of our three boys were young, my wife and I made a conscious effort to avoid any kinds of toy guns in the house. It didn’t matter. They would pick up a stick, point it at a squirrel, or each other, or at us even, and go “bang bang bang.” The more we talked to our friends, the ones with boys, the more we came to realize that the stereotypes of boys and guns (and trucks) seemed to be something true, despite all that we did to avoid it.
Strange, right? But true, at least in my circles. We could not shake their obsession with guns.
One time, we were visiting a friend of my wife’s from work and her husband was a retired police officer. Before we even knew what was happening, he had pulled out an unloaded handgun from his gun safe to show our youngest son (he must have been about six years old). I was furious at this man and frustrated by the look of reverence on my son’s face as he was so close to a real gun. One that shoots real bullets. One that kills in a second.
We never went back to that house, needless to say.
It had me thinking of my own childhood as a boy, though, and my own obsession with the same. I distinctly remember watching The Lone Ranger re-runs on television with friends, as soon as it was over, we would run outside and playact out the episode we just watched. We’d use sticks as guns, and bikes as horses, and string as lassos. Cats sometimes would be our cattle, if we needed. (They were never very cooperative. We didn’t have dogs in our apartment complex. Only cats. Yeehaw. Kittyup.)
As I got older, I still gravitated to the idea of the Western, which I see now through my adults eyes as having many flaws — from gender issues to animal treatment issues to violence issues to … well, there are a lot of issues — and yet the theme of Good vs. Bad (another complicated issue) and of Hero vs. Villain (same) and Cowboy vs. Indian (more of the same) are timeless storytelling devices, made so visible it’s as if a mallet is pounding you on the head.
As kids, we liked that. Mallets made the story clear. There were no ambiguities. Cowboys were good,. Indians were bad. (But thanks to Alan Levine’s gathering of Western stories and narratives, I see now that even the stories I thought had a clear divide maybe never really did … look at the peaceful Tonto, who saved The Lone Ranger’s life more times than a viewer can count … and I am probably over-stereotyping the genre completely anyway .. writers do that to make a point, right?)
What began to change my mind and alter my perceptions of that narrative as a kid was the reading of a book. This book.
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks brought a whole new perspective to the Cowboy/Indian narrative that Hollywood had created to sell stories, showing me instead how proud the American Indians were of their place on Earth and how mistreated they had been, and continue to be in so many places (It is a travesty that the Pine Ridge Reservation has some of the deepest pockets of poverty in the United States and that casino operations are what keeps some tribes afloat here on the East Coast).
The novel, telling the tale of a boy who brings his plastic toys to life and then realizing the consequences of his actions, humanized American Indians for the first time for me, in a very powerful way that never left my head or heart. It later resonated with other books about the American Indians that I would read, too, such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Heart of Everything There is. This was the real history of our country, the kind that I was not being taught in history classes.
Move ahead a few years, and, as a young adult, I got hooked on the Western-themed television show, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. What an odd one. It was a mashup of cowboy and science fiction, told with humor. It didn’t last very long, but I loved that show, and watched it religiously. It skewered the conventions of the Western in so many ways while also maintaining the elements that attracted me to Westerns as a kid. That later led me to Firefly, the short-lived series that is a natural successor to Brisco, with its Western-in-Outer-Space theme. Add in Deadwood and others that I have forgotten over time.
And then came the discovery (or rather, the rediscovery with new eyes) of the Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood in college, with a friend who wanted to go to Hollywood to work on movies (he did do that, eventually) and listening to him dissect the movies over and over again through a filmmaker’s eyes was interesting, as was the experience of watching Eastwood later in Unforgiven, where he tries to dismantle the whole notions of the Hero as Avenger and Violence as a Way of Life.
Just last week, I was watching The Hateful Eight with one of my sons, now in high school, and thinking of how the myth of the Western permeates so much our media lives, in ways that are often unseen. I didn’t care much for The Hateful Eight (we had it on disc, as our neighbor is a filmmaker who votes for Oscar movies so she gets discs to sway her decision) and gave up on it, but my older sons (the eldest one had already seen it in the theater) enjoyed it, and it brought me back around to the opening of this post.
Neither of my older children are still obsessed with guns. Maybe they have grown out of it or been horrified by the front pages of our newspapers. The younger one still seems to gravitate towards toy guns whenever he can. It still rattles me.
And it raises some questions for me, a father.
At what point does media influence us, and at what point do we influence media? Do Westerns glorify violence or reflect our society’s interest in Outlaws and Justice? Is this notion of boys’ interest in guns innate? And if so, does the interest in guns lead to the potential of violence? Researchers are no doubt trying to figure that out.
Of course, I sure hope not, and I know that our struggle as parents to explain our violent culture to our kids over the years, expressed through exasperation with the proliferation of guns has been an ongoing process. I’ve even used my own experience in the military as an infantry soldier to talk about guns, and the powerful danger they possess in the world.
Here at home, we promote peace in this world of violence. That’s just how it is, I guess. It’s not that we never had Nerf guns in the house. It’s not that we took every stick out of their hands. But it’s also not that we have bowed to the overwhelming wave of pop culture, either. Our family conversations about guns and violence, though .. those continue. They have to. They always will.
Peace (there it is again),