Violence = Sexy in America

In the wake of NRA chapter incidents such as Sandy Hook, Mother Emanuel Church and Orlando, our fellow Americans have to wonder why we live in a society of such extreme self violence and where does this obsession with guns come from? Does it come from the stringent defense of Second Amendment rights as NRA President Wayne LaPierre would have us believe? Is it an inherent mistrust of outside governments or even our own that make Americans cling to our deadly weapons, ready to defend our farms, fields and neighborhoods should powers, foreign or domestic overstep their bounds? I would argue that is something deeper, perhaps even insidious that is embedded in our cultural fabric and has been for generations. I am referring, of course, to the cultural mythology of the Old West and the notion of the Hero Cowboy.

The Hero Cowboy has cast a long shadow across American consciousness for many years and it is this iconic image that we are most readily identified with around the world. The cinematic Western was the dominant genre of Hollywood movie making for decades and if the form has declined somewhat in recent years, it is only to make room for the next generation of heroes which are the supers. Still, it is easy to discern a distinct connectivity between the two, for there is a clear progression from the clean-shaven Tom Mixx, to the weary but larger-than-life John Wayne, to the laconic super cowboy of Clint Eastwood, all the way to the weapon laden but conflicted Iron Man of Robert Downey Jr.. The weapons and the costumes may have changed but these are all über-hetero, determined heroes who deal out death and violence in equal measure, all in the name of justice and what we as Americans inherently “know to be good”. And in doing so, we have done something unspeakable, something that no culture, no art form or society should ever have done — we have made violence sexy! And in making it sexy, we have made violence desirable.

As a little boy in the 1970’s I can remember going to the pictures with other children to watch those cowboys, heroes and villains, swagger across the flashing screen, their figures and faces big as battle ships! One can argue that these looming cowboys occupied such enormous space in our imaginations and dreams that it was they who became our father figures and not our own biological dads. Really, what mortal sized, forty-hour-a-week factory father could compete with a larger-than-life hero like John Wayne? When the Duke pummeled Forrest Tucker in Chisum, I cheered along with the little boys in the house, when he squared off with the river villains in True Grit, we all held our breaths and when he died at the hands of Bruce Dern in The Cowboys we wept like orphans in the dark — because we knew were.

I never had the opportunity to meet Wayne, but I did meet Dern at a film festival years many later and the experience was telling. Now I know the difference between actors and characters, but when I looked into Bruce Dern’s eyes something choked in me and I was unable to shake his hand. It was then that I realized how deep the imprinting had been, how I’d been programmed by the cinematic Western on how to behave like a man. That the highly codified behavior of the Hero Cowboy had had an enormous impact on how I walked and talked and dealt with the world in general. That in my unconscious mind there was this curious little piece of skipping celluloid, playing over and over, of an action that defined a man and the action was bold and possibly even heroic and full of bloody violence. For in the flickering light and shadow of the Saturday double feature, this was the programming that I and all the other little boys received — that the world we lived in was violent, that heroes needed violence to overcome villains, that heroines loved the heroes when they triumphed, so therefore violence was sexy!

Of course, many cultures engage in ritualized violence at different points in their evolution and even into the present day. The now illegal act of dueling, both with sword and pistol, has claimed thousands of lives over time, to include great intellectuals like Aleksandr Pushkin and Alexander Hamilton. Certainly, there are many violent rights of passage for boys into manhood in cultures all over the world and untold numbers have attended the eye popping gore of bullfights for centuries. Ritualized violence has existed since the beginning of recorded history and certainly before then but what has occurred over the past 50 years in American cinema and violence is something else entirely.

Cinema is undeniably the dominant art form of our time and with the rapid development of technology media is practically everywhere and almost inescapable. The sexualized violence of the cinematic Western and its spinoff genres have and will continue to embed themselves in our cultural fabric in ways that are obvious and less so. That violence exists in the world is equally undeniable but when we as a culture, chose to stylize and sensualize it in an art form that we created and flooded the planet with is a reckless flirtation with anarchy itself. Is Wayne LaPierre a modern day villain for putting guns in the hands of unstable men like Dylann Storm Roof and Adam Lanza? You better believe it but as Americans we must also acknowledge and take responsibility for creating our own culture of ritualized violence that spawned such dark men and their even darker, accompanying fetish.

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I blog about entertainment, performing arts & wellness. Copywriter and script doctor for hire. Acting Teacher. glennenglishnyc@gmail.com

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Glenn English

Glenn English

I blog about entertainment, performing arts & wellness. Copywriter and script doctor for hire. Acting Teacher. glennenglishnyc@gmail.com

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