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On Shane, toxic masculinity, violence, and vicious cycles

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I think it’s fascinating to observe toxic masculinity in action in Westerns.

(Some quasi-spoilers here for Shane (1953).)

In this latest example I’ve seen, the movie Shane, the boy (Joey) is desperate for a role model who can teach him to perform violent masculinity—at the start of the movie, Joey is hunting a deer, and he spends a fair bit of the movie running around with toy guns shouting “Bang! Bang! Bang!” over and over, and he insists that Shane teach him to shoot, and he keeps asking questions about who could beat up who, and he insists that Shane would never back down from a fight, and so on.

Presumably he got that model of What It Means To Be A Man from his culture. But he’s also strongly reinforcing that culture, because:

Shane keeps trying to not perform violent masculinity, but he’s pressed into it by (among other things) not wanting to let Joey down. (Same, in some ways, for Joey’s father Joe.)

So Joey is desperate to see the men in his life engage in violence and refuse to back down, and the men in his life don’t want to look bad in front of him or set him a bad example, and so there’s this vicious cycle reinforcing things.

(There’s a lot more than that going on for both Shane and Joe, of course. But Joey’s ideas seem to me to be pretty clearly a major driving factor for both of them.)

Shane tries a couple of times to gently suggest that Joey’s got the wrong idea about what a Real Man has to do, but that doesn’t work; various genre forces are conspiring toward the inevitable violent climax.

But the movie takes place (like many Westerns, I think) in this liminal period between the old violent world of the frontier and the new law-abiding world of civilization, and I feel like it’s trying to say that Shane is among the last of the old world, that he’s clearing a space for the new world to happen. But if that’s the intent, I don’t think it works. Joey doesn’t come out of the movie thinking that gunfighting is wrong; he comes out of it with all of his preexisting cultural ideas heavily reinforced.

And, of course, 125 years after the period of this story and 65 years after the movie was made, we’re still struggling with these same kinds of ideas, with boys and men striving to meet cultural expectations of masculinity and also reinforcing those expectations.

P.S.: Wikipedia says:

Stevens wanted to demonstrate to audiences “the horrors of violence”. [His] innovations, according to film historian Jay Hyams, marked the beginning of graphic violence in Western movies.

I’ll certainly believe that that was Stevens’s intent, but I’m not convinced that this movie succeeds in demonstrating the horrors of violence. I feel like it does more glorifying than horrifying.


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