Something detrimental to manhood happened in the late Sixties, planting an emasculative seed now sprouting in the loathsome new commercial by Gillette. Many of you have seen the shaving giant’s ad, nagging its male customer base for such unpardonable behavior as approving their sons’ rough play, laughing at a raunchy sitcom, or, gasp, approaching a sexy young woman, while brandishing the “MeToo” movement and “toxic masculinity” like hammer and sickle. What made Gillette think it could do this with impunity — even hiring a radical feminist filmmaker to sell razor blades while promoting pajama boy docility — has roots stretching back 50 years, from the end of a once popular genre, the Western.
We baby boomers, and our fathers and grandfathers, didn’t need Gillette and its ilk lecturing us on the liberal preference for male conduct when growing up. We had the Ringo Kid, Zorro, Wyatt Earp, Shane, Matt Dillon, Davy Crockett, Paladin, John T. Chance, Rowdy Yates, the Magnificent Seven, the Virginian, the Barkleys, and Rooster Cogburn for role models. They taught millions of us boys to be strong, tough, face down bullies, protect the weak, and absolutely respect women. Not one of those men would ever abuse or force himself on a girl, or allow less virtuous types to do so.
In the first classic Western, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the only man who treats prostitute Claire Trevor as a lady, shaming others into doing the same. In Ford’s next Western gem, My Darling Clementine (1946), Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) realizes Doc Holliday’s genteel ex-girlfriend, Clementine, is more vital to pacifying Tombstone than his gun. Shane and his farmer employer’s wife, Marion, never act on their growing mutual attraction, out of respect for her role of wife and mother. An older John Wayne as Sheriff John Chance in Rio Bravo (1959) gets repeatedly flummoxed by Angie Dickinson’s sexual candidness. The Magnificent Seven risk their lives, and ultimate lose four, defending a dirt poor Mexican farm village. One of the seven, Charles Bronson, delivers the greatest speech about fatherhood in all of cinema, lecturing a group of hero-worshipping young boys.
“Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun. Well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility. For you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do this because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery.”
These were the men we baby boomers hoped to emulate in our adult life. Many of us to some extent succeeded. But by 1970, the counterculture had taken over both large and small screen, led by films such as Easy Rider, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, and two anti-heroic Westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. Television became mostly a liberal blackboard, with All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, M*A*S*H the series, One Day at a Time, Alice, and Lou Grant. Holdout icons John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made some mediocre Westerns in the Seventies, and then two masterpieces the same year, 1976, fittingly the Bicentennial: The Shootist, the Duke’s poignant swansong, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. With no more cowboy idols, however, the younger boys became fair game for metrosexual indoctrination by the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Hollywood, academia, media, and the lauded hippie culture of the time, succeeded by feminist fever.
In the mid-to-late Seventies, science-fiction and comic book heroes replaced the Westerner as boys’ adult alter egos. The Six-Million Dollar Man came first, followed by Luke Skywalker, Hahn Solo, Superman, Indiana Jones, then the return of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. With former screen cowboy Ronald Reagan in the White House, real men had an entertainment renaissance during the Eighties. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Chuck Norris and Clint Eastwood (still) topped the box-office, Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Miami Vice the TV ratings. They temporarily escaped the progressive gravitational pull — but not for long. Once the “kinder, gentler” George Bush took over, masculine escape velocity culturally slowed, further faltering under the insufferable Clintons. Feminists were then able to infest all non-Western genres to the point of male uninterest. But try as they might, they could not reinvent the Western. See absurd movie bombs The Quick and the Dead and Bad Girls, and recent TV mutation Godless.
Yet so positively ingrained in the American male consciousness was the Western Hero, that one lone figure defied the liberal zeitgeist and continued making billions for the cigarette company he represented long after television tobacco ads got banned in 1970. The Marlboro Man rode on in print until 1999, when anti-smoking pressure and the internet finally unhorsed him. But we older guys remember him — roping a wild stallion then lighting up a cigarette, appropriately to Elmer Bernstein’s stirring theme from The Magnificent Seven. Watching him, even I wanted to smoke, and I didn’t. One of the most successful advertising creations of all time, the Marlboro Man could never occupy the same media universe as the chastened beta males currently populating the Gillette commercial. Neither can I. I threw away my Trac II in disgust.