Thou Shall Not Lie
John Wayne was very "charismatic"1 in his movies, so much in fact that he came to embody what pop culture at that time defined to be a man. He became a cultural icon.2 But whose icon was he? John Wayne taught white teenage boys what it meant to be a man. Who were black boys supposed to look up to? Were they supposed to learn how to be a man from someone who looked nothing like them? John Wayne embodied American ideals of the time, but was this who he really was? No, Wayne was created. He was the male beauty myth. The people that Wayne portrayed on television were nothing like his real life persona. So should he really be the symbol of manhood? Did John Wayne teach boys how to be men, or did he teach them to sacrifice their true beliefs in order to be "successful"? In his embodiment of American ideals about gender roles did he perpetuate the female beauty myth? Wills, the author of John Wayne's America, says that The Quiet Man is a feminist movie. Is it really? How can a movie that was directed by a chauvinist be a feminist? "If popular culture was a religion, John Wayne would be a Saint." 3 One very important commandment has been forgotten-thou shall not lie. This is indeed what Wayne did-lived a lie.
Marion Morrison came from a poor family, which originated in Iowa and migrated to California. Marion was a normal kid in high school, getting involved in activities such as football, student government, YMCA, Masonic youth group, etc.4 He was a young honest student in those days. Morrison then received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. After getting injured Marion's scholarship was taken away, hence his dream of going to college was also taken away; thus he needed to find a new way to make a living. His first job was moving props in a production studio, where a director by the name of Raoul Walsh saw Morrison and thought that he had the perfect physique to be a star.5 This was the beginning of John Wayne's career and the dishonesty that would come to be synonymous with the existence of Marion Morrison.
The road to success for John Wayne was not easy. After his first role in The Big Trail, which was directed by Walsh, Wayne was subjected to over a decade of bit parts and B-movies. After doing movies such as Stagecoach, John Wayne became a household name. During these years Marion Morrison worked with many people, such as Yakima Canutt and John Ford, who taught him how to be the John Wayne that many grew to know and admire. The way he moved, ironically the reason his football scholarship was taken away, the way he spoke, his statuesque poses, all added to his charisma and what led to him becoming an American icon of those times and still of today.
John Wayne had become the symbol of manhood. He embodied the very essence of what a man should be. What kind of man? John Wayne was an icon for white boys and men. Professor Neil Henry once said in lecture that Wayne was an icon for black culture also. Henry may have idolized Wayne, but for the most part many African Americans did not. My father and my uncles said that they idolized people like Sidney Poitier not Wayne. For teenage white boys who were growing up in this time, they had an icon, someone who looked like them. Who did black youths have? Were black youths not worthy of a hero? As Peter Jennings said, "this country thrives on having heroes, they give you something to look up to,"6 something to strive for. What were blacks supposed to strive for? "Men learned what acceptable behavior was, from John Wayne."7 Drinking and smoking was cool and became synonymous with masculinity. Instead of Wayne teaching these boys to go to school, or to learn a trade he taught them how to utilize substances. If that is what an icon is then maybe Black youths were not the unlucky ones after all. However, the lack of a role model in the black community may have led black youths to many of the same substances to which white children were led.
John Wayne embodied American masculinity ideals. He was a tough guy, " the guy who kicked ass."8 But according to Wills, the guy who kicked ass, Wayne's ass in particular, was John Ford. In the studio Ford would tell his actors to "assume the position"9 which would entail them bending over so that he could kick them in their behinds. Wayne gave Ford a sense of power. Who would give Wayne his sense of control?
In his real life John Wayne, "sought out women who came from the macho Latin culture of supportive (if not downright submissive) women.10 Was this overcompensation for the lack of control that he had off screen? In the movie The Quiet Man, John Wayne goes after a very feisty red-head, at first this seemed commendable, until the end of the movie where her true colors were exposed. She was just as submissive as all the women with whom he was involved, both on and off-screen. There were often times when Wayne did not agree with a director but he would not say anything. "Men are supposed to be quiet, restrain their feelings,"11 and follow orders when given by a superior, had John Wayne fallen prey to the male beauty myth which he created? Did he teach young boys to be independent or did he teach them to be subordinate and to suppress all their feelings? The cycle of over-compensation for the lack of power, among 'powerful' men such as John Ford and John Wayne, is very ironic. John Ford tells people to assume the position, while Wayne marries submissive immigrants. Are these our heroes and icons, these men whose childhood insecurities have lingered into their adult lives?
John Wayne has been called, "The Man who single-handedly won World War II on television."12 This is a mammoth over-statement. Would a better title be, the man who single-handedly perpetuated the oppression of women; what Naomi Wolf calls "The Beauty Myth"? Since John Wayne was seen as an icon, did his acting in movies such as The Quiet Man; where he drags a woman all the way across town, or throws her on a bed to illustrate that he had control of her since they were married propagate the oppression of women? Men looked to John Wayne for guidance on how to be a real man. John Wayne man-handled his wife, why was it not acceptable for O.J. Simpson (yet another black youth who grew up without an icon to call his own) to take it one step further? Even if Wayne did not agree with the things that he was doing in his movies, his inability to differentiate his life-on and off screen led many to believe that John Wayne and Marion Morrison were one and the same.
"This is definitely not one of those movies that humiliates women," says Wills.13 In this movie a women is dragged around town by the collar of her dress, pushed onto a bed, threatened to be hit with a stick for being unruly, needs a dowry to be considered worthy of marriage, the list goes on and on. The activities mentioned above are anything but feminist. In the book John Wayne does seem to want the lady (Maureen O'Hara) to have a choice in whether she wants to marry him or not; this is because he was American, and in America women had a few more rights than women in Ireland. Is this feminist or an issue of independence? John Ford, the director of The Quiet Man, was a chauvinist, who did not think very highly of women, his feelings towards men were tacit. She is told many times that she "must pay her 'marriage debt' of sexual compliance (otherwise the husband would be tempted to fornicate elsewhere)."14 O'Hara is told this by women in the town and even her bishop. Women are never shown together in a group because in Ford's eyes " women should be kept peripheral."15 Lisa Miya-Jervis, editor and publisher of Bitch magazine, defines feminism as "a doctrine that women should have equal political, social, and economic rights as men. According to her definition this movie is not feminist." Conceivably it is a "better treatment of woman's independence"16 however feminism is more profound than the mere independence of women.
Professor Leonard said that pop culture has become a religion, "once we had saints now we have stars."17 Professor Henry agreed with him by going a step further and saying that John Wayne is "The Saint". In a business where "image is more important than the real thing,"18 a celebrity is going to have to tell a lie sooner or later; this is not my issue. My concern is that if one is going to be in a profession where he is going to have to create an image (lie), his name should not be synonymous with that of a Saint's. Thou Shall Not Lie.
Garry Wills has written a very thought provoking book about John Wayne. Although his book seemed to be lacking a profound purpose, it did shed some light on several issues that are still present today. There is the idea of Americans needing someone to look up to and Hollywood being the provider of that someone. The book also illustrates how the media is still run by rich middle-class white men who subject the masses to their points of view. The book also deals with the idea of a beauty myth - both male and female. I found this book rather insightful, however when dedicating three hundred and eighty pages to an "icon", there are some criteria that should go into selecting this person. One such criterion is that of universality, the idea that most, if not all, people should be able to look up to this person.
Today we have a high number of sexual assaults on women, battered spouses, alcoholism and other substance abuses. Keeping in mind that this country is run by people who were influenced by John Wayne, "the Saint," maybe Garry Wills is right, perhaps this is John Wayne's America.
1. Professor Leonard, 10-5-99, Lecture
UC Berkeley - Mass Communications 10, Fall 1999
Copyright (C) 1996 by the Library, University of California,
Berkeley. All rights reserved.
MRC web graphics by Mary Scott, Graphics Office, The Teaching Library
Document maintained on server: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ by
Gary Handman, Head, Media Resources Center.
Last update 11/18/98
MRC web graphics by Mary Scott, Graphics Office, The Teaching Library