What would happen if all of a sudden all men in the town died tragically?
The western genre might look as the most static and outdated genre of them all, but actually, its history and evolution is the most interesting in pop culture. I grew up watching all those western TV classics my mom loved, and thus I hated them. The Little House on the Prairie, Bonanza, Dr. Queen, I couldn’t stand them, until I enrolled myself in a research class in college that introduced us to the study of popular genres. Our professor made a raffle of genres, and each of us had to research one throughout the semester, and with my luck, I obviously got the western. After studying it, I discovered that all those prejudices I had were just biased ideas I chose to embrace without actually giving it a chance. In fact, I ended up choosing the western for my dissertation topic because I ended find it fascinating. Since its emergence, there have been revolutionary directors and storytellers that have worked to change and question the genre from within, and the Netflix series Godless is just one of the latest examples of this.
One of the first questions I made myself when I started working on the genre was “why do people keep creating stories with this outdated formula?” As a matter of fact, the western is present in many films and series that, despite not having cowboys or the classic Old West settings, are more faithful to the genre than Bonanza. One of these great examples is, for instance, Star Wars: the narrative plot, the characters, the main struggle, the journey of the heroes and villains, it’s all a western set in space. So, let me ask that question once again: why do you think storytellers are still exploring the genre?
The answer to that question is simple and will let us go directly to Godless: its political background and the opportunity it provides to explore contemporary events, as well as issues we face in our everyday life, or at least in the US. The western is the American genre par excellence, and while for many decades it was used as propaganda (Indians and Mexicans represented the Nazis during World War II, and later became the embodiment of communism while the heroes were the ones defeating them), it soon became a media to expose and criticize the internal politics of a country that aimed at becoming the most powerful one, no matter the means to achieve it.
Bearing this in mind, you can see why a story about a western town ruled by women is extremely necessary to discuss a problem that's so relevant nowadays: sexism and abuse. The seven-episode miniseries tells the story of a town in New Mexico where there’s barely any men, since almost all of them were killed in a mining accident. Women, thus, have taken over it and moved on from their tragedy to reconstruct their social structure and politics. Naturally, it all comes crashing down when a gang of outlaws arrives to threaten all they’ve achieved as well as their tranquility. The series, a fight between gender and power, shows our current perception of social hierarchies through a very entertaining plot.
Godless not only uses the nature of the western to talk about our present society, but also questions and revolutionizes the genre from within, just as the violent subgenre, Spaghetti western, did during the sixties. By doing so, it shows heroes aren't pure and morally superior, like the characters John Wayne played. In that way, the fact that a generally masculine and patriarchal genre switches the gender structure is something we really need to look up to, especially now, when issues about power abuse are still relevant.
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