A director friend of mine was making a Western when we met, but I had
to admit that Westerns had never much appealed to me. When I was a kid, they
were on TV every Saturday, and my genuine assumption was that they were
programmed in order to make kids go out and play. So it was surprising, as an
adult, to discover that people really love Westerns. Not for nostalgia. Not
because they’re somehow culturally significant and were formative in the canon.
But because they enjoy them. For fun. My friend, for one, loves them almost
unreservedly. So, having actively avoided Westerns all my life, at the grand
old age of 33, I decided to watch some.
It turns out, they are pretty terrific. The Searchers, High Noon, Liberty
Valance, Once Upon A Time in the West, the first Django, Rio Bravo… all ace — brilliant movies. But what really struck me (apart from the epic vistas, moral
dilemmas, and battles-to-the-death) is how functionally and formally resonant
they are of Greek tragedy. Defining social space and engagement, identifying
and testing the enemy and the law, conquering the desert, the alien, the
unknown. Evidently Westerns, like the Tragedies, work as primal socialization
narratives. Informing a society and its people who and how to be.
In that context, naturally, a delineation of gender and of gendered ‘space’
is active: per the Greeks, the oikos (interior, domestic, feminine
space) and polis (exterior, political, masculine space) — so in
Westerns: the men go on epic quests to defend and return to their female-housing
homesteads. Which observation makes it obvious exactly why I couldn’t watch
Westerns as a kid. Because the girls in those stories are stuck indoors while
the big adventures and wide open horizons are all outside. So the big
adventures didn’t belong to me. My place as a girl in this world — these narratives informed me — is being stuck in airless rooms, in dusty, shadowy, soap-sudded
dungeons. Trapped, whether conceptually, visually or actually — waiting to be
returned for or abandoned, rescued, desired, raped, married, abused or spoken
for by men.
No wonder my instinct as a little girl was to turn the TV off and go
outside to play. “I” was not the hero of the story, capable of courage and
adventure — “I” was pathetic. Powerless, irrelevant and trapped. Why would
anyone want to spend their Saturday being that?
What happens, of course, is that little girls grow up. Without even
noticing, I stopped being restricted only to narratives where “someone like me” was at the center. I learned to assimilate with other protagonists, to travel
inside different skin — male, female, gay, straight, black, white and every
color in between. As I grew up and devoured all kinds of movies and books, I
learned to see myself in “the other,” and the other in me. I learned to develop
I always assumed this was a uniform process — something everyone does as
they grow. But what if it isn’t? What if we’re informed by a broad culture
where almost all of our collective narratives feature white, male, straight
protagonists? What if, because of a lack of exposure to heroes who do not “look
like me” — a broad white, male and straight audience never really has the
opportunity/necessity to experience and acquire the ability to travel with “the
other”? What if the stereotypical white male “empathy deficiency” is not at all
innate — it’s a social distinction engendered by the stories we tell?
As the continued success of movies which fail Bechdel test shows, if you’re
not male (and I would add to that also white or straight), over time you learn
how to associate with heroes who both are and are not “like you.” You don’t
even notice that you’re doing it. You learn to be both victim and villain, both
helper and leader, both opponent and hero.
But if you are white, straight and male — perhaps you only ever
learn to be the protagonist. You learn that you should be the hero of every
So, if white, straight males grow up with this expectation — then what does
that mean about their attitude towards characters who are “not like them”? The
tectonics of narrative would imply that such “non-protagonists” absolutely should
take on the supporting roles, or accept that they will be in opposition.
I wonder what it means about industry attitudes towards filmmakers who
don’t look white and male — is there subconsciously the idea that they really should
be in support roles? Or, if they want to take a central lead, does that make
them somehow a threat to the status quo?
more on this in a long-read open paper at my Tumblr, including a look at the surprising protagonist antics of films like
Skyfall, Django Unchained and Hitchcock’s Stagefright. The paper also considers
successful examples of non-male or non-white heroic narratives. As a female
director and writer, it feels somewhat crucial to get a handle on these
mechanics both creatively and pragmatically — as a storyteller, and as a member
of this industry. Increasingly it seems likely that those dynamics on- and
off-screen may well be closely related.
Ultimately, if Westerns and Greek tragedy operate on the same basis as the
big movies we make now (as the Bechdel test suggests), and we are all still
being subconsciously socialized through those cultural narratives, it might be
worth considering that Greek society held out no rights at all to women or
Or maybe I’m reading too much into it – because hey, folks – they’re only
Debs Paterson is a director and writer whose dramatic
debut Africa United was made by Pathe, the BFI and BBC Films. She was
nominated for best directorial debut at the British Independent Film Awards and was named one of BAFTA’s Brits To Watch. The above is an extract from her open paper “Protagonists and Empathy at the Movies.”