unit six
Mythologizing Masculinity



professor's outline & study guide for wright's essay on the structure of myth and the structure of the western film

Overview of Wright's Essay on the Western:
Wright Draws on Saussure (semiotics) and Levi-Strauss (anthropology of myth)
a) Task if to discover the underlying "grammar" of myth; the rules and regulations which make it possible for myths to be meaningful.
b) Myths are structured in terms of BINARY OPPOSITIONS, categories that divide the world into MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE categories: culture/nature, man/woman, black/white, good/bad, us/them, etc.
c) Social function of myth: makes the world explicable, magically resolving problems and contradictions.

a) Poststructuralism rejects the (structuralist) notion that meaning is generated and guaranteed by an underlying structure.
b) Meaning , rather, is always a process.
c) The problematic of a text relates as much to what it EXCLUDE as what it INCLUDES.
d) To read a text symptomatically requires DOUBLE READING.
    1. Double reading reads first the MANIFEST TEXT (what is there) and then,
    2. through the lapses, distortions, silences, contradictions, and absences (the symptoms) in the manifest text, reads the LATENT TEXT.

Will Wright, "The Structure of Myth & the Structure of the Western Film" in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture

I.) The Structure of Myth

a) Myth is a communication from a society to its members.
b) Myths communicate a conceptual order c) Myth orders the everyday experiences of its hearers/viewers
d) One reason for exhibiting the structure of myth is to discover its social meaning. e) Myth is never simply the interaction of individuals but rather of social principles represented by the characters.
f) A fight in a myth is never just a conflict of people, but is a conflict of principles.
g) A character in a myth doesn't represent a concept because of any inherent properties of the image, but because of the differences between it and the character opposed to it.
    1. Concepts are defined negatively by their relations with other terms of the system. I am what I am Not. (Hot is defined by being understood in opposition to cold).
    2. Therefore, every symbol divides the world into 2 sets: those things it refers to and those things it does not.
h) The Western, structured in binary oppositions, presents a symbolically simple but deep conceptualization of American social beliefs.
I) The classical Western includes 3 character types: a wandering gun-fighter, a group of homesteaders, and a rancher.
    1. These are presented as pairs of opposites: gunfighter vs. homesteader = individual independence vs. social domesticity; rancher vs. homesteader =selfish monetary values vs. progress and communal values
    2. This structure permits interaction of social types
    3. This structure prohibits the more realistic and tragic situation of all 3 characters being equally good, equally domestic, and equally opposed.
j) To understand social meaning of a myth, must analyze:
    1. Binary structure-axes of opposition
    2. Narrative structure-progression of events and resolution of conflicts

II.) The Structure of the Western Film

a) The Classical Western Plot: The story of a lone stranger who rides into a troubled town and cleans it up, winning the respect of the townsfolk and the love of the schoolmarm.
b) Shane-summary and production information
c) Each film is the story of the hero who is somehow estranged from his society but on whose ability rests the fate of that society. The villains threaten the society until the hero acts to protect and save it.
d) Three CHARACTER SETS/TYPES in Classical Western: the hero, the society , and the villains.

e) 16 functions of the NARRATIVE STRUCTURE of the Classical Western:
    1. The hero enters a social group.
    2. The hero is unknown to the society.
    3. The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.
    4. The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.
    5. The society does not completely accept the hero.
    6. There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.
    7. The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.
    8. There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.
    9. The villains threaten the society.
  10. The hero avoids involvement in the conflict.
  11. The villains endanger a friend of the hero.
  12. The hero fights the villains.
  13. The hero defeats the villains.
  14. The society is safe.
  15. The society accepts the hero.
  16. The hero loses or gives up his special status.

f) Four oppositions structure and are symbolically coded by the film:
    1. inside/outside opposition
    2. good/bad opposition
      A) as social vs. selfish motives
      B) as nice vs. not-nice
    3. strong/weak opposition
    4. wilderness/civilization opposition
      A) Definition of civilization: having a concern with the money, tools, and products of American culture; West vs. East distinction

g) Hero is the only character who is both good AND strong (Society seen as weak). Opposition 4 (wilderness vs. civilization) makes this possible. Because hero is associated with wilderness, all other characters (even villains) are associated with civilization.