The most intriguing concept that Willis introduces in his article is the linkage between ideal manliness and Manifest Destiny. Willis describes a particular scene in Red River, the movie that made Wayne a superstar in 1948, in which Wayne fluidly turns to down his challenger and regains his stride. He ends this description with "Here was Manifest Destiny on the hoof" (Willis 17). Although I did think that was a stretch, the idea is interesting. Willis also claims that Wayne "stood for an America people felt was disappearing or had disappeared, for a time when "men were men"" (Willis 14). Therefore, Wayne's image does not just stand for ideal masculinity, but also a larger national identity. Except, this country is built by both men and women, correct?
Intuitively, this concept makes sense, considering the fact that America is historically a sexist country. If we examine the foundations of America in terms of history, there are the Founding Fathers, not mothers. We think of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin when it comes to science; Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald for literature; presidents...not a single female.
The ideal is also racist by nature, considering the notion of the new frontier, a concept that the Western embraces. In Willis' words, the Western deals with "taming the west," which often involves taming the native Americans in the west (Willis 17). The premise of the Western puts native American and other minority characters on the fringes, casting them as one-dimensional, subhuman villains. It is clear that the Western is a predominantly white genre.
For the above reasons, I kept asking myself, if we did the survey in the beginning of Willis' article today, would Wayne still come up on top? Because if he did, we would be embracing a figure that represents aspects of the sexism and racism in this country. In today's politically correct culture, this seems unlikely. To be clear, I am not claiming that John Wayne is himself a racist or sexist, I am merely arguing that in linking his image to ideal masculinity and national identity, we accept racism and sexism as part of America's identity.
So, have we moved on from this notion of "Wayne's America" that Willis describes? When we think of today's cinematic icons, no one even comes close to Wayne's stature. For one, the Western vanished as a viable genre. Second, the icons today embrace more nuanced and complex identities. An example would be arguably today's biggest star, Leonardo DiCaprio. He is widely discussed as perhaps the most versatile actor of his generation in terms of range (something Wayne did not have); earlier in his career, Leo was described as having a 'pretty face,' an effeminate quality. The point is, he is the furthest thing from Wayne. He even stars as a fur trapper, Hugh Glass, who has a native american wife and son in The Revenant (2015), a role that Wayne would have readily refused.
Willis' conclusion cautioned that although many of us would like to renounce or discredit Wayne's influence on our culture, it still has impact on our national identity. I'm sure that the many concepts of what it means to be a man still take roots in Wayne's indomitable image, but manhood's connection to national identity is becoming less and less clear and direct. Coming from a foreign country, I have maintained that the greatness of America has nothing to do with "air of invincibility" that Wayne embodies; it has everything to do with the multiplicity and complexity of the cultures, ethnic and national origins, social classes and the ideal of democracy. Especially in today's cinema, in which the ultra alpha, invincible, male protagonist has almost disappeared in favor for more nuanced and flawed heroes like Hugh Glass, I believe John Wayne would not stand as a popular icon.