Type / Thesis

Cowboys, Myth, Fetishism: The Male Body Spectacle and the Western Imagination in Sam Shepard’s Plays

John-sheng Kuo

Page / 63-90


Since the American western landscape is hardly complete without the image of cowboys, literary works and media that develop the Western themes have therefore constructed different cowboy heroes. Among them, the cowboy icons created by the Hollywood’s Western genre have in many ways conditioned the public perception of the American West. The particularity of their body performances is a coded access to the Western imagination; furthermore, the spectacle of the cowboy bodies projects and affirms the values of the masculine power. Through those valorized and/or romanticized bodies, a norm has been created that testifies to a value structure hidden under the Western narrative surface; they reflect a performative West which is repeated in the dominant discourses.
However, Sam Shepard, the highly acclaimed American playwright, has often transgressed the norm by gothicizing and fetishisizing the bodies of his male characters in order to subvert the Western myth. The present research reexamines the Western landscape projected by Shepard by focusing on the male body spectacle in his plays. This paper further argues that his American west is constructed to articulate his criticism of the American culture and society, rather than to reinforce the national narrative grown out of patriarchal and masculine ideology. From the sterile desert inhabited by grotesque cowboys to the junkyard haunted by male violence, the scene has kept evolving, until the introduction of the female view into the picture finally transforms the desolate landscape. This researcher would point out that Shepard not only resists the conventional Western performance but also proves himself to be neither a sexist nor a masculinist, as some critics have labeled him. On the contrary, he emancipates the western landscape from the dominance of patriarchal force and masculine violence through his revisions of the West.

Keywords : American West, male body, masculinity, fetishism, gothic, performativity
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