The movies, tv shows, and narrative that filled our world, as children, shaped our image of the world; I assumed, during my middle school years, that high-school revolved around losing your virginity, constant partying, spontaneous dance numbers, and someone would be working diligently to turn a girl with a ponytail, glasses, and paint-stained overalls into the most most popular girl in school. Living in a world that tied our manhood to our penises created a generation that misrepresented the importance of sex; instead of being a place of communion and love it became conquest and identity securing.
Every generation has their myths, and Joan Didion, in Slouching towards Bethlehem, speaks on the myths that were propagated due to the 165 movies starring John Wayne, she says, “We dream of an America that may or may not have existed. I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. As it happened, I didn’t grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I want to hear.”
John Wayne, like many of the celebrities we worship today is raised to a mythic status; representing the quintessential personification of stoic masculinity no man would ever match the image of John Wayne. She mention watching him die from “The Big C”, and his death representing the end of an illusion; she never pictured the man that landed planes with one engine, and carried heroines to safety could ever be conquered by “that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases.” An illusion, John Wayne or an image of masculinity, collapsed before Joan as all illusions eventually must, sudden and unprepared. When I was growing up, I believe, this happened to every young man that placed his faith in sex saving him, and when we would wake up with the same fears, anxieties, history, and there was no separation between us and our old selves it created a certain loneliness. We are suddenly thrown off from our expectations, and unable, ignorant, to settle back into the myth our aloneness only increases. And most of the people I love fought against the collapse of the myth and continue the exasperating attempt to use sex as a anti-depressant. We didn’t know the path towards freedom, the adults around us seemed to not know it either, we might not have been able to accept the answers, but some found that an articulation of chaos existed outside illusions. Our stories must attempt to confront the myths and offer spiritual instruction that allows us to embrace our and one another’s complexity.
Our memories become less reliable as we age, and our myths are being constantly challenged; our development is based on our ability to adopt the truth into our lives. Joan captures this eternal truth when she says, “Time brings odd mutations; only through the act of life can we realize the nature of our existence. The passing of John Wayne represented the death of an age that glorified the myths of an imagined country, but on our path to clarity many more myths must be kept from our screens. My personal hero and a fiercely passionate spokesman for truth, my spiritual grandfather and mentor, James Baldwin, during a impassioned speech against William F Buckley, says, “Leaving aside the bloody catalogue of oppression which we are, in one way, too familiar with already. What this does to the subjugated is to destroy his sense of reality,” Baldwin said. “This means, in the case of an American negro, born in that glittering republic. And the moment you were born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone, every face is white, and since you have not seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you! It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”
Our issue is not entirely one of race, but of moral, of storytelling that is heroic, and supporting narratives that teach evolution instead of inflammatory propaganda. Whether white faces or black faces are on the screen matters little compared to the message being spread; while there are people doing great work—- Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Chinonye Chukwu, Nikyatu Jusu– there are narratives continuing to spread illusions. Slouching towards Bethlehem gives a wonderful view of how our image of the world is shaped by the movie we watch.