Netflix cowboys, liberty and bourgeois virtues
Beau Bennett, one of the principal characters in the new Netflix sitcom “The Ranch,” is a trail-hardened cowboy who believes in getting up before dawn and working until dark. He also believes that the moon landings were faked, that the blinking lights in the sky are NSA satellites watching our every movement, and he’s suspicious about beeping cellphones, electronic hotel key cards and the Internet (“Where are you going to get a gun when the North Koreans invade? From Amazon?”).
We sense that, even though Beau’s wry observations and deadpan delivery prompt a good share of the sitcom’s laughs, the viewers are probably laughing at, and not with him.
But Beau’s diligence, toughness, tenacity and independence (not to mention his deep skepticism of government control and surveillance) are essential to one of the greatest of all American icons—the cowboy of the early frontier. Not only did the cowboy represent a kind of mental and physical toughness, but he was also emblematic of personal freedom. In many ways, the stories and films about cowboys, ranchers, and drifters are stories about the experience of freedom in its most elemental form—freedom from government constraint and regulation.
Fifty years ago, Beau Bennett would have been a stock character in the relatively new genre of the American sitcom, where westerns played a major role (Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Bonanza are some of the longest-running sitcoms in history). In recent decades, however, the television sitcom (reflecting the massive shift towards urban life) has tended towards characters, sets and issues drawn from the city (Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers). And so Beau Bennett stands out amidst a wide array of urban semi-professionals, slackers and nerds, most of whom seem to have an astonishing amount of free time to hang out in bars, diners or living room couches, speculating about relationships, quirky fashion problems or office politics.
By contrast, Beau’s trademark is walking through a room on the way to a long day of ranching work, barely taking time to comment on the base preoccupations of his knuckleheaded sons.
One doesn’t go to sitcoms as a guide to virtuous behaviour, but the shift in sitcom settings prompts speculation about the evolution of virtues and how different environments demand different qualities of character. The ancient virtues (justice, temperance, courage and prudence) map well onto those of the frontier cowboy.
One of the interesting tensions in the classic western story revolves around how the isolated cowboy attempts to reconcile his independence and commitment to freedom with friendship, compassion and loyalty (accommodating the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love). We see this repeatedly in the novels of Louis L’Amour, who was perhaps the most prolific and best-selling western writer of all time. L’Amour’s heroes repeatedly speculate about the lives they lead—lives that demand physical and mental toughness—and compare those qualities with the sophistication, refinement and cleanliness demanded of a man living in a home with a woman.
But it isn’t only manners that need to change if the cowboy is going to enter so-called civilized, modern, commercial society, but his understanding of the qualities required to be successful in that new world.
As Dierdre McCloskey (The Bourgeois Virtues) and others have convincingly argued, the development of extended urban markets, international trade and rise of a merchant class promoted a reinterpretation of the classical and Christian virtues, and the introduction of additional values (frugality, honesty, punctuality) relevant to new social and economic contexts.
Those laughing at Beau Bennett in “The Ranch” perhaps do not appreciate the fact that the modern world (a world with tractors, televisions and modern appliances) was made possible by the hard-won successes of characters that Bennett is meant to represent.
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