A couple of weeks ago I watched my way through the first season of Bonanza, a TV western that I had watched in my youth. As some of you may know, it was one of the most popular shows on television at the time and ran for 14 seasons from 1959 to 1973. It was set in Nevada in the 1860s and centered on the Cartwright family, father Ben and his three adult male sons, proprietors of the Ponderosa, a large cattle ranch bordering on lake Tahoe and near Virginia City, a mining town.
This post consists of two casual notes about the show. The first concerns sexual violence against women and the second is about the structure of (political) power.
Rape in the Old West
After I’d watched about a dozen episodes a thought struck me: there’s a lot of sexual violence against women in this show. That thought stayed with me to the end of the season, 34 episodes. I wasn’t taking notes or keeping count but I’d say that half the episodes depicted sexual violence.
What do I mean? As I said, I wasn’t keeping notes, but typically a man would embrace a woman and try to kiss her. She would resist but he wouldn’t stop. At this point either the camera would cut away, leaving us to imagine what happened next, or a Good Guy, such as one of the Cartwrights, would come along and rescue the woman. The violence wasn’t nearly as graphic as we’d see on Deadwood, set in a similar place a decade later, but then Deadwood wasn’t made for a family audience watching on primetime network television back in the day when network television was much more important than it is now. Bonanza WAS made for a family audience.
Was this typical of primetime television back in the 1960s? I don’t know, but I suspect it was more common than I remember. Was this typical of westerns? I don’t know.
I know that it is not typical of The West Wing, a more recent and very different television show that I’m now watching. As you may know The West Wing is a political drama set in the west wing of the White House, which contains offices for the President, Vice President, and high-level staffers. While sexual violence comes up as a topic every now and then, the show doesn’t have a lot of scenes where a man forces himself on a woman. In fact I cannot think of one such scene off hand, and I’ve been through the whole run of the show.
Why then is it so common in Bonanza? Westerns are typically set in a world where the rule of law is tenuous. Westerns are about violence: cattle rustling, disputes over land, conflicts with Indians (aka Native Americans), bank robbery and other forms of theft, and, in the case of Bonanza, rape. What about other TV Westerns? I don’t know off hand; though I watched many TV Westerns when I was young, I don’t recall many of them.
Whatever the more general case, the first season of Bonanza was concerned about sexual violence against women. In some cases the women were saloon girls, prostitutes I (now) assume, though that was certainly not explicit (unlike Deadwood). In other cases the women were married or simply single; in one episode two Indian women were raped at a trading post.
Were the other 13 seasons like this? I don’t know and I don’t intend to watch them. It would be interesting to know, though.
Father Knows Best
As I indicated at the outset, the show centers on the Cartwright family, consisting of middle-aged patriarch Ben and his three adult sons, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe (in order of age, oldest to youngest). Ben was a widower three times over, one wife for each of his sons. There were no women in the household though, depending on how you think about these things, you might be inclined to think that the Chinese cook was feminized. He was a cook, which is a female occupation, and he tended to get irate – hysterical? – over minor matters, such as being late for dinner. Comic relief, yes, but in a way that’s explicitly different from the overall tenor of this male household.
Though it seemed “natural” enough at the time, it is a bit odd. And it’s an oddity that was in part responsible for Pernell Roberts, who played the oldest son, Adam, leaving the show:
Roberts disdained the assembly-line mindset of serial television (a rigid 34 episode season), and fought with series writers regarding Adam's lack of independence, noting that his 30-plus year old character was dependent on his “Pa’s” approval. Despite the show's success, Roberts departed the series after the 1964–65 season (202 episodes) and returned to stage productions.
Let me suggest that the point of this odd arrangement is to highlight male authority over other males. These are all adult men, but Ben has authority over the other three, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe, because he is indisputably the father.
In turn, the ‘bucolic’ Ponderosa exercises informal moral authority over the nearby ‘sinful’ city, Virginia City, which was a mining town. This is, after all, the Wild West, where the rule of law was weak. The sheriff was depicted as weak and, at times, cowardly (this was before the show had acquired a regular sheriff). There were times when the sheriff depended on help from the Cartwrights. So, Ben exercises undisputed paternal authority over his three sons at the ranch and the Cartwright family in turn exercises informal paternalistic moral authority over the nearby city.
This structure comes into sharp relive in episode 24, “The Stranger.” The Nevada Territory has begun moving toward statehood and Ben is being groomed as governor, a position that would give him explicit political authority over the whole territory. A stranger, Charles LaDuque, comes into town looking for Ben. He’s a retired police detective from New Orleans, which is where Ben was living when he married Marie, his third wife, who is now buried on the Ponderosa.
The exact circumstances are not all that complicated – you can read them in the plot summary at IMDB – but there was some shady business in New Orleans and, while Ben came out clean, well, maybe it is a little complicated. Rather than have LeDuque tell the story, Ben decides to bow out of the governorship. He explains:
When Ben tries to explain to the boys why he withdrew, Joe knows he's not telling them everything. Ben simply says that he loved Marie and she took Adam and Hoss as her own. But LaRouche came into their lives and threatened to expose Marie. Joe wants to know what he could reveal. Ben tries to sidestep the issue, but Joe is insistant. Ben only says that LaRouche wanted to ruin Marie’s reputation. What she did or did not do in her past was of no importance to him. He loved her and she was a wonderful person. But Marie didn't want to bring scandal to her family, so she paid LaRouche's blackmail until Ben found out. He confronted LaRouche. There was a fight, LaRouche pulled a knife and Ben killed him.
The charges had been dropped, though LeDuque was trying to pretend other others. But that's not the issue.
Just what is it about Marie’s past that was so scandalous? Was her family poor, from the wrong side of the tracks? In an earlier episode we’d learned that she had Creole blood – something, we assume, that had been public knowledge. Or had she been a prostitute? Why would good Ben Cartwright turn his back on a governorship, with its authority over all of Nevada, in order to silence this story. We’re not told. We’re left to guess.
I’m guessing she was a prostitute. Well, not quite. It’s more that, if you’re inclined to think about it, you’re going to have to consider the possibility that she’d been a prostitute. The show doesn’t give you evidence either to accept or reject that as a conclusion, but you do have to think about it. That’s the point; you have to think about it.
Whatever it is that’s bothering this show about female sexuality, it’s now come crashing down on Ben Cartwright and forced him to limit his ambitions. There’s no rape or attempted rape in this episode, but problematic sexuality is lurking in the shadows. Working out a reasonable account of the show’s myth logic of sexuality and authority is more than I want to attempt here and now. But it’s in play.
If you want to think about it, start with episode 6, “The Julia Bulette Story”, in which Little Joe falls in love with an older woman who runs a saloon. This is the episode where we learn that his mother had been a Creole. Then start working your way through the whole season. Keep careful notes on the relations between men and women and on matters of legitimacy, both informal (custom, common understanding) and formal, as defined by law. It has the smell of an interesting story.