What Makes a Western a Western?

Recently I’ve been enjoying westerns, and not your traditional westerns. Not Westerns like Lonesome Dove, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or Tombstone. I’ve been watching Trigun, Cowboy Bebop (Link to some actual bebop: link), True Grit (The remake, and yes I’m cheating a bit), No Country for Old Men, and I’ve started my file for Wild Arms. Needless to say, I’ve been on a western kick. But in all of this hype I started to notice something. Even though all of these works are drastically different from each other, they all share a similar feel and the distinction of “Western”. So I asked, the almost childlike question, “What makes a western, a western”?

At first glance, this is a simple question, but upon further inspection it’s a lot more complicated. Like asking “What is truth?”, “What is good?”, or “Who is God?” there is a lot of depth to that question. To even try and begin to answer this question, we need to do some analysis.

First, we need to talk about genres and how “Western” fits into them. There are general genre classifications like action, drama, horror, and comedy; that describe the focus of the narrative and plot. Then there are world descriptive genres such as fantasy, sci-fi, and western. Except Western isn’t like any other world descriptive genre. Most of the world genres describe the world based on capabilities, settings, and technology. Western, on the other hand, describes sets of attitudes, ideologies, personalities, philosophies, and themes in a work.

I say this about Westerns because of the inconsistencies in the style of the works, but the same Western feel occurring throughout all of them. To many, a Western is a simple concept; cowboys, Native Americans, desert(ish) landscapes, outlaws, horses, and revolvers. Except that’s not necessarily true in defining a Western. After all, No Country for Old Men is set in a modern setting, dubbed a Contemporary Western, with almost none of the standard classifications above, but is still considered by virtually everyone to absolutely be a Western. Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, and Outlaw Star are all anime, sci-fi, westerns, but westerns none the less. Wild Arms, the game I mentioned earlier, is a Fantasy Western. Taking into account all of these Westerns, you see the traditional description isn’t reliable.

I’ve gone into detail earlier about what distinguishes “Western” from other genre classifications. As to the specifics of those aspects are, I don’t know what they are. What specific attitudes, ideologies, personalities, philosophies, and themes make a Western, a Western? I asked and restated the question, not because of some impending answer I was going to give you, but because I genuinely don’t know. So… what do you think classifies a western?

Is it the lawlessness and the battle between chaos (evil) and order (good) within that lawlessness?

Is it the small yet large actions of a few individuals in a seemingly huge, indifferent, and harsh world?

Is it the focus on people trying to just survive in a harsh and indifferent world?

Is it the focus on ambitions in the presence of resource scarcity and economic conditions?

Is it the rugged, rough, anything goes, and no fucks attitudes of the people?

Is it the constant monetary battle between self-interest and morality?


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