Some comment upon the entirely male perspective of this essay is necessary. In part this derives from one of the major research tools of the author, empathic introspection. Another, more compelling reason for this narrowing of perspectives is the feminist commitment of the author. Understandably, the major focus of feminist criticism has been the representation of women in the discourses of the larger society based upon patriarchal assumptions and uses. The implicit assumption of this criticism has been that men are adequately or usefully represented by such understandings. That is not true. To say that society and its cultural legacy are permeated with sexist conceptions is not to say that the experiences of all men are happily contained in what appears to be the protection of those structures of dominance.
It is important to understand that virtually all men, to varying degrees, are influenced by conventional cultural values that are inevitably infused with the legacy of a pervasive sexism.5 Liberty Valance is clearly regressive if only in the sense that it plays off some of the most traditional masculine postures. That increasing numbers of men are alienated from or unsatisfied by current employments of such a legacy does not derive from their discovery of some truer consciousness of gender. Rather, it derives from the experiences of social life and particularly from the changing ways in which women are experienced.
It is, however, equally important to understand that to a considerable extent the same is true for most females, the same legacy of sexist concepts and values, to varying degrees, permeates the consciousness of women. Consciousness raising is not synonymous with consciousness purification, as one might replace one file with another on a hard disk. Many women continue to be pleasured by being the subject that is the object of another’s desire. The experience of being desired, not unknown to men, can be as pleasuring and confirming as any other configuration of sexual desire.
Though Hallie is not always visible she is a constant presence, if only as the establishing common denominator for the three male archetypes. For Liberty Valance she is the rejecting mother who fills him with reasoned rage; he never gets to eat in her kitchen. For Tom Doniphin she is the consummate audience for a code of honor that need never speak its name. This is why he is helpless in clarifying the question of who in fact shot Liberty Valance earlier; her response to the wounded Ransome Stoddard is so purely an expression of her being that perfect audience that Doniphin cannot speak. (One cannot help but wonder about Hallie: What did she really know? When did she know it?) And, lastly, for Stoddard, Hallie is the Cinderella of populist mythology: the re-invigorating of the civilized but ef fete WASP from the East as he encounters the challenges of the frontier by winning the hand, if not wholly the heart, of a woman with the practical intelligence of worthy immigrant stock and a weakness for language and cultivated roses.
For each of the three, there are complementary gestures by Hallie, though gestures that signify differently for her. What for Valance is the rejecting mother is for Hallie an expression of a determination to take charge of her own life, as she has already taken charge of the lives of her immigrant parents and even to ordering the apron-wearing Ransome Stoddard into the encounter over who was going to get, as it were, Hallie’s steak.6 It is her very strength of character that takes Hallie to the limits of conventional female roles, a potential transgression that highlights her ultimate submission to a male worthy of her strengths. The significant choice between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, a choice between the gun and the book, the desert rose and the cultivated rose, is inadequately resolved with the illusion that Stewart, in appearing to have killed Liberty Valance, can claim possession of both gun and book, of both nature and civilization.
The choice for women is different, but not vastly different than choices of men. Though trained to different configurations of desire, the choice between the passionate and the prudent is imposed upon both as part of the logic of social life. Long before his public confession, Stoddard must have made it known to Hallie that the gun he possessed was an unused and unusable one. If males viewing Liberty Valance are pleasured by a reliving and reconfirming of earlier choices that have left residues of ambivalence and suggestions of self-betrayal, so are many women viewers. In many ways the ambivalence must run deeper for women. The mythic idealizations for men were rehearsed in what were essentially games of make-believe, while for women they were rehearsals for life.
Perhaps it is in the very nature of myths, as representations of a social order’s important idealizations, that they offer more than most can or should realize in everyday social life. Their capacity for pleasure may rest in allowing us to affirm what we are not, cannot be, and in many instances do not really want to become. Myth is more often a consoling apology than the blueprint for some social imperative.