September 21, 2008
Sarah Palin and the Archetype of the American FrontierswomanBy J.R. Dunn
Now that the early hysteria has died down, the legacy media is moving into the second phase of their assault against Sarah Palin: sometimes regretful, but stern (often mocking) disapproval over her enormous and un-ignorable shortcomings. We'll know we've reached phase three -- "Palin's moment is over" when they dig up a few rogue "Republicans" to express "second thoughts". According to Jon Friedman, the media is simply going to close their eyes to Palin until she goes away.)
But none of it will stick any more than the savage first-stage attacks stuck. Palin will see it through because of her courage, her intelligence, and her steadfastness, but also because she's Maureen O'Hara.
Maureen O'Hara is not particularly a household name anymore. An actress of the golden age of Hollywood, she's still around today, at close to ninety. She's said to remain a striking figure, and is still quite active -- a few years ago she was grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick's day parade.
She was born just outside of Dublin, and as a girl learned judo and fencing along with playing soccer -- unusual for the 1920s, doubly so for socially backward Ireland. In the late 1930s, she arrived in the U.S. already an experienced actress.
O'Hara was noted for her appearances opposite John Wayne. She starred in a number of films directed by John Ford (who chose her as one of the few actresses who could convincingly stand up to Wayne), and many more by other directors. She played a number of different roles but there was one in particular that she embodied to perfection, and that was the frontier woman.
We have a clear image of what the frontier woman was like. Stalwart, stoic, tough, capable, but at the same time remaining feminine, deferring to the man but defying him when necessary. A number of actresses have done well in this kind of role -- Barbara Stanwyck and Joanne Dru, to mention two. But O'Hara did more than play the role, she inhabited it, setting the archetype in her own image, and in the process becoming something of an icon herself.
(It goes without saying that this archetype represents the ideal. The image of the frontier woman also encompasses the figure of Verna Bloom in The Hired Hand, waiting endlessly on her rickety front porch for the husband who will never return.)
When Sarah Palin appeared on the national stage, she was stepping into an archetype that already existed. In personality, looks, and behavior she resembled nothing less than our cultural image of the frontier woman. She was something out of history -- something that we already knew, were quite familiar with, and strongly approve of. But at the same time it's true that few people living (and those very aged) have ever met a frontier woman of the original breed. Our archetype comes from somewhere else. It comes, in fact from the movies. And in large part, from Maureen O'Hara.
While Palin looks nothing like O'Hara (who was a redhead, just for starters), the gestalt -- the overall picture -- is strikingly similar. The same strong features, the same sense of character, the same way of holding themselves. They even have the same powerful jawline that would look masculine on a less feminine woman.
The importance of the frontier woman cannot be overrated, because it was the women, in the end, who broke the frontier. Mountain men and related types had been traversing the wilderness for decades before the Westward Migration got rolling, without leaving behind as much as a scratch on the landscape. It was the women -- and their families -- who made the land bend, who brought with them a sense of permanency, who civilized the frontier. Where men went, they created forts and outposts. When women followed, they established settlements and towns.
These women were what Florence King calls "viragoes" -- not in the accepted sense of the nag, but in the original sense of the woman who is strong in and of herself. King argues for the virago as being the true model for modern women, as opposed the whiney and vindictive quintessentially urban radfem.
We could do far worse than O'Hara (or Palin) as our prototype for the modern virago. (There's a Spanish term that covers similar ground, "hembra", meaning the same in the female sense as "macho" does for the male. Why the term never caught on in this country I leave to speculation by the reader.)
Such women are no rarity. They exist all over the country. We could all come up with a list of our own. Mine includes the woman who assisted her adolescent child in recovering from an emotional breakdown while she herself was recovering from cancer, the woman who has steadily home-schooled all her children, sending them to places like Yale, and has just seen her eldest son off to wars against the Jihadis, and the woman who kept together a family and established a career after her weak husband succumbed to drug addiction. (We could also add Maureen O'Hara herself to this list. When her husband, pilot Charles Blair, died in a plane crash in 1978, she took over the operation of his commuter airline, Antilles, becoming the first American woman to run an airline.)
The frontier was supposed to have "closed" by 1900, when no area existed in the continental United States that remained unsurveyed, unsettled, or untrod. That was undoubtedly the case in the real world. But in the American psyche, it's another story. There, the frontier will never be closed -- it survives as a living reality. The Westward Migration is this country's Odyssey, in the same way that the Civil War is its Iliad. What the road west implanted in our character remains, for good or ill, and is likely to remain for as long as there is an America.
That is why Sarah Palin will prove immune to attacks by the legacy media, no matter what form they may take. Palin reflects an ideal - an aspect of our best selves burned into history and made a permanent part of us all. In Palin they have come up against an archetype, a facet of the American character. This is not something you run into every day, not something the media has much experience with, and something that they will discover is not at all vulnerable to the techniques they're used to.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.