“Justified” and enlightened sexism
17 April 2010
Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable: “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again.
But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show. Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them. Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist. That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again. It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.
Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment. Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried). Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers.
Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath. In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.
If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with. Instead, he plays with the usual suspects: comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death.
In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene. Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge. He brings this up in the car as they leave.
Raylan: “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office. If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional. I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”
Rachel, smiling wryly: “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?” …
Raylan: “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that. But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”
Rachel: “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line. And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”
Raylan: “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”
Rachel: “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger? That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”
Raylan: “What do I get away with?”
Rachel: “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?” (Raylan smirks. Rachel persists.) “You think I’d get away with that?”
Raylan: “Go on, try it on.” (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might. End of scene.)
See? It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive. Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop. After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control. He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins. Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.
And what happens at the end of the episode? Rachel does try on the cowboy hat. But it doesn’t fit.