Women will probably consider the premises of his films and TV shows and say, “this isn’t for me.” But here’s the thing, Taylor Sheridan uses toxic masculinity as a mere narrative device to explore the flawed, conservative views that characterize particular American subcultures. Whether they are ranchers who need to protect their cattle, Native Americans who want their land back, or cowboys seeking for that ephemeral sense of freedom, these are all human beings who are unable to coexist peacefully. As the old Latin adage goes, “if you want peace, prepare for war.”
However, war seems to be the only thing that the Dutton family has always been good at in and outside their massive ranch in Yellowstone ― America’s most popular TV show of the same name. In this context, a female character such as Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) comes to our attention, showcasing her utter superiority against the vicious issues of men. In fact, she takes the stereotype of a woman in a man’s world and puts an end to it by using life’s strongest weapons ― money and power. As an expert in mergers and acquisitions, she’s perhaps the only unrelenting force capable of preventing the family’s ranch from being exploited by financial groups and land developers.
Taylor Sheridan uses toxic masculinity as a mere narrative device to explore the flawed, conservative views that characterize particular American subcultures
Beth is undoubtedly Yellowstone’s most complex character, and one of the most multi-dimensional female characters we have seen on TV in the recent years. As the patriarch, John Dutton, cleverly puts it, “if your daughter’s riding a horse, no one’s riding her.” And that’s why I invite the viewer to consider the depth of certain stories and characters, rather than focusing on just the setting. Paramount’s Yellowstone is an immersive character study that cannot do without a strong female character like Beth. So, let’s dive into how these strong female archetypes take shape and serve its purpose in a male-driven narrative.
An Unstoppable Television Juggernaut
Yellowstone’s huge success has only skyrocketed over the years with its fifth season premiering last November 13 with a record-breaking 12 million viewers. According to Samba TV, the latest season’s premiere ranked number one in the 2022 scripted show category. The success of the series starring Kevin Costner has also led to the creation of two spinoffs in the last year: 1883, which aired last winter, and 1923, which is coming out in December. A third spinoff, titled 6666 and set in present-day Texas, is also in development and will premiere on the Paramount Network. So, what’s behind this unstoppable television juggernaut?
Well, for starters, it’s safe to say that we are talking about one of the most influential screenwriters alive. Sheridan began his career in acting, appearing in small films and in recurring roles in television series such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Sons of Anarchy. At the age of 40, he decided to leave his acting career behind to write full-time. His first script Sicario (2015) garnered immediate attention for being nominated by the Writers Guild of America as Best Original Screenplay of the year. Then, his screenplay Hell or High Water was also nominated for the Academy Award in 2016.
A year later, when Viacom was preparing to launch a new cable channel that was on the hunt for original shows, Sheridan exhumed a television pilot that was slowly collecting dust on the bottom of his drawer. When the newborn Paramount Network’s execs read Yellowstone for the first time, they knew that was about to be one of their leading assets. While the material had a masculine bias to it, it also showcased a much-feared female lead character ― Beth Dutton. They simply loved it.
Sheridan, however, was aware of the limitations that this television endeavor could involve. They would have probably put him in a writing room filled with a bunch of L.A. kids to write something he felt close to his heart, but they couldn’t fully comprehend. His story had to stay simple, raw and with no frills. That’s why he pumped his chest and told them that he would write alone, in the peace of his Utah home, and they wouldn’t have no part in any of that ― except for assessing the damages every week. Speaking of which, he said it was going to cost them about 90-100 million in total, take it or leave.
The story revolved around the Dutton family and their patriarch, John Dutton, as they fight to protect their Montana ranch (the largest one in the nation) from an Indian reservation and some land developers. The idea was simple, and yet it had enough opposing forces wanting the same thing that it could keep dueling over its never-ending question of morality. Sheridan himself posed the dramatic question of his own show to friend and producer David Glasser: “When you have a kingdom, and you are the king, is there such a thing as morality?” The question was promptly addressed after that pitch, giving Sheridan the key to his own kingdom. Yellowstone, became the first series of 2021, and the most-watched season premiere on cable with 14.7 million viewers across all platforms.
Although his films might be reminiscent of an ancient era in which white men saved the day and women were just beautiful trophies, Taylor Sheridan inexorably tried to return female characters their much-deserved place in Hollywood. We will never know if this is one of the few conditions that those Hollywood execs imposed to this cowboy in order to address the #MeToo movement. However, one thing is certain: in his first three screenwriting efforts (Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River), women had leading roles, yes, but they were acknowledged as a result of just showing up.
If we take a closer look at Sicario, where Emily Blunt’s character is the female lead, we’ll realize that she just comes across a massive drug den by accident, and she’s given an opportunity to work on an off-the-books mission as a consequence of that fortuity. After that, she spends long portions of the narrative trying to figure out the nature of this unspecified mission, but when she gets an opportunity to talk, it’s only to ask questions that are not relevant to the strategy nor to the resolution of the mission. That’s probably why we might remain skeptical in the face of these attempts of making female roles more relevant, dismissing them as simplistic manifestations of awareness in regards to minorities and femininity.
in his first three screenwriting efforts, women had leading roles, yes, but they were acknowledged as a result of just showing up
Yet, we should just try to distance ourselves from this thesis for the simple reason that a character like Beth Dutton came to life in Yellowstone, which is arguably the most regarded creative endeavor by this prolific filmmaker so far. Beth’s character embodies the tension of the entire series by being the most bloodthirsty animal among Wall Street’s wolves, and the most diligent one when it comes to defending her family from the exploiters and the weakness of its own members. As a bomb goes off disfiguring her face, her sense of femininity and her life goal remain intact, making her a role model from the heartland to the coasts, for both women and men, who deemed her as the most fascinating character of this acclaimed television saga.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.