The Politically Incorrect West

John Erickson reflects on the media’s changes to Western stories.
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western-life

In 1984, I received a phone call from a man who worked for a major television network. He said they wanted to turn my first Hank the Cowdog book into a 30-minute animated cartoon. He said, “We love this story.”

That made me proud. I had self-published the book in my garage after collecting rejection slips for 15 years. It was an innocent, funny story about a ranch family and their dog, but it also gave an accurate, loving description of life and work on a typical cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle during the decade of the Seventies.

I had gone to a lot of trouble to capture the details of Hank’s little world, drawing on memories from the seven years I’d spent working on ranches in Texas and Oklahoma. I felt it would make a beautiful cartoon about a piece of America that was close to my heart. 

When the Hank program aired on national television in May 1985, I was mostly pleased with the animation and the voice talent, but puzzled by some changes they had made to my story.

First, they had altered the location. The Texas Panhandle had morphed into a postcard panorama of Monument Valley. Second, the family (husband, wife, two kids) had vanished. Sally May, the ranch wife in my books, had become the boss, and she and two hired hands were living together in the same house—no wedding rings, no children. It seemed an odd arrangement to be putting into a family-friendly Saturday morning time slot. And third, there were no cattle. The ranch had become “El Pollo Loco,” a chicken farm.

The network had erased three important motifs that were embedded in my story: a powerful sense of place, a husband and wife working together for a common purpose, and the tradition of cattle ranching that had been in my family since 1859. 

It took me a while to figure out the obvious, that there are people in the entertainment business whose decisions are driven by ideology, not by experience or artistic judgment. And some of those people just don’t like the West I was describing—which I knew to the bone; which they might have seen through an airplane window at 30,000 feet.

They don’t like the history of the frontier. They don’t like cattle or beef. They don’t like people who pray before a meal. They don’t approve of anyone who might spur a horse or rope a calf, and they sure don’t approve of women who stay home to raise their children. Maybe they don’t approve of marriage either.

So they made my West what they thought it should be: two single adult pseudo-cowboy males, working for a single adult female in Western clothes, sharing a house and herding chickens ahorseback in the middle of a desert.

Gee, what would they have done if they hadn’t loved my story?

Some people will never love the West, and that’s okay, but I wish they wouldn’t make it so difficult for those of us in fly-over country to tell good, honest stories and deliver them to the people who need them.

Political correctness is a form of censorship. It produces bad art based on ignorance, prejudice, shoddy research, and synthetic emotions. It poisons beauty and truth. One of the things we admire in the work of Charlie Russell and Elmer Kelton is that they didn’t do it that way. 

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