Debs Paterson on the set of "Africa United"
Debs Paterson on the set of "Africa United"

A director friend of mine was making a Western when we met, but I had to admit that Westerns had never much appealed to me. When I was a kid, they were on TV every Saturday, and my genuine assumption was that they were programmed in order to make kids go out and play. So it was surprising, as an adult, to discover that people really love Westerns. Not for nostalgia. Not because they're somehow culturally significant and were formative in the canon. But because they enjoy them. For fun. My friend, for one, loves them almost unreservedly. So, having actively avoided Westerns all my life, at the grand old age of 33, I decided to watch some.

It turns out, they are pretty terrific. The Searchers, High Noon, Liberty Valance, Once Upon A Time in the West, the first Django, Rio Bravo... all ace -- brilliant movies. But what really struck me (apart from the epic vistas, moral dilemmas, and battles-to-the-death) is how functionally and formally resonant they are of Greek tragedy. Defining social space and engagement, identifying and testing the enemy and the law, conquering the desert, the alien, the unknown. Evidently Westerns, like the Tragedies, work as primal socialization narratives. Informing a society and its people who and how to be.

In that context, naturally, a delineation of gender and of gendered 'space' is active: per the Greeks, the oikos (interior, domestic, feminine space) and polis (exterior, political, masculine space) -- so in Westerns: the men go on epic quests to defend and return to their female-housing homesteads. Which observation makes it obvious exactly why I couldn't watch Westerns as a kid. Because the girls in those stories are stuck indoors while the big adventures and wide open horizons are all outside. So the big adventures didn't belong to me. My place as a girl in this world -- these narratives informed me -- is being stuck in airless rooms, in dusty, shadowy, soap-sudded dungeons. Trapped, whether conceptually, visually or actually -- waiting to be returned for or abandoned, rescued, desired, raped, married, abused or spoken for by men.

No wonder my instinct as a little girl was to turn the TV off and go outside to play. "I" was not the hero of the story, capable of courage and adventure -- "I" was pathetic. Powerless, irrelevant and trapped. Why would anyone want to spend their Saturday being that?

What happens, of course, is that little girls grow up. Without even noticing, I stopped being restricted only to narratives where "someone like me" was at the center. I learned to assimilate with other protagonists, to travel inside different skin -- male, female, gay, straight, black, white and every color in between. As I grew up and devoured all kinds of movies and books, I learned to see myself in "the other," and the other in me. I learned to develop empathy.

I always assumed this was a uniform process -- something everyone does as they grow. But what if it isn’t? What if we’re informed by a broad culture where almost all of our collective narratives feature white, male, straight protagonists? What if, because of a lack of exposure to heroes who do not "look like me" -- a broad white, male and straight audience never really has the opportunity/necessity to experience and acquire the ability to travel with "the other"? What if the stereotypical white male "empathy deficiency" is not at all innate -- it’s a social distinction engendered by the stories we tell?

As the continued success of movies which fail Bechdel test shows, if you're not male (and I would add to that also white or straight), over time you learn how to associate with heroes who both are and are not "like you." You don’t even notice that you’re doing it. You learn to be both victim and villain, both helper and leader, both opponent and hero.

But if you are white, straight and male -- perhaps you only ever learn to be the protagonist. You learn that you should be the hero of every story. 

So, if white, straight males grow up with this expectation -- then what does that mean about their attitude towards characters who are "not like them"? The tectonics of narrative would imply that such "non-protagonists" absolutely should take on the supporting roles, or accept that they will be in opposition.

I wonder what it means about industry attitudes towards filmmakers who don’t look white and male -- is there subconsciously the idea that they really should be in support roles? Or, if they want to take a central lead, does that make them somehow a threat to the status quo? 

There is more on this in a long-read open paper at my Tumblr, including a look at the surprising protagonist antics of films like Skyfall, Django Unchained and Hitchcock’s Stagefright. The paper also considers successful examples of non-male or non-white heroic narratives. As a female director and writer, it feels somewhat crucial to get a handle on these mechanics both creatively and pragmatically -- as a storyteller, and as a member of this industry. Increasingly it seems likely that those dynamics on- and off-screen may well be closely related.

Ultimately, if Westerns and Greek tragedy operate on the same basis as the big movies we make now (as the Bechdel test suggests), and we are all still being subconsciously socialized through those cultural narratives, it might be worth considering that Greek society held out no rights at all to women or non-citizen males.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it – because hey, folks – they’re only movies.

Debs Paterson is a director and writer whose dramatic debut Africa United was made by Pathe, the BFI and BBC Films. She was nominated for best directorial debut at the British Independent Film Awards and was named one of BAFTA's Brits To Watch. The above is an extract from her open paper "Protagonists and Empathy at the Movies."