Modern Masculinity In Red Dead Redemption 2’s Old West

How Arthur Morgan’s Vulnerability Is His Biggest Strength

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Stacey Henley can often be found wandering new lands, exploring vast terrains and journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. In real life, she normally stays home. Follow the author on Twitter

By virtue of its thematic setting, Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, 2018; hereafter RDR2) is inherently anachronistic, in that video games are typically thought of as cutting-edge media technologies, while the Western genre has a more historical appeal. Not only historical in that the game takes place in 1899, but in that Western movies and TV shows had their boom in 1950s-1960s with a post-war “injection of violence” (Cook, 1999, p. 134) into popular media. The Western genre has in fact had several bursts of popularity, with a rich literary history beginning when the frontier still existed in the late 1800s. Red Dead Redemption (hereafter RDR), while not the first Western video game—Wild Arms, Call Of Juarez and RDR’s spiritual predecessor Red Dead Revolver all came first—was the first Western video game to have such a significant cultural impact.

With the Western genre’s peak having passed, RDR2’s record breaking sales ($725 million in three days) become even more impressive. Though no doubt aided by the quality of RDR, it outsold its predecessor in just 12 days, suggesting the game’s quality, rather than franchise or genre, were the biggest selling point. This quality comes from how it raises very modern ideas and concerns, being described as having “taken the Western genre into the 21st Century” (Hoffmann, 2019, p. 1) through the way it uses the Western backdrop for its more contemporary narrative. In this essay, I will demonstrate how the game’s lead character, Arthur Morgan, is crucial to  modernizing the genre. Specifically, I will discuss how his personal development can be read as a metaphor for the evolution, or even maturation, of the game’s highly controversial developers, Rockstar Games, and the portrayal of masculinity in video games in general.

The idea that “new media are often heavily reliant on repackaged older media content” (Cornford & Robins, 1999, p. 172) applies here, with Rockstar building Arthur as a stock Western masculine hero before adding his more modern vulnerability. Arthur’s default appearance is a man with unkempt hair, thick stubble, and a black Stetson, giving strong connotations of ruggedness.

Arthur Morgan’s default look. Credit: Rockstar Studios.

Arthur Morgan’s default look. Credit: Rockstar Studios.

This appearance, combined with his barrel chest and history of violence, makes Arthur a symbol of idealized, normative hyper-masculinity—the embodiment of a design trope in which the “styles and modes of maleness are often exaggerated and framed as representation” (DuPlessis, 2014, p. 19). His black hat, meanwhile, is an intertextual reference to criminality; a trope first established in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, something Agnew (2012, p. 132), dismisses as a “simplistic depiction … used to differentiate between hero and villain.” Simplistic, but also visually striking, and immediately codes Arthur as a violent character capable of great harm, with Mackay, Maples, and Reynolds (2013, p. 71) arguing black hats symbolise the opposite of “purity, cleanliness and moral righteousness” audiences perceive from white attire.

One of the villainous outlaws from The Great Train Robbery. Note his black hat.

One of the villainous outlaws from The Great Train Robbery. Note his black hat.

1899 is very late in the Wild West period (the frontier officially ceased to exist in 1890’s Census), and is therefore a date that signifies the end of an era, not only for the West and Arthur, but, as I argue in this essay, for the “very male culture” (Donnell et al, 2000) of video games themselves. While a more obvious challenger to male dominance would be a female or non-binary protagonist, as a man presented with outwardly stereotypical masculine signifiers and tropes, Arthur offers  an inside track. Male players are more likely to identify with Arthur, and so his challenge of male stereotypes through his nuanced, inward vulnerability potentially offers greater resonance and more opportunity for male players to reflect on their own behaviour.

While this date has to fit the timeline of the first Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, 2010)—where the railroad across the West itself symbolized progress—Arthur mentions the exact year several times throughout the game, a choice which must have been deliberate. 1899, a year signalling the end of a century, symbolises both a way of life ending and an unknown future unfolding. It is not just Arthur’s world that is changing, but the players’ too; in the eight years since RDR and its protagonist John Marston, most players will have matured and changed. With that, their view of the ideal man may have shifted too, from the stoic, brutal and often selfish John Marston to the more sensitive Arthur Morgan.

Stang (2017, p. 162) points to “shifting desires of an ageing male gamer demographic” when she discusses the rise in player-character father figures, but becoming a parent is not the only way in which players might change as they age. They might become less impulsive, more reflective, and more aware of the passage of time. While RDR’s John Marston encourages players to “stay true to their rugged individualism” (Humphreys, 2012, p. 201), Arthur’s quests in RDR2 are less selfish. In the first game John strikes out on his own, driven by a singular quest, while in RDR2 Arthur is very much a part of a family. John is an ideal Western hero in many ways, and like tales of real Western outlaws and movie antiheroes played by actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, John is perfect for the projection of stereotypical masculine fantasies. He’s a tragic hero, but also ruthless. The world is against him, but he keeps going, representing the stubbornness and inflexibility of toxic masculinity.

Gripsgrud and Gillespie (2016, p. 82) note that “storytelling involves selecting and omitting story details,” and it is important that we as players are aware of Arthur’s bloody past but join him on his redemptive journey. We hear all about his violent deeds, and even commit some ourselves, but it becomes clear very early that Arthur is a man ready to repent. Stang (2018, p. 28) has noted that redemption is a recurring theme in video games, with the player character portrayed as a “father figure [who] must redeem himself from his past sins,” especially his failure to protect his children. Arthur’s redemption does not have such a focussed goal, and so his redemption cannot be achieved through enacting more violent brutality on a quest to save or return to his plot-device children. Rather, it’s a more vulnerable, introspective redemption, one which can only be achieved by challenging his era’s stereotypical view of masculinity.

Arthur, just as strong and brave as John, forces players to question this stereotypical view of manhood through his emotional vulnerability. While Arthur has no true enemies in the Dutch van der Linde Gang with which he runs, it is no accident that of all the members of the gang, Arthur is friends with the outsiders. Sadie is an outsider by her gender, while Lenny and Charles are outsiders by their race; Lenny is African American and Charles is both part African American and Native American. The game is not shy about diversity and inclusion, nor about highlighting the value of sensitivity in men. Arthur’s growth comes largely due to Sadie’s influence, a widow who faces many hardships throughout the game but grows from the crying, helpless woman she is first presented as to overcome the culturally-imposed limitations placed on her gender by taking charge of her own household—a role typically reserved only for men in that period.

As Sadie fights against the feminine codes of her time,  Arthur evolves too. In Sadie’s case, evolving means embracing violence (showing proficiency with firearms, leading the gang while their leader, Dutch, is in Guarma), while for Arthur it means embracing vulnerability and his own mortality. These evolutions demonstrate the dichotomy of frontier gender roles; men are expected to be inherently violent, while women are expected to avoid it at all costs. Arthur and Sadie, the two most developed characters in the game and the most central protagonists, are the two who most actively rebel against this division.

The fact that Arthur is so masculine and yet so emotionally vulnerable is key to his potential positive influence on the men playing RDR2. The idea that “consumption is motivated by the consumer’s identity construction” (Lister, 2008, p. 247) suggests Arthur is a role model or desirable character to embody, acting out masculine fantasies by solving problems with his fists. However, it is through this foundation that Arthur can be most effective; because many players are likely to identify with him to begin with, his transformation is more affecting than it would be with a character players had no affinity with. A hero who demonstrates that a man can be both masculine and emotionally vulnerable and available is an important intervention into the toxic masculinity normally encouraged in AAA video games. Arthur embodies this traditional masculinity, but comes with an internal, emotional core which I argue shatters the toxic assumption or expectation that “real” men keep their feelings bottled up.

Through this, Arthur becomes a symbol for morality, for example through helping early feminists campaign for women’s votes, noted as being “historically correct, but quite surprising” (Hoffmann, 2019, p. 3) for a video game. Their presence represents the growth in equality, in both the frontier and modern gaming. 2014’s GamerGate was a critical moment in the industry, drawing the misogynist bile within gaming culture to the surface, but also leading to pushback, with the subsequent AAA games putting more emphasis on female characters. For example, Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed introducing a female protagonist with Evie, The Last Of Us Part II switching focus from Joel to Ellie, Battlefield and Gears Of War pushing women to the forefront. Though RDR2 could have gone further—having a female protagonist, for example—the inclusion of suffragettes is clearly symbolic of a turning tide, one Rockstar are keen not to be swept away in.

Arthur has what Honeywill (2015, p. 4) calls “The Man Problem” in which he must simultaneously “be beast and angel.” Similar to most other male characters in the game (John, Dutch, Bill, Colm), Arthur lives almost solely as a beast. As his narrative progresses, he must let the angel out, a process which causes him to reach an apex of vulnerability  when he confesses “I’m Afraid” to the nun at the train station.

Arthur with the nun at the train station. Credit: Rockstar Studios

Arthur with the nun at the train station. Credit: Rockstar Studios

This confession comes as Arthur is slumped over, his body language syntagmatic for defeat, weakness, and surrender; the antithesis of Arthur’s ideals for the majority of the game. Stang (2017, p. 171) argues that in The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013) and Bioshock: Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013), the central characters—like Arthur, both “deeply flawed” men—“turn daughters into moral barometers … and means for paternal redemption.” Arthur is not given this easy chance at redemption through a damsel or daughter, but must earn it through disease, suffering and facing up to his own vulnerability.

Joel from The Last of Us and Booker from BioShock: Infinite. Note their physical similarity to Arthur. Credit: Naughty Dog and Irrational Games.

Joel from The Last of Us and Booker from BioShock: Infinite. Note their physical similarity to Arthur. Credit: Naughty Dog and Irrational Games.Henley Image 5

As the scene moves to a close-up on Arthur’s face, we see the stark effects of his terminal tuberculosis, removing the masculine code of strength and constitution. The fact that Arthur contracted tuberculosis violently collecting a debt is crucial in connoting punishment and karma, while signifying the dangers and impermanence of a life of bloodshed.

Arthur admitting that he is afraid of dying. Credit: Rockstar Studios.

Arthur admitting that he is afraid of dying. Credit: Rockstar Studios.

This close-up glows from behind in low sun, appearing to decorate Arthur in a heavenly halo, contrasting sharply with most video games, in which “violence tends to be consequenceless” and features “no portrayals of remorse” (Donnell et al, 2000). The setting sun may also signal the end of both his way of life and his actual life—as well as connotations of Heaven. The washed out colouring is a paradigmatic indicator of Arthur’s illness and imminent death while the titular redemption is reinforced by the presence of a nun: a metaphorical stand in for forgiveness and purity. The wooden post behind Arthur appears to show him on a cross too, connoting crucifixion and with it, redemption. He has accepted the bloodshed of his history, and will be able to die at peace.

Arthur’s sickly face with the crucifix shape behind. Credit: Rockstar Studios.

Arthur’s sickly face with the crucifix shape behind. Credit: Rockstar Studios.

The central dilemma Arthur faces is most evident in this scene, where  he rejects typically masculine codes and embraces vulnerability. His own words, “I’m afraid,” ironically cut through stereotypical masculine fear of embracing emotions and lays bare Arthur’s acceptance of himself. It is an erosion of “violent masculinity as a cultural norm” (Katz, 1999) with Arthur an anachronistically modern pinnacle of manhood, at least emotionally. Though he can be excessively violent if the player desires it, his non-optional remorse for his actions makes him a more evolved man than most video game protagonists.

His willingness to be vulnerable is presented to us as a strength, despite Arthur being physically at his weakest. As video games are increasingly taken seriously as an art form, and at a time when male mental health is finally being seriously discussed—such as Movember adding mental health to their focus, Prince William and the Football Association running Take A Minute, and CALM—it’s not only Arthur’s actions which are crucial, but the way Rockstar presents  them to us.

The soundtrack, bombastic during other parts of the game, is almost silent here. The diegetic sound of nature is all we hear: finally, the hectic violence of Arthur’s way of life is ending, and he can embrace peace. These chirping birds, symbols of reawakening and innocence, are then drowned out by shouts from the train. It cuts short Arthur’s conversation, quite literally cutting short his salvation with progress: it represents the changing world around Arthur, as a man of his era, a frontiersman and a video game protagonist.

Overall, Arthur is a character with clear masculine codes signifying his strength and propensity for violence. He can be viewed as an icon for video games themselves, embodying most of the medium’s typical traits, and drenched in the blood and masculinity closely associated with gaming. However, his development into a more rounded, vulnerable creature, more in line with modern codes of masculinity than those of the frontier, suggest changing tides. It is not just Arthur facing up to his violent past, but also the developers Rockstar themselves and video games in general. They must embrace progress or fade away.


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