John Wayne: Movie Fans–Male or Female? Rural or Urban, Lower or Middle Class

Having been the product of a small town, Winterest, Iowa, and growing up in Glendale, California, John Wayne was more popular in rural  than urban America.  Rural areas have always provided better movie markets for the Western genre than urban or metropolitan centers.

Wayne’s widest appeal was probably in the Mid-West, due both to the nature of his movies and his conservative politics.

Director Raoul Walsh’s consolation, when Wayne was disturbed by the nasty write-ups for his movies in the East Coast, was: “Never mind New York. You’re a big hit in Cincinnati.”

An article in News Weekly, “John Wayne–Main Street’s Hero,” attempted to assess his appeal: “Wayne’s drawing power is especially potent in small towns, where any of John Wayne’s picture, whether it is new or ten years old, will pack the house.”

Because the Western has always been a “masculine” genre, Wayne’s ardent fans must have been largely males.  A study conducted by the Motion Picture Research Bureau in 1942, based on 2,000 respondents in 45 cities, found that males liked Westerns better than females.

Wayne himself has said that he “played” to men, attempting to make pictures that really appealed to male audiences. This was based on his belief that it was usually men who took women to the movies. Indeed, critics suggest that through Wayne’s films, his male fans have fulfilled their escapist fantasies about action, adventure, and heroism against all odds. As one writer put it: “Adventure film fans know they can expect at least one good fight, and lots of action in any of his films.”

Many, however, believed that Wayne appealed to both genders because he played gentlemen on screen. Charles Skouras, the theater magnate, attributed Wayne’s success to the fact that he was one of the few movie stars liked by men, women, and children. “Men regard him as a plain, simple, hard-riding, two-fisted man of action,” Skouras elaborated, “Women find him a shy, kindly protector with an awkward tenderness and latent but super-charged sex potential.” And children “admire the picturesque epic hero of the Western plains, the Air Force, and the Submarine Service.” Ford also held that “Duke stays at the top for the same reason Cooper, Gable, and Stewart stay up there. He’s a clean-cut, good-looking, virile, typically American type.” Wayne was a hero for all members of the family, or as Ford said, “They all like him for a big brother, or a husband, or a pal.”

Wayne was never as handsome as Cooper or Gable, and lacked the explicit sex appeal of Cary Grant or Errol Flynn. Still, he was admired by women who liked the idea that “he doesn’t look like an actor, he looks like a real man,” as one female fan said. During his divorce proceedings from his second wife, his popularity among women increased. The court was mobbed by female admirers, holding up signs that stated, “John Wayne. You Can Clobber Me Any Time You Want,” referring to his wife’s accusations that he had mistreated her.

Joan Didion’s Love Letter to Wayne

Joan Didion recalled in her love letter to the star that she had first seen a Wayne’s movie in 1943, when she was eight years old. She still remembers how Wayne told the heroine (Martha Scott) in War of the Wildcats that he would build her a “house at the bend of the river where the cottonwoods grow.” “Deep in that part of my heart,” Didion writes, “that is still the line I wait to hear.” “When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.”

For Didion, Wayne’s appeal stemmed from the fact that in a world characterized by doubts and ambiguities, “he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever, but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own ode and live by it.” Furthermore, when Wayne spoke, “there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong, that even a child could perceive it.”


Wayne has always had a special appeal among young moviegoers, although his popularity went beyond age barriers. A spokesman for Frontier Playhouse once observed that while many parents may say they are watching Wayne’s films to keep their children company, they actually outnumber the youngsters in the audience by 62 to 38 percent. A

In response to a Playboy magazine query, as to whether his record rested on his appeal to adolescents, Wayne said: “Let’s say I hope that I appeal to the more carefree times in a person’s life rather than to his reasoning adulthood.”

He also stated that he would like “to be an image that reminds someone of joy rather than of the problems o the world.” And to another query by Playboy, “Luckily, so far, it seems they kind of consider me an older friend, somebody believable and down-to-earth.”

Wayne attributed his popularity among youngsters to having “played many parts in which I’ve rebelled against something in society.” “I was never much of a joiner,” he elaborated, “Kids do join things, but they also like to consider themselves individuals capable of thinking for themselves. So do I.”

Two and Three-Generation Plots

Wayne’s movies had two or three generational plots.  There were always children in them, and his relationship to the younger generation was central to his screen image, which also accounted for his popularity among adolescents.

Furthermore, in his last films there was an explicit attempt to cater to youngsters, as True Grit, Big Jake, and of course The Cowboys attested. This commercial consideration had to do with the fact that American moviegoers were getting younger and younger; the most frequent moviegoers were well under twenty-one.

Jewish Cowboy and Black Cook

To appeal to the largest potential audiences, The Cowboys also had among its characters a Jewish cowboy and a black cook. But the attempt to appeal to young audiences went beyond commercial considerations. Wayne was influenced by the Western star, Tom Mix, who attempted to make pictures for the entire family, so that parents could go with their children to see them. This movie philosophy was adopted by Wayne, whose idea of a good picture was one which was designed for the entertainment of all members of the family.

Furthermore, because his movies were not very complicated or complex, they provided fantasy materials for adults too. Critic Kistler observed in his obituary of Wayne that his films appealed to “every man who wanted to be John Wayne when he was six and the world was a simpler place, with only good guys and bad guys, and when quick and uncompromising justice was dispensed by the Big Man.” As for mature audiences, Kistler believed that Wayne appealed to “every man who, as an adult in a complicated, computerized world, has secretly yearned–if just once–to sit tall in the saddle atop a prancing, foam-flicked mount at the far side of a wide, fairytale expanse of Western meadow to finally confront, outnumbered and alone, the men of evil.”

Among other factors that set Wayne apart from other stars, and helped make him a cultural folk hero, was the impact of his movies on the consciousness of his audiences.  In his novel, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy observes that “Other people treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely lady in Central Park,” but what he remembered was “the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine, as he was falling to the duststreet in Stagecoach.” What better proof of Wayne’s imprint on Percy’s subjective imagination than this. And because of the extraordinary dimensions of his stardom, Wayne may have fulfilled the same fantasy for thousands of youngetrs, thus contributing to the formation of a colletcive consciousness.

Ron Kovic

A more interesting revelation of Wayne’s function in American culture is found in Ron Kovic’s book, Born on the Fourth of July, in which he shares with the readers the emotional experience of watching Sands of Iwo Jima on television. “We were glued to our seats,” he recalled watching Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker charge up the hill and get killed just before he reached the top. And when they showed the men raising the flag on Iwo Jima with the Marines’ hymn still playing, he and his friend “cried in our seats.” From that moment, every time he heard it, he would think of Wayne and the flag. More emotionally disturbing is Kovic’s account of fighting in Vietnam, where he was wounded and paralyzed. “Nobody ever told me I was going to come back from the war without a penis,” he writes, “Oh God, Oh God, I want it back! I gave it for the whole country….I gave (it) for John Wayne.” This is a “heavy burden to lay on a movie star,” critic Jack Kroll noted, but it also attests to Wayne’s great authoirty as “troop leader of the American dream.”

Wayne functioned as a role model, consciously and subconsciously, for thousands of adolescents in America. The fantasies that he provided in his movies might have been escapist, but they were also emotionally powerful, thus real.

John Ritter

John Ritter, son of Western star Tex Ritter and star of his own television series, “Three’s Company,” grew up in an atmosphere surrounded by Western folklore. His childhood was probably typical of many youngsters who grew up in rural America. “I grew up on Westerns and just loved them,” Ritter observed, “for a long time, I didn’t know they made other kinds of pictures.” Ritter’s favorite Western stars were, of course, his father, followed by John Wayne (second), Roy Rogers, Rory Calhoun, Tim Holt, and Hoot Gibson.

Social Class and Hierarchy of Tastes

As for social class, it is plausible to assume that Wayne’s typical audiences came from white lower-middle or lower classes. In his analysis of taste, the sociologist Herbert Gans constructs a hierarchy which distinguishes among sub-cultures of various classes in America.  Gans uses variants of the Western film to illustrate these taste differences. Westerns of lower-middle sub-culture are typically concerned with conflicts between farmers and ranchers, whereas Westerns of lower culture deal with conflicts between cowboys and outlaws.

Wayne made both lower-middle and lower culture Westerns. Gans also claims that sexual segregation, differentiation between male and female roles in and outside the family, and other working class values have been reflected in the Hollywood action movie. The action film typically describes an individual hero’s fight against crime and other violations of the social order, and its issues are always clearly defined.

The heroes of the two respective sub-cultures also differ. While the hero of the lower-middle sub-culture may have doubts about the social usefulness of his function and about the validity of his identity, the hero of the lower sub-culture is devoid of these doubts. Other attributes of the lower sub-culture hero fit many of Wayne’s movies: he is sure of his masculinity, distrustful of governmental authority, works either alone or with buddies of the same gender, is shy with good women and aggressive with bad women.

But perhaps most important of all is the classnessness of the hero, despite the fact that the norms he espouses are lower class norms. In the typical Hollywood movie, heroes are neither aware of their class, nor is class a problem in the narrative–the way it is, for example, in a typical British film. In Gans’s view, Wayne, Gable, and Cooper were all prototypes of the lower class hero. Moreover, the fact that none of the young stars of today’s action films has achieved their predecessors’ popularity is indicative, in his view, of low culture’s loss of dominance in America.

Wayne’s early “B” Westerns catered to white lower and working classes, but gradually his popularity expanded to the lower-middle and middle classes. He began his career in low culture, but he managed to add new audience strata, thus broadening his appeal as his career progressed.

Gans acknowledges that occasionally a cultural product or performer may appeal to several tiers on the taste hierarchy, such as Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe whose appeal has crossed social class lines.

Wayne could be easily added to this group of stars, particularly in his many good Ford and Hawks Westerns. The multi-cultural appeal of these performers is possible because their movies’ contents and styles are broad and varied enough to cater to different audiences, so that each group finds “something” in them.


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