So since my lovely girlfriend Ali and I are adora-gays, we enjoy looking at media with a queer filter. I recently got her to watch Mel Brooks’ 1974 masterpiece Blazing Saddles, a satirical take on not only the Western genre, but also racism. If you know anything about Mel Brooks, it’s that he loves pushing the envelope on political correctness and utilizing satire to battle social prejudice, particularly in Blazing Saddles and The Producers.
But enough has been written about how Mel Brooks portrays racism and anti-Semitism. I ain’t here to talk about that. Today I wanna talk about Blazing Saddles‘s portrayal of gender…and maybe sexuality too.
About halfway through the movie, Ali turned to me and said, “I ship them.”–“them” being Bart and Jim, Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder’s characters, respectively. As I knew she would. And it’s not an unfounded interpretation. Bart and Jim’s friendship is really sweet. Jim legitimately worries for Bart’s well being, he’s always willing to jump to his defense, and he seems to be the only person in Rock Ridge who isn’t a racist dick. Plus Bart sort of tries to life coach Jim out of his alcoholism and wants him to take better care of himself. It’s not the kind of male/male friendship you see all the time in movies or television. It’s really nice.
And it got me to thinking about how this movie is actually pretty subversive when it comes to portrayals of gender. Yes, there is only really one female character in the movie, who’s really just there to be a sex object–even her last name basically means “of fuck”. But I think there’s more than meets the eye even to the seemingly one dimensional Lily Von Shtupp. But I’ll get to her.
Let’s first look at the film’s hero, Bart. It’s clear that Blazing Saddles is mainly inspired by old, classic spaghetti westerns. The most archetypal star of these films is John Wayne. Wayne used conventional hypermasculinity–violence, mainly–to portray his characters as the big strapping hero in his movies. But Bart is not John Wayne. He solves conflict using his brain and his sense of humor. The one time he uses violence to solve a problem is when he loses his temper at Taggart in the beginning of the movie and wallomps him on the head with a shovel–a mistake that nearly gets him hanged. He uses his wits to get out of the townsfolk of Rock Ridge nearly lynching him by holding himself hostage, he defeats Mongo in a Bugs Bunny-esque trick with a bomb in a candy box, and he defeats Hedley Lamarr’s hoard of criminals by building a fake town and a fake tollbooth. He rarely uses a gun, except when shooting Lamarr right in the very symbol of masculinity–his dong. Race aside, he is not a conventional Western hero.
Now let’s look at Jim, aka “The Waco Kid”. (By the by, I used to actually live in Waco, Texas.) He is the “washed up gunslinger” stereotype. A lot of Westerns have them, but the most significant example I can think of is “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”, a season 1 episode of The Twilight Zone (the original). Jim is soft spoken, as Gene Wilder characters tend to be, he enjoys the gentlemanly sport of chess, and he’s not overtly violent either. Also…he’s coded a bit gay. He takes on a Southern Belle accent when he calls out to the KKK members, and a Minnie Mouse like voice when he takes a puff from Bart’s…was it weed? I feel like it was weed. Plus he and Bart have a date together at the movies and literally ride off into the sunset together–first on horseback, then in a car. He even pats Bart on the cheek apologetically after accidentally punching him during the big fight scene. It’s…it’s just the cutest thing.
Ironically, the part of Jim was initially offered to none other than John Wayne himself. Thank god Wayne turned the part down and Mel Brooks had the good sense to hire Gene Wilder. That right there is the stars of heaven aligning perfectly.
The bottom line is, Bart and Jim’s friendship is one of supportiveness and understanding. As I said before, it’s very healthy, and sweet. In fact, most of the male friendships in the movie–like the one between Bart and his friend from the railroad work crew, Charlie–are healthy and supportive. Even Mongo, who is set up to be a hulking brute, turns out to be a sweetie pie who loves Bart like a puppy. It’s adorable.
Really, the only toxically masculine figures in the movie are the villains: Hedley Lamarr, Taggart, Lyle, and the governor. They are mean-spirited, violent, misogynistic, and openly selfish. Fittingly, Lamarr and Taggart’s dynamic is not one of friendship. In fact it’s identical to that of Pinky and the Brain. And in a piece about gender, it’s also worthy to note that Hedley Lamarr’s name is similar to that of actress Hedy Lamarr, which is a running joke in the movie.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the Busby Berkeley number that gives one of Supernatural‘s most famous episodes its name: “The French Mistake”, which is full of effeminate men in tuxes being directed by an incredibly flamboyant Dom Deluise. Not only do the “pansies” eagerly jump into the fourth wall breaking (okay, actually third wall) brawl, one of them seems to actually hook up with one of the grungy cowboys, and another cries in the arms of a surprisingly sympathetic and gentle desperado.
…also the song “The French Mistake” is all about butt sex. As if Supernatural couldn’t get any gayer.
And then…there was Lily. Lily, Lily, Lily, legs, Lily. Lily von Shtupp was originally based on Marlene Dietrich. You know…that famously feminine and heterosexual actress. It’s fitting then that we see Lily dressed in a snappy pinstripe suit toward the end of the film. She is the archetypal false ingenue. She’s bawdy, she’s worldly wise, and she is anything but innocent. In fact, Lily’s song in the saloon is about how she’s fed up with sex and romance. Nevertheless, when she seduces Bart, she ends up falling for him. We get the sense that it’s not just because he’s good in the sack (in an outtake, after Lily asks whether or not the stereotype that black men have larger penises is true and then excitedly screams that is, Bart tells her politely that she is actually sucking on his arm), but because he is kind, considerate, and worldly wise himself. Bart knows German almost as well as she does, and he brings her a flower she actually likes. We later see Lily in the big brawl, subduing the Nazi recruits with a song in German. Lily never actually loses any of her femininity–I would argue that she becomes more feminine over the course of the movie after meeting Bart. It’s telling that upon meeting him, she changes from black lingerie to pink. And through this transformation, she actually becomes a stronger character, rather than a passive, disillusioned sex object. Now that she’s on Bart’s side, she has a cause to believe in.
So what does this all have to say about gender and sexuality? I don’t know that Mel Brooks had it in his mind to say anything about it, per se. It could just be me reading a little too deeply into a satirical Western comedy. But I think it’s fitting that John Wayne turned down the chance to be in this film–there’s no room for a symbol for old world toxic masculinity like him in a movie like Blazing Saddles. The fact is, you don’t have to be a certain kind of man or woman. There are different valid ways to define your masculinity or femininity, as long as you’re defining them by your own rules, and not the ones made up by society. And as we all know, challenging societal norms is what Mel Brooks does best. ~TRL