We may vote once a year, but most of us watch television every day.
Pop culture says a lot about the hope we have in politics. And in a politically polarized and unequal society, we express our political identity as taste. We are not just divided into red and blue America. We divide into Fox people versus DailyExpertNews people, country music versus hip-hop people, and reality TV versus prestige drama people. The lines are not fixed – there is always a crossover – but they are rooted in something fundamental: identity. Our imagined Americas are as divided as our news cycles.
“Yellowstone” by Paramount Network is a striking example. While the liberal public usually ignores it, this soapy conservative prestige television juggernaut swallows the public. An informal investigation of my own filter bubble testifies. when i asked my approximately 220,000 Twitter followers for television and movie recommendations, many offered the usual award-winning and effervescent fare. Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy”, Amazon Prime’s “The Boys”, Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” and HBO’s “Hacks” were given. Critical sweethearts “Stranger Things”, “The Bear” and “Only Murders in the Building” rounded out the list. I saw only one person propose “Yellowstone”, and only in a private message. I dare say my bubble leans the coastal elite.
These asymmetric responses are consistent with findings from a working paper by two sociologists, Clayton Childress of the University of Toronto and Craig Rawlings of Duke University. The article is titled “When Tastes Are Ideological: The Asymmetric Foundations of Cultural Polarization.” It is part of the field of sociology that examines how culture reflects and reproduces inequality. Childress and Rawlings outline several asymmetries in the way liberals and conservatives consume cultural objects such as music and television.
I called Childress to talk about “Yellowstone.” He laughed in instant recognition, calling it a perfect example of asymmetric cultural polarization: Liberals don’t watch “Yellowstone” for cultural reasons, and conservatives love it for ideological reasons, he said.
It’s easy to assume that snobbish liberals don’t look at what a conservative audience likes. But another documented asymmetry in how conservatives and liberals consume culture complicates that idea.
“People on the left like pop culture more than people on the right,” Childress said. “And people on the left don’t like what people on the right don’t like.” Liberals watch, read and listen to things more than conservatives. Nor do they necessarily reject a cultural object because conservatives like it. That’s not because the liberal public is more accepting. Anyone who has ever argued with a Grateful Dead or Phish fan can tell you otherwise.
But when it comes to identity and taste, Childress said it’s a “sign of social status for liberals to be culturally omnivores.” In contrast, a conservative audience does not view reading, watching or listening as a sign of status or identity. And they are more likely to hate what liberals like than liberals hate what conservatives like.
I’ve looked at all four seasons of “Yellowstone” through the lens of these asymmetries. The show is compelling, but not groundbreaking. It’s too easy to call it a conservative show. Like its audience counterpart, “Yellowstone” thinks it’s at war with progress when it’s really at war with itself.
The series is exactly as it seems: In Montana, modern cowboys fight to own the twilight of the American Empire. Kevin Costner plays John Dutton III, the patriarch of the Dutton family and one of the largest private landowners in the country. He tries to turn his three sons and daughter into a political dynasty. There are many threats to this grand scheme. A local Native American nation wants reparations and revenge. Advancing California elites want to erode the local culture, one artisan coffee shop at a time. The federal government wants to control it. Namby-pamby climate activists want to protect it. And time wants to drag it into a hostile future. Fitting the soap opera genre, details don’t really matter. That’s good, because many storylines have holes the size of one of the Dodge Ram Hemi trucks that the Duttons prefer.
“Yellowstone” fans may be conservative, but the show’s creative force, Taylor Sheridan, has turned the idea of a conservative prestige drama back. “The people who call it a show in the red state have probably never watched it,” he told The Times in 2019. At dinner last week with my family, my 30-year-old black lesbian cousins gushed about the show, though they prefer the Native American characters over the Duttons.
The west of “Yellowstone” is multiethnic, multiracial and multiclass. There are black cowboys and complex Native American characters. A few lesbians even make an appearance in Season 2 (although there are no gay cowboys and strangeness reigns supreme in the outsiders’ “Yellowstone” universe). It’s a credit to Sheridan’s street credo with the nationwide audience (and his savvy cast of conservative favorites like Kevin Costner, Sam Elliott, and Tim McGraw) that he hasn’t been accused of being awake.
Prestige television, an elite cultural object, should align with our shared understanding of what counts as ‘elite’. Regardless of whether you agree with the classification, you have an idea of what other people mean by “elite”: urban, sophisticated and educated. Basically, the stuff that “Yellowstone” stings at every opportunity. The characters despise California and San Francisco in particular. Even Salt Lake City catches a few bums for being too urban.
The rejection of cosmopolitanism as a desirable feature is subtler, but present. The Duttons’ sociopathic daughter, Beth, has a torrid love-hate relationship with her brother Jamie that borders on the erotic. She mocks his urban taste mercilessly while wearing Louboutins herself. The difference is that she despises the trappings of sophistication, while Jamie longs for it.
The slow dialogue of “Yellowstone” also rejects sophistication. The story even splatters as the show’s many horses run. And the mood is sullen; there are not many jokes. Those aesthetic choices implicitly advocate simplicity as a moral virtue, something John Dutton telegraphs when he tells a field hand that sometimes the world is really simple.
If the show rejects sophistication, it takes a hammer in education. There are few strivers in the world of ‘Yellowstone’. The show’s royalties begrudgingly accept higher education as a strategic tool to defeat the liberal benefactors. The poor and disenfranchised do not dream of going to university at all. One of the show’s main Native American characters is a schoolteacher turned professor. People on social media hate her for many reasons, but her college education isn’t helping. Real married couples in the real world are more likely to consist of people with the same level of education than not. “Yellow Stone” builds a safe space free from worries about assortative mating and educational competition.
Best-in-class series beat “Yellowstone” on sophistication and humor. But the show’s revenge is how well it exposes the material circumstances of elitism. His worldview resembles fantasy, but it is brutally realistic about how power works. In Season 1, John Dutton tells his educated, ambitious son that all the West Coast money pouring into Montana still can’t buy what he has: land. Land is also king in New York and San Francisco, where rents are now at an all-time high. “Yellowstone” may not share our ideas of what makes up the elite, but it definitely understands the forces that make them.
Millions of people watch “Yellowstone” for its horses and majestic scenery. There’s Beth Dutton’s frequent nudity. There’s the simple dialogue that doesn’t ask much of the audience. Whatever the audience brings to the show, once they arrive they play within the vision of America that “Yellowstone” holds. The show suggests that elitism and power can be reconciled with our need to have both moral and self-interest. It’s a seductive fantasy because it doesn’t ask the audience to give up anything.
The nominal diversity of the show’s cast implies that conservatives don’t hate anyone, as long as everyone is willing to adapt to their way of life. It recognizes white land theft and complaints from Native Americans, but does not advocate for reparations. It accepts that Christopher Columbus was a colonizer, but implies that the Duttons’ charities justify the means. It accommodates feminism by making women the meanest capitalist actors. And it paints the police as gullible, but doesn’t want to abolish the police. It wants To elect the police. That means a lot of weapons. “Yellowstone” doesn’t just have gunfights. It has total wars. There are military grade weapons, air strikes, night vision goggles and automatic rifles. When John Dutton can’t win, he starts shooting.
“Yellowstone” isn’t ideologically driven, even if ideology makes it so comforting to a conservative audience. Ultimately, though, the show shares a problem with Republican Party electoral politics: neither offers a compelling vision of the future.
Republicans are not solving problems like climate change or economic inequality or water rights or housing costs or stagnant wages. With the leadership of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, the GOP doesn’t even bother to sell a conservative narrative for America. Audiences seeking that vision in “Yellowstone” may find that cosmetic diversity doesn’t have to be scary, but they won’t find much else. Like the Republicans, the Dutton dynasty has one defense against demographics and time: buy weapons and collect stolen power.
Tressie McMillan Cotton (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.
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