The Tragedy of the Sigma: Deconstructing the Romantic Cowboy in “The Searchers”

This is taken largely from a couple of posts I made on Vox Popoli. Vox had an interesting thread on what wish-fulfillment stories would look like to various groups on his soci-sexual hierarchy. I won’t go through that part – it’s all explained there fairly succinctly.

I think his hierarchy is interesting and useful in some ways, though I think there’s a danger in pigeonholing people (a good example is how commenter Nate tried to argue that Raylan Givens of “Justified” was a badly written character because he exhibited both alpha and sigma traits. But, in my opinion, that doesn’t follow. Raylan is written perfectly well because his actions and motivations are consistent – his actions make perfect sense given his motivations and what we know of his personality, which has remained fairly stable throughout the series and grown in natural ways).

Anyway, the reason I say it’s useful is because, especially in fiction (where generalizations can be useful when defining characters), I actually see a lot of characters that are a pretty good match for his descriptions (as for myself, I have looked at it several times and I’m not sure what I am, though if I asked Vox he’d probably say delta by default). The western, in particular, has always been the natural home of the sigma.

The sigma is the stereotypical loner. Instead of describing it, I’ll just post Vox’s definition:

Sigma: The outsider who doesn’t play the social game and manage to win at it anyhow. The sigma is hated by alphas because sigmas are the only men who don’t accept or at least acknowledge, however grudgingly, their social dominance. (NB: Alphas absolutely hate to be laughed at and a sigma can often enrage an alpha by doing nothing more than smiling at him.) Everyone else is vaguely confused by them. In a social situation, the sigma is the man who stops in briefly to say hello to a few friends accompanied by a Tier 1 girl that no one has ever seen before. Sigmas like women, but tend to be contemptuous of them. They are usually considered to be strange. Gammas often like to think they are sigmas, failing to understand that sigmas are not social rejects, they are at the top of the social hierarchy despite their refusal to play by its rules.

So, let’s look at what Vox says the (amusingly specific) Sigma fantasy would be:

Sigma. He is dragged from his solitary sanctuary by the desperate need of friends he hasn’t seen in years, but whom he can hardly deny. Conflict abounds, mostly between posturing idiots concerning nonsensical trivialities that no one with more than half a brain could ever possibly care about. The Sigma contemptuously dispatches three foes in succession, one by utilizing superior logic, one by seducing her, and one by physical combat, before finally ending all the conflict with a brilliant masterstroke that convinces the blithering idiots to knock it off once and for all. Everyone agrees that the ultimate solution is for the Sigma to marry the beautiful princess and be crowned king. On the day of the wedding, it is discovered that the Sigma has vanished, as have two of the prettiest and most morally flexible ladies-in-waiting. A note is found rejecting both princess and crown, and inviting everyone in the realm to either fuck off or die, as they please.

Sound like anything in particular? Yes, that is the description of practically every western ever okay, not really, but it’s the typical idea). Just replace the fantasy archetypes with western ones and bingo, you’ve got it.

The movie “Shane” (supposedly a good movie – I have yet to see it and plan to) is an excellent example of the Sigma wish-fantasy story. It has everything – being drawn reluctantly to the fight to protect the people, the ability to attract the Princess (in this case Marian Starrett), the conflict between the settlers and the herders that Shane wants no part of, and the ride off into the sunset despite the pleas and entreaties of those he’s left behind. Sure, some of the most specific details are off, but otherwise that’s pretty much what you’ve got with “Shane”. It’s sigma wish-fulfillment.

Now contrast this with “The Searchers”. My thesis is that the main character of the movie, Ethan, is clearly a sigma, but – and this is the key – the story is NOT wish-fulfillment, but the opposite: It is a deconstruction of the entire concept of the sigma, and by extension the cowboy, as the typical hero.

The movie starts when Ethan shows up at his brother’s house after a long time apart due to an implied obligation to what many believe to be his daughter, Debra, though he is clearly uncomfortable. It is also implied that he had sex with his brother’s wife, and it is to be noted that he leaves her behind with his clearly delta brother instead of sticking with her, preferring to be alone.

Then the Comanches attack. Ethan strikes out with the Rangers because he figures at first, reluctantly, that together is their best chance at taking the Comanches.

Soon, however, the head of the Rangers makes what seems to Ethan an obvious boneheaded mistake, so Ethan tries to strike out alone.

Two men, Brad and Marty, refuse to leave the group, and Ethan reluctantly lets them join. He makes sure they understand that he is to unquestionably be the leader.

The search commences. Brad is killed and Marty stays, but Ethan is undoubtedly the most badass of the group, killing the most Comanches and making all of the important decisions.

Debra is found, and Ethan makes the decision, against Marty’s wishes, to kill Debra; he does not care what anybody else thinks about it. Marty stops him, and saves Debra’s life.

Ethan returns to his brother’s home, but he is still clearly uncomfortable and it is heavily implied the stay will be temporary. Soon the Comanches attack again, and it is known Debra is with them. Marty wants to sneak into the camp and attempt to rescue Debra, but Ethan would rather go for a straight on assault; the head of the rangers overrules Ethan’s wishes and approves the escape attempt, another case of the Sigma being convinced he is right and being overruled by people he believes are again making boneheaded decisions.

Ultimately Ethan is the hero, rescuing Debra from the Comanches despite all of his previous protestations. In an iconic final scene he stares at the doorway to his brother’s home, his daughter reunited with his family and Marty engaged to be married to a beautiful girl, destined to live a happy, content life. He turns away, rejecting a family he knows he doesn’t belong with. He ends up as he started: Alone.

Notice the places where this is differentiated from the sigma wish-fulfillment story. The ending is implied to be tragic for Ethan; his inability to be with people who love him is seen as a character flaw.

For another the people do not all want Ethan to be the king; his family tries to like him and he’s good to the kids, but the rangers and Marty think he’s an asshole. In fact, he nearly provokes the head of the rangers into arresting him, and is only kept around, reluctantly, because they recognize that they need him for the fight against the Comanches. They certainly aren’t interested in making him the leader permanently. and don’t even really notice his leaving. This is probably a realistic reaction to sigmas much of the time (though there’s no doubt that certain sigmas portray a measure of likeability).

Ethan’s inability to form real relationships with his family is seen as a tragedy…and not for the family, but for Ethan. The family ends up happy, while Ethan, the sigma, understands he can never, never fit in, and strikes off alone. It’s poignant and sad.

Contrast with “Shane”. Shane leaving at the end is somewhat tragic for Shane but much more tragic for the people he leaves behind (the little boy especially).

“Not so fast,” you say, “How can it be a tragedy for Ethan if she’s a sigma? They WANT to be alone!”

To which I respond that you’re missing the point. Ethan wishes he could be the type of guy with a family, but he can’t. Not exactly loneliness, but the knowledge that there’s something the rest of his family has that he simply doesn’t, and never will. And while he’s perfectly okay striking out on his own, he’s well aware that he’s losing something as well in the process.

And so “The Searchers” is a deconstruction of sigma wish-fulfillment, and by extension the ideal of the cowboy in general. Ethan is a sigma, but he is disliked by most of the people he knows. Despite the fact that he can and has gotten women in the past he is guilt-ridden because the woman he got was his brother’s. He goes on a quest to save his nieces, but ultimately reveals that it is not because he is noble and heroic but because he is vengeful and driven by hate. And when he finally does come through and reveal himself as the hero, he leaves without anybody even noticing that he’s walked away.

The classic cowboy is revealed to be a myth. He is replaced with Ethan, clutching his arm and walking off into the sunset. His family celebrates without him.

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2 Responses to The Tragedy of the Sigma: Deconstructing the Romantic Cowboy in “The Searchers”

  1. Do you usually post as malcolm on Vox or a different name?

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