We may vote once a year, but most of us watch television every day.
Pop culture says a lot about the hopes we have for politics. And in a politically polarized and unequal society, we express our political identities as tastes. We aren’t just divided into red and blue America. We divide ourselves into Fox people versus CNN people, country music versus hip-hop people and reality TV versus prestige drama people. The lines are not fixed — there is always crossover — but they are rooted in something fundamental: identity. Our imagined Americas are as divided as our news cycles.
Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone” is a prime example. While liberal audiences mostly ignore it, this soapy conservative prestige television juggernaut is gobbling up audience share. An informal survey of my own filter bubble bears witness. When I asked my roughly 220,000 Twitter followers for television and movie recommendations, many offered up the usual award-winning and buzzy fare. Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” Amazon Prime’s “The Boys,” Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso” and HBO’s “Hacks” were givens. Critical darlings “Stranger Things,” “The Bear” and “Only Murders in the Building” rounded out the list. I saw only one person suggest “Yellowstone,” and only in a private message. I dare say my bubble leans coastal elite.
These asymmetrical responses match findings from a working paper by two sociologists, Clayton Childress at the University of Toronto and Craig Rawlings at Duke University. The paper is titled “When Tastes Are Ideological: The Asymmetric Foundations of Cultural Polarization.” It is part of the subfield of sociology that studies how culture reflects and reproduces inequality. Childress and Rawlings draw out several asymmetries in how liberals and conservatives consume cultural objects like music and television.
I called Childress to talk about “Yellowstone.” He laughed in immediate recognition, calling it a perfect example of asymmetrical cultural polarization: Liberals aren’t watching “Yellowstone” for cultural reasons and conservatives love it for ideological ones, he said.
It is easy to assume that snobbish liberals don’t watch what conservative audiences love. But another documented asymmetry in how conservatives and liberals consume culture complicates that idea.
“People on the left like more pop culture than people on the right. And people on the left don’t dislike what people on the right dislike,” Childress said. Liberals watch, read and listen to more stuff than conservatives do. They also do not necessarily reject a cultural object because conservatives like it. That’s not because liberal audiences are 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 tastes, Childress said it is a “mark of social status for liberals to be culturally omnivorous.” In contrast, conservative audiences do not consider reading, watching or listening around a mark of status or identity. And they are more likely to dislike what liberals like than liberals are to dislike what conservatives like.
I watched 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 is at war with progress when it is really at war with itself.
The series is exactly as it appears — in Montana, modern cowboys fight to own the twilight of the American empire. Kevin Costner plays John Dutton III, the Dutton family patriarch and one of the nation’s largest private landowners. He tries to make his three sons and daughter into a political dynasty. There are numerous threats to this grand plan. A local Native American nation wants repairs and revenge. Encroaching California elites want to hollow out local culture, one craft coffee shop at a time. The federal government wants to control it. Namby-pamby climate change activists want to protect it. And time wants to drag it into a hostile future. Befitting the soap opera genre, details don’t really matter. That is good because many of the plotlines have holes the size of one of the dually Dodge Ram hemi trucks the Duttons favor.
“Yellowstone” fans may lean conservative, but the show’s creative force, Taylor Sheridan, has pushed back on the idea of it as a conservative prestige drama. “The people who are calling it a red-state show have probably never watched it,” he told The Times in 2019. “Yellowstone” sidesteps Westerns’ romanticization of the white imaginary. At dinner last week with my family, my 30-something-year-old Black lesbian cousins gushed about the show, although they prefer the show’s Native American characters to the Duttons.
“Yellowstone”’s West is multiethnic, multiracial and multi-class. There are Black cowboys and complex Native American characters. A pair of lesbians even make an appearance in season two (although there are no gay cowboys, and queerness prevails upon “Yellowstone”’s universe from outsiders). It is a credit to Sheridan’s street cred with rural audiences (and his smart casting of conservative favorites like Kevin Costner, Sam Elliott and Tim McGraw) that he has not been accused of wokeness.
Prestige television, which is an elite cultural object, is supposed to map onto 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. In short, the things that “Yellowstone” skewers at every opportunity. The characters despise California and San Francisco in particular. Even Salt Lake City catches a few strays for being too cited.
The rejection of cosmopolitanism as a desirable attribute is more subtle, but present. The Duttons’ sociopathic daughter, Beth, is in a torrid love-hate relationship with her brother Jamie that borders on the erotic. She mocks his urbane tastes mercilessly while wearing Louboutins herself. The difference is she disdains the trappings of sophistication while Jamie desires them.
“Yellowstone”’s slow dialogue also rejects sophistication. The narrative plods even as the show’s many horses run. And the mood is dour; there aren’t many jokes. Those aesthetic choices implicitly argue for simplicity as a moral virtue, something John Dutton telegraphs when he tells a field hand that sometimes the world really is simple.
If the show rejects sophistication, it takes a hammer to education. There are few strivers in “Yellowstone”’s world. The show’s royalty grudgingly accept higher education as a strategic tool to beat the liberal do-gooders. The poor and disfranchised don’t dream of going to college at all. One of the show’s primary Native American characters is a schoolteacher who becomes a professor. People on social media hate her for many reasons, but her college degree does not help. Straight married couples in the real world are more likely to consist of people with the same education levels than not. “Yellow Stone” builds a safe space free of anxieties about assortative mating and educational competition.
Best-in-class series beat “Yellowstone” on sophistication and wit. But “Yellowstone”’s revenge is how well it exposes the material conditions of elitism. The show’s worldview resembles fantasy but it is brutally realistic about how power operates. In season one, John Dutton tells his educated, ambitious son that all the West Coast money pouring into Montana still cannot 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 constitutes the elite, but it sure as hell understands the forces that make them.
Millions of people watch “Yellowstone” for the horses and the majestic scenery. There’s Beth Dutton’s frequent nudity. There’s the simple dialogue that does not ask much of the audience. Whatever brings its audience to the show, once they arrive, they are playacting within “Yellowstone”’s vision of America. The show suggests that elitism and power can be reconciled with our need to be both moral and self-interested. It is a seductive fantasy because it does not 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 conform to their way of life. It acknowledges white land theft and Native American grievance, but it does not make a case for repairs. It accepts that Christopher Columbus was a colonizer but implies that the Duttons’ good-enough ends justify the means. It accommodates feminism by making women the most vicious capitalist actors. And it depicts the police as feckless, but it does not want to abolish cops. it wants to choose the cops. That means a lot of guns. “Yellowstone” does not just have gunfights. It’s all out wars. There are military-grade weapons, aerial assaults, night-vision goggles and automatic rifles. When John Dutton cannot win, he starts shooting.
“Yellowstone” isn’t ideologically driven, even if ideology is what makes it so comforting for conservative audiences. But in the end, the show shares a problem with Republican Party electoral politics: Neither offers a compelling vision of the future.
Republicans don’t solve problems like climate change or economic inequality or water rights or housing costs or stagnant wages. With Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell’s leadership, the GOP does not even bother to sell a conservative story for America. Audiences looking for that vision in “Yellowstone” might find that cosmetic diversity needn’t be scary, but they won’t find much else. Like Republicans, the Dutton dynasty has one defense against demographics and time: Buy guns and hoard stolen power.
Tressie McMillan Cotton (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.
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