It’s probably slightly more accurate to be referring to this one as The Woman of… because I’m going to be talking about one woman in particular: the wildly problematic Yen Sun.
What, did you you think I was just going to gush over these characters and pretend like they’re not sometimes a massive let down?
Clearly, dear reader, you have not sat with me at a bar and watched me gradually make myself hate something I love.
Cider at the ready. We’re going in.
(Oh, fair warning to those of you that read my last, rather well researched The Women of… post – we don’t do that shit anymore. I got memes and a potty mouth and I ain’t afraid to use them)
From the first moment I heard Emilio Estevez laugh in John Fusco’s Young Guns, I was hooked.
Years later, this 1988 teen-movie-cum-Western is still a go-to for me, and one of the few DVDs left on our shelves after we cleared them out and gave into the combined streaming power of Netflix and Stan.
It’s probably fair to say that I’ve probably put way more thought into Young Guns than the creators ever did. From reading it as a railing against the Reagan administration to exploring its delicate examination of friendship in its many positive and negative forms, Young Guns clearly got under my skin.
And not just because it starred a bunch of pretty boys playing at cowboys.
For the uninitiated, Young Guns tells a version of the events of the Lincoln County War, which involved the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid (Estevez) and his gang of Regulators. Deputised by the local law enforcement after the murder of their mentor and father figure John Tunstall (Terence Stamp, thus ageing up the historical figure considerably), the Regulators’ attempts to dispense justice go awry, as Billy (the reason why the Regulators can’t have nice things) instead leads them on a vengeful killing spree. Forced to go on the run, they return to Lincoln to rescue McSween (Terry O’Quinn), Tunstall’s lawyer, and his wife Susan (Sharon Thomas), leading to a final shoot out at the McSweens’ burning homestead.
Here’s the thing: this is a series called The Women of… and, facts are facts, Westerns aren’t particularly known for their female characters (strong or otherwise), andYoung Guns in particular is drawn from a slice of American history that doesn’t feature many women at all. All in all, I can think of six women that speak on screen, five that interact with the core group, and two that have names.
Let’s straight up rule out the barmaid in the dirty hut where Billy guns down his first outlaw. Admittedly there’s a huge part of me wants to rail against the three unnamed, crudely put together female characters that are there only to help develop the Regulators’ characters (a Latina bar wench, a hooker with a heart of gold, and a silent Mexican bride) but instead I decided to give them as much thought as the writers gave them – none at all.
I ‘m also going to avoid discussing Susan McSween because, as a white woman of some social and financial standing, she doesn’t come out too badly. Other than her husband (spoiler!) being dead, obviously. In real life, as referenced in the finale voiceover, Susan McSween went on to become an incredibly successful and prominent cattlewoman – the Cattle Queen of New Mexico, thank you very much – and, in the film, manages to slap a general across the face, so, by Western movie standards, she goes alright.
This leaves me with just one other female character with enough lines to earn herself a name and with any sort of bearing on the plot. One that fills me with a whole bunch of rage I’ve just got to get out of my system – the very fictional and the very frustrating Yen Sun.
Yen, while a fictional addition to a factual (by Hollywood standards) story, is plausibly historical. Her background is fairly predictable, coming from a family of launderers and making reference to female infanticide in China during the period, but it’s possible nonetheless. But let’s not concern ourselves with where she’s come from, stereotypical as it is, but rather with where’s she’s going – and why she’s going there.
Yen is the ward of main antagonist Murphy (Jack Palance). Well, that’s his angle anyway. Taken from her family as payment for a shirt they ruined, it’s generally presumed by other characters that when Murphy’s not showing her off at parties, she’s “house entertainment” – I’ll let you figure out what that euphemism might mean, and how it pertains to Asian hooker/submissive Asian stereotypes. On New Year’s Eve, she meets Josiah ‘Doc’ Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland, meaning that girl I get it), the Regulators’ resident poet. Struck by her beauty, he asks her to dance and, because Hollywood, he winds up falling madly in love with her. Yen resists him – she is ‘unclean’ (again, you can figure out that one for yourselves) and therefore unsuitable for a nice, gun slinging, faux academic outlaw like him – but, after much plagiarised poetry and flowers and breaking into Yen’s bedroom, she admits her feelings for him. She arrives on the scene of the final showdown, leaps from Murphy’s pony trap, and runs into the McSween house, intent on reuniting with her sensitive cowboy.
It’s somewhere between Doc creeping into Murphy’s house to see Yen and Yen legging it into McSween’s house to see Doc that things get pretty uncomfortable, because it’s painfully (and predictably) obvious that Yen occupies the role of a submissive China Doll/Butterfly character.
Here with more on that is Cristen from Stuff Mom Never Told You.
(Sidenote: If anyone has any YouTube links featuring an Asian person talking about this, I’d be super keen to share it instead)
Yen slots perfectly into this, most notably because she is depicted as sweetly ‘uncultured’, childlike in her intimate interactions, and – here’s the kicker – because her entire existence is predicated on her being “necessary” and needed by a (white) man.
It’s not an uncommon trope by any means and the concept is particularly prevalent in portrayals of East meets West relationships. One of two major stock characters for Chinese women in film (the other being the Dragon Lady), the demure, submissive, generally less educated butterfly is saved by the strong, intelligent Western male, who promises her beautiful things and a life of love and value.
We see this in Young Guns through Doc’s courting of her – quoting poetry (and pretending its his own because, LOL, she can’t read), presenting her with flowers, generally treating her a thousand times better than it’s suggested Murphy does – and through Yen’s profoundly tragic desire to be seen as necessary.
Murphy exploits it – “he has made me necessary” – while Doc embraces it – “I can’t do without you,” – but the implication is the same. Yen must be needed to feel validated; there must be a man in her life for her to provide for in some way in order for her to feel as though she exists at all. And far from discouraging that, Doc taps into that need. That’s why she risks her life to run to him – he told her he needs her. Her aim, noble and sweet as it is, is to be necessary. To be useful. To serve. And while there’s a “love” story at the heart of it, it’s hard not to squirm a little when Yen clings to Doc in the burning McSween house and whispers “necessary” to herself.
Indeed, this moment makes for even more difficult viewing when you consider that in early film portrayals of this kind of interracial relationship, it wasn’t unusual for the Asian female to wind up dead, whether from sacrificing herself for love or honour, or as a result of the machinations of others. In reference to this cinematic trope, Anna May Wong, an early cinema star and one of the most famous Chinese-American actresses in Hollywood history, was quoted as saying that her tombstone should read “She died a thousand deaths.”
When Yen goes into that house, a house surrounded by soldiers and weapons and riddled with bullet holes, it’s unlikely that she believes she’s getting out of there alive. Yen, like all the Butterflies and Dragon Ladies before her, is likely set for a sticky end.
She doesn’t by the way. Had you worried there for a second, hey?
On top of all that, Doc is kind of an asshole. He’s less of an asshole than Billy because everyone is less of an asshole than Billy, other than the villains of the piece, but if Young Guns was set today Doc would definitely have a top knot, an extensive knowledge of one weirdly specific type of alcohol, and a habit of pretending he liked stuff before it was cool.
That’s the man Yen runs towards almost certain death for.
Reader, I CANNOT.
This is a man that broke into her room, pushed her to say she loved him, and then bailed, without even thinking about what Murphy might have done once he’d connected the open window to the frightened Yen to the posse of idiot cowboys making his life very difficult. Doc might have all the right words, but he still thinks with his dick, and damn it, Yen deserves better. She deserves better than fucking necessary.
The core tenet of the amazing Feminist Frequency is that we should be critical of the media we love. And, girl, I fucking love Young Guns. I could watch it every day for the rest of my life and I’d enjoy every single moment of it. Especially the parts with Lou Diamond Phillips but that’s besides the point.
The thing is, I also know it’s flawed. Deeply flawed. And we’ve got to stop being afraid of breaking things down a little, and of taking a closer look at those flaws. Because when we do, we can start to come up with ways to address these issues, to make these things we love even better, and to do away with harmful stereotypes that are as damaging as they are really bloody boring to watch. There’s no place for them in 2019, 1988, or even 1878.
For centuries, armies made use of a siege tactic called undermining. To take down fortified positions such as castles or walled cities (or deeply entrenched bullshit, DO YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS?), teams of attackers would dig under structural walls and weaken them to the point of collapse.
Make like a Middle Ages besieger and lay siege to the media you love. Undermine the shit that holds women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and anyone not-white, not-rich, not-hot and not-a-dude back. Tweet about it, blog about it, drink too many ciders at the pub and yell in your friends’ faces about it. Because the more of us chipping away at these walls, the sooner they’re going to collapse.