Save a Horse, (Do Not) Ride (This Particular) Cowboy: An Ace Reading of Arthur Morgan

A while ago, when I dug deep into the appeal of a certain fictional outlaw and a certain fictional assassin, I made a passing mention to the potential of reading Arthur as on the asexual spectrum. While this is a thought that’s been bouncing around my head like an old Windows screensaver for a long time, and something I’ve thrown around with friends and loved ones a bit, it’s not something I’ve ever put down in longform. And yet, I thought, what is a personal blog for if not the occasional slightly eccentric, semi-academic deep-dive character study that may be of interest to yourself and maybe three other people?

In this post we’ll look at a few things: the straightforward bits, like analysing interactions from the text itself (it is a game mechanic that this man does not bone), broader story beats (for example, the narrative’s deliberate emphasis on non-traditional relationships and found family, a very ace-resonant business), as well as some other paratextual framing stuff such as what reading him as ace adds to some of the narrative’s themes, and the all important qualifier of resonance that I discussed in this post: I’m ace and I vibe with him. Let’s dive in!

Metatextual evidence:

Cowboys are not for the heterosexuals

This is, I hope, not a statement out of left field. I could talk here about the very queer history of the Old West, gradually coming more and more to light; or I could talk about contemporary popular culture, wherein we have openly queer public figures like Orville Peck and Lil Nas X reminding us with gusto that the yeehaw brand need not be straight nor heteronormative. I could talk more broadly about how concepts like seeking freedom away from society’s norms and forming tight-knit groups of misfits that could be considered found families, all resonate with a LGBTQIA+ mindset—and so there’s a certain queer resonance to be found in stories of outlaw gangs and roving frontier heroes. I could talk about the reclamation and use of language like “gender outlaws” in queer theory (look at that glorious wanted poster font on the cover!).

Now, usually these acknowledgements of both the historical West and Westerns as a genre lean towards talking about homoeroticism, but hey, we can take a broader brush and look at the queer potential here without it necessarily having to include the “eroticism” bit.

Deconstruction of yeehaw masculinity

As many interviews, particularly with Arthur’s motion capture actor, will tell you, there is definitely a meta undercurrent to his character of unpacking this idea of the big tough manly Western (anti?)hero. He’s allowed to be emotional and vulnerable in ways that attempt to crack the veneer of traditional masculinity, in quite a deliberate manner. Presenting a vision of masculinity that doesn’t hinge on sexual activity and sexual appetite is just one more point in favour of this!

Embodiment of queer tropes

We know he’s not straight because he dies at the e—

Let’s leave that one by, actually. Salt in wounds and all.

Textual evidence:

The “sorry ma’am” clause (it is a game mechanic that this man does not bone)

In the first game you play as John Marston on his quest to get his kidnapped family back. Having matured past the commitment-phobia he showed in the prequel, he’s a dedicated and faithful husband, and this is built into the gameplay itself. In every saloon you visit there will be at least a few ladies of the evening who will say hi and offer their services, but John’s response, every time, is to turn them down—often with some variation of “sorry ma’am, I’m married”. Now, if we’re being a little cynical, you could read this as a neat compromise on Rockstar’s part, since they quite famously got in trouble the last time they tried to implement sex into their games: they get to keep the bawdy atmosphere that’s a common part of the Western, but they have a sensible reason why the player-character can’t actively engage with it. That’s probably the practical reason, but on a story level it gives us a nice little character detail. There are many things you can control about John’s characterisation, but this is not one of them. You can play him as the most dastardly bastard who ever lived, tying damsels to train tracks all day long, but you cannot play him as someone who cheats on his wife.

So, with that in mind, what’s Arthur’s excuse? Not that he needs one, of course—real human beings don’t owe you a dissertation-length list of reasons for not wanting to have sex. And, as above, we can probably extrapolate that the “excuse” from the creative team is that they super aren’t allowed to have a game mechanic where you engage with sex work. But still, all that aside, looking at this as a decision of characterisation, it’s interesting to note that his polite refusals carry that same “sorry ma’am” but without the attached “I’m married”.

(Yes, there is a rare encounter where a lady flirts with you and you can take her offer to leave the bar with her, but a) from my view he seems more interested in genuinely telling her the tales and legends that she asks him about, b) his dumb ass gets robbed if you follow this through. Could this be the game “punishing” you for your sidestep from what he’d normally do? Perhaps not so directly, but it’s certainly a thought. Perform allosexuality at your own risk)

Learning more about his past, a set of perfectly reasonable, character-based justifications crop up. Maybe he’s still lovesick over his once-fiancée and is as dedicated to her as John is to his actual wife in the first game. We know he’s something of a hopeless romantic who would love nothing more than to settle down with a family, so maybe he only wants to get intimate with someone he really cares about—a personal ideology that rules out sex with a stranger. Or maybe he’s sworn off casual sex because of the one-night-stand from his youth that resulted in an illegitimate son, who he tried and ultimately failed to be A Good Dad to, and who ended up murdered alongside his mother. Maybe he’s just got too much to do, wrangling an entire gang of law-fleeing dumbasses (not to mention all those side quests!) that he doesn’t feel there’s the time nor the emotional availability in his schedule for gettin’ down.

Or maybe he’s genuinely, fundamentally, just not interested.

In any case, it’s an unshakeable part of Arthur’s characterisation that he does not bone, as much as it’s an unshakeable part of John’s that he’s loyal to his wife. Now, you can pay the sex workers employed by the saloons, but only for a bath—and yes, that has deeply scandalous connotations especially in the time period, but it must be noted that it still isn’t sex. The cut-scene might start with a pretty lady swishing into the room, framed in a particular way and often dropping some vaguely sultry dialogue, but then it abruptly switches to her sitting on the edge of the tub helping you scrub while you either sit there silently or engage her in small talk, such as asking if she’s lived in town long or telling her about your old dog.

As I noted in my previous post, these scenes are almost hilariously non-sexual. In fact, you could even read Arthur’s awkward conversation starters as an attempt to disperse the fog of sexual implications from the scene. “So, is there a man in your life? Tell me about how much you like him. I promise I’m not interested in you that way.” “I used to take baths with my dog, you know! Isn’t that gross? Can I tell you about my dog? Please, please, please don’t be attracted to me.”

We’ve all been there (well, maybe not all of us, but there was something oddly relatable about his anti-flirting). It’s all very matter-of-fact, is the thing, and the emphasis in these scenes is placed immovably on intimacy that has nothing to do with sexual closeness. Sometimes you just want someone to chat to, and sometimes you just want the glorious, but distinctly non-sexual, pleasure of someone else washing your hair. Have you tried that? Go to a hairdresser, treat yourself. Or get your partner to do it. It’s good stuff. Charles Boyle was right.

Narrative priorities: emphasis on non-sexual, non-romantic relationships

red_dead_redemption_2_arthur_and_sadie_995924-768x432-1

There’s plenty of love in Arthur’s life, he just doesn’t have a “love life” in the usual sense that that means. He certainly has a deep capacity for romance: watching his complicated relationship play out with Mary, the woman he was once all set to marry, is evidence enough of that. And the emphasis in that subplot is definitely romance and the domestic vision of a family they could have had rather than on any sexual feelings he might harbour. The closest we get to a glimpse of physical neediness is Arthur attempting to do the old yawn-stretch and put his arm around her shoulders at the theatre, to no avail (who knows, though? They were young when they fell in love. Maybe the last time he tried that, it actually worked). And there’s not anything inherently sexual about that, either. The man just wants to cuddle up to someone he cares about.

There’s also hints of romantic tension sprinkled between him and the recently-widowed Charlotte who he helps teach some survival skills, but again, to me, the emphasis there is on the impossible emotional yearning between the two of them—knowing that he’s dying, and she’s too deep in her grief to pursue a new relationship even if he did have a future—rather than sexual attraction. You could make an argument for the classic “oh let me just slip behind you while I show you how to aim a gun” bit, but it feels very accidental. A tenet of being ace is that you’ll occasionally do or say things that you only realise have a sexual or sensual connotation after the fact, given that the possibility hadn’t crossed your mind.

As I noted in my other cowboy analysis, much of the appeal that players (particularly those who are not cis dudes) noted about Arthur was his distinct softness, gentleness, and general lack of threatening characteristics when it comes to his interactions with women—visible sexual appetite included. Watching his dynamics with the ladies in his gang demonstrates this wonderfully, but watching his interactions with these two women who it’s clear he has some draw to makes this even more obvious. This man is filled with yearnings, but the narrative places the emphasis on their emotionality rather than attraction.

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Earlier drafts of the story apparently saw a romance developing between him and Sadie, the widow hellbent on vengeance that the gang rescues at the start of the game (this man really is a widow-magnet, isn’t he?). I find it odd imagining a version of the finished game where this plotline did go through: for one thing, would falling for someone else in such a short space of time invalidate Sadie’s revenge quest, which is ultimately driven by the deep and genuine love she felt for her hubby? Would it run the risk of pushing Sadie into The Love Interest role and adjusting her characterisation? As it stands, I’m mostly just impressed that we don’t have to answer those questions, because the storyline was removed where I’m much more used to romances being shoehorned in.

What we get instead is a great friendship between Arthur and Sadie. It maintains a lot of the empathy and intimacy they develop over the course of the plot and their various shared traumas, but it lets that intimacy remain emotional. It ends up saying (whether the writers were thinking about this or not) “hey, you can deeply trust, rely on, confide in, relate to, and care about someone without that care being tangled up with love and sex.”

Overall, aside from those romantic-ish subplots with Mary and Charlotte (and they are very much subplots—not even required missions), the focus of the game is complex familial and platonic relationships. To quote the same interview I linked above, this story is about a dysfunctional family falling apart. It’s about love, but not romance: loving people and wanting to protect them, loving people and dealing with the crushing realisation that you’ll never see them again, loving people who hurt you and reckoning with the fact that love has made you wilfully blind to their flaws. Love between adopted children and their multiple parents, love between partners in crime, love between people who once loved each other romantically but realised it wasn’t going to work out, love between fellow outlaws that falls somewhere more complicated than simply thinking of them as your siblings.

rdr2 campfire

It’s that found family idea, which, as I mentioned above, has a lot of queer resonance—particularly for folks on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrums, communities which place a lot of emphasis on untangling society’s dominant idea of “love” as always equalling “we’re going to get married, have sex on the reg, and hopefully have 2.5 children”. The gang—this non-traditional family unit—exists on the run outside the norms of “civilisation”. Arthur and Mary wouldn’t have worked out, they say, because he could never have committed to leaving all that behind and settling down with (the 19th century equivalent of) a white picket fence in a nice neighbourhood.

This conflict where he ends up torn between traditional expectations and his very non-traditional family is woven into the whole Death of the West theme of the game’s narrative, but hey, you don’t have to dig too deep to see that queer (and especially ace) resonance there too. Arthur’s story places its emphasis on found family and explores plenty of complex non-sexual relationships along the way, to the point where sexual relationships feel like a distant afterthought in the narrative’s priorities. Given this is Arthur’s story, that speaks to his priorities, and those priorities ring true to an ace character.

But wait, didn’t you say he had a kid?

Fair question. But we know very little about that aforementioned, ill-fated fling, and aside from the ensuing tragedy, we don’t know much about his feelings about it. Which, honestly, leaves more room for this reading rather than taking room away. A lot of ace people do end up having sexual relationships in various ways, since you can still experience sexual desire (and sexual pleasure) without feeling sexual attraction. Worth noting too that it could have been a case of experimentation, seeing what all the fuss was about, or fulfilling an idea of what you’re “supposed to” do. This happens often enough, especially when language and context for what asexuality is, and the fact that it’s an option, aren’t readily available. I’m ready to read this one-time thing as an exception that proves a rule, especially since it’s the only sexual relationship we know about in his history.

But he jokes/sings/talks about sex sometimes!

Not all asexuality equals being repulsed by sex. Naturally, if you notice that it’s a big part of the world around you, you’re going to join in those discussions at least from the margins—a form of blending in, if you can’t gracefully shut the conversation down. Plus, you can think a song about genitals is funny even if you’re not keen to engage with them yourself.

But I think he’s hot!

Sure, valid! He’s a handsome fellow! But someone being attractive does not mean they feel attraction themselves, nor do they owe you any return of your feelings. Again, we’re talking about fictional characterisation rather than real people here, but let’s all just remember to keep that in mind.

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Authorial evidence:

I’m ace and I vibe with him

I’m ace and I vibe with him.

Conclusion

As with most queer textual readings, this is not an attempt to persuade you that the creators deliberately wrote this character with this identity in mind (and I’m not going to go knocking on Rockstar’s door to ask that they confirm it). It’s merely an attempt to lay out what I take as evidence for the ace potential of this character, which, I hope you can see, is lying there in between the lines—and sometimes right on top of them. It’s interesting to dig into: an ace reading of Arthur adds even more layers to the story’s deconstructive undercurrent and its play with traditional tropes of masculine heroism, and it adds an extra dimension to the decision to place found family relationships, outside the norms of love and sex and marriage, at the story’s heart.

If nothing else, it’s been a fascinating journey to realise how and why I felt such an oddly specific draw to this character, and the main character of an action blockbuster game at that. I’m not going to label this ace representation, but it feels worthy of note: a point of interest, a hazy vision of future potential as these ideas might become more normalised in mainstream media. Yeehaw, everybody.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Save a Horse, (Do Not) Ride (This Particular) Cowboy: An Ace Reading of Arthur Morgan

  1. Pingback: April ’20 Roundup | The Afictionado

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