So last week I finished chapter 6 of Red Dead Redemption 2, and I'm currently making my way through the epilogue. There are a million things I could praise to the high heavens about this game, from its graphics to its world to its characters and story, but I want to highlight one aspect that I personally appreciated from Rockstar: the game's handling of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. At its heart, Red Dead 2 is a Western, and, of course, the classic image that we all have of the Wild West is the rough and masculine cowboy: always a man, and almost always white. Of course, our protagonist, Arthur Morgan, fits this description perfectly (while also being an excellently complex character in his own right), but that's not necessarily a bad thing: he serves as our window into this diversity. Through both its varied cast of main characters and through NPCs throughout the open world, Rockstar deconstructs our image of a cowboy and what the West truly was: a melting pot, just like the rest of America. Spoilers follow.
- First, on gender diversity:
- The first thing that struck me about Dutch's gang, when we encounter them running into the freezing mountains to escape the law, was the sheer amount of women in the gang. Characters like Abigail or Karen are just not people I ever would have expected to ride with a group of outlaws, and this forced me to recognize my own pre-conceptions that have been formed by media representations of the Wild West.
- Of course, the standout character with regards to gender diversity, one who shatters all preconceptions and then some, is Sadie Adler, a tragic widow who soon becomes one of the angriest and fiercest fighters in Dutch's gang, as well as one of Arthur's closest allies. Throughout the story, she is doubted by the others, and time and time again, she proves them wrong, sometimes a little too wrong, almost being consumed by rage and revenge. But we see similar levels of badassery from other women, such as when the usually prim and proper Ms. Grimshaw takes a shotgun-toting vulgar turn when Tilly gets kidnapped; Tilly shows a similar level of strength in that same quest. That's when it struck me: the women in Dutch's gang aren't just some poor prostitues; they're outlaws, and they can be just as ruthless as the men.
- Finally, women's suffrage is a theme brought up multiple times in the story, most funnily when Arthur is recruited to drive a carriage of suffragettes into the rowdy center of Rhodes in Chapter 3 (?). Obviously, in 1899, suffrage was one of the most pressing social issues of the time, and it's nice to see Rockstar highlight this, even if it's in the background. Surprisingly, Arthur takes a progressive stance towards suffrage: sure, why not, let's let women vote–but only because voting is a waste of time anyway.
- Onto racial and ethnic diversity:
- Dutch's gang also has a refreshing spectrum of color in its ranks: we have Lenny, a black man, Javier, a Mexican, and Charles, a half-black, half-Native American character. We see little to no racism among the gang, which is comforting. Even at the edges of civilization, among a group of violent outlaws, there is room for tolerance, respect, and brotherhood.
- At the same time, Red Dead 2 reminds us of a time when "whiteness" was not a monolith, and that there was remarkable diversity among the massive amount of European immigration to America. Of course, within the gang we have Strauss, a German, and Sean, an Irishman (RIP), but over the course of the story Arthur encounters a Polish man and a German family, both of whom can't even speak English. These moments serve as a helpful reality check: we really aren't that far from this point, when even Europeans were struggling to integrate into this new world.
- This diversity is underlines by the sheer amount of NPCs in the game. Saint Denis in particular is a true melting pot, featuring large amounts of black people, French-speaking whites, a literal Italian mafia, and, to my surprise, a Chinatown. I never thought of New Orleans (the city Saint Denis is obviously based on) as a place with a lot of Chinese people, and it turns out there's a reason for that: Chinatown, New Orleans was demolished in 1937. Rockstar really did their homework.
- Finally, I'd like to highlight the role of Native Americans in the story, and how awesome it is that Rockstar gives them such a large presence considering how much they've been erased, both within American media in general and Westerns in particular. Natives are rarely the stars in Westerns, almost always being relegated to the side as a faceless enemy or a noble savage. Eagle Flies and Rains Fall are great characters that perfectly highlight the two sides within the Native community (dignified resignation or a will to continue fighting), and basically the entirety of Chapter 6 revolves around an issue that was all too common at the turn of the century: Natives being kicked off of their land due to robber baron capitalism and government malice. Rockstar draws a fascinating comparison between the gang and the Natives of Wapiti, in that they are both outcasts from "civilization" and are both suffering as that civilization expands west in its neverending quest for material gain. Ultimately, Arthur is able to empathize perfectly with the Native struggle, leading to one of the best moments in the game: Dutch's gang of outlaws charging side-by-side with the Wapiti tribe to fight against the US army, the ultimate representation of the spirit of freedom that so defined the Wild West.
Ultimately, Red Dead Redemption 2 does a great job of reminding us where America has come from as a country, and that its history was never as monolithic as some would have you believe. I see it as both a celebration and condemnation of America, in all of its messy, awesome diversity.
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