When the Western-themed video game Red Dead Redemption 2 launched last month, it achieved the highest-grossing opening weekend of any entertainment product ever.
Those of us who teach GCSE English resits know the value of lassoing student crazes as they gallop by, and jumping on for the ride.
As a fan of westerns myself, who as a teenager watched the brat-packed, Bon Jovi-soundtracked Young Guns movies far too many times, I didn’t need an excuse.
What became clear once I began discussing it with students was a stark gender divide: only a tiny number of girls indicated that they enjoyed Westerns.
In the classroom, loudly playing the trailer to Netflix’s western series Godless helps to bring a little balance. Merritt Wever’s kick-ass character, Mary, declaring, “We’re a lot fucking stronger than you think we are,” and pumping a shotgun caught the girls’ attention.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the novel True Grit, which, equally, provides plenty of scope for use in the classroom.
My resit students much preferred an extract from Stephen King’s sort-of-western Wizard and Glass. But there we’re back to women as witches, at worst, and sacrifices on the altar of male character development, at best.
What all of this does highlight though is the enormous freedom of the 9-1 English language specification. And there’s just something about Red Dead Redemption 2 that speaks to me as a teacher.
In 1899, the Old West is disappearing and Arthur Morgan is on the run. Like Morgan, there are some of us who want to keep the wild freedom alive as long as possible.
We’ll keep moving, looking for any last unexploited means to keep the creativity and joy in English in the face of the industrialists’ clamour for functionalism.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college