Key Take-Away by Petersen: Timberlake has long reminded me of the mischievous neighbor boys I grew up with. Maybe it’s the fact that I watched him grow up, alongside those boys, on the Mickey Mouse Club; maybe it’s the sense, woven through his comedy in particular, that there’s a small, playful devil on his shoulder. He’s not unlike Huckleberry Finn, who, like Timberlake, wanted to flee the burden of dealing with the racialized reality of the South: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” Huck famously said, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I’ve been there before.” As Limerick explains, the West has long served this function: a “mechanism” to escape the “trials and burdens” of American civilization and the heavy tensions of the South in particular.
“The theory was the same,” Limerick writes, “the West is remote and vast; its isolation and distance will release us from conflict; this is where we can get away from each other.” The “Wild West, but now” is where we can get away from the internet and Twitter and Instagram, away from the hard questions that make us consider things we’d rather not. But that belief is as mythical as the rest that shape the West in the popular imagination, and Limerick has little patience for its perpetuation: “the workings of history carried the opposite lesson,” she writes. “The West is not where we escaped each other, but where we all met.” It’s where, in other words, the larger questions of privilege, whiteness, power, and masculinity seem to crystallize themselves in their most potent forms.
The great privilege of white masculinity has always been to avoid those questions. But these days, none of our contemporary Huck Finns — whether Donald Trump Jr., or Justin Timberlake — can excuse himself from those conversations without consequences.