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Yellowstone’s Brand of White Grievance Is Free-Range and Organic

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Paramount Network

Into It host Sam Sanders got hooked on Yellowstone through his Aunt Betty, who recommended the show during one his regular visits; he finished the first season (nine hour-long episodes) in two days. It’s about the Duttons, a dysfunctional white family — with Kevin Costner playing the patriarch — in charge of a huge Montana megaranch. Think Succession meets Dallas meets Big Sky, Montana. It is wildly popular, one of the most viewed dramas on TV: Its most recent season finale had more than 10 million viewers — live.

But the Yellowstone cinematic universe, comprised of the show and its spinoffs 1883, 1923, and 6666, keeps getting snubbed by the Emmys in spite of its popularity and star power. Some say it’s because Yellowstone, the show itself, and the people who like it are too conservative. This week, Sam connects with New York Times columnist Tressie McMillan Cottom, who recently wrote about the show’s identity, its secret liberal fans, and how its apolitical politics impacts our culture at large. You can read an excerpt from their talk below, and check out the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

Sam Sanders: What I see in this show, once I begin to look at it critically, and especially after reading your piece, is that Kevin Costner sets up the imagery of conservative white grievance without any of the negative baggage.
Tressie McMillan Cottom: There it is.

So much of the narrative around the plight of the “white man,” as preached by Fox News, is that their country is under attack, that everything is being taken away from them. And in the packaging of Yellowstone, it’s a powerful, charismatic, beautiful actor wearing that grievance — an homage to the idea of white America’s last stand.
Absolutely. I was speaking with someone, a scholar of such things, and he said, “This is what the western genre is. It is about a white imagination, where the white imagination goes to play with the alternate versions of itself.”

This show in post-Trump America, the political backdrop of white grievance and white reclamation that we are undergoing, trying to claw back to a sort of mythical 40, 50 years ago, when our systems worked better for white Americans than they did for non-white Americans. Yellowstone presents a counternarrative to the the gray-haired, paranoid character that we mock on social media, and more liberal media, and prestige media. It is a white grievance that you can feel good about.

You write in your piece that it’s not exactly just a conservative show. The show has portrayals of Native people that aren’t the best, but it’s not trying to stereotype them. There are queer people. The conservative white family isn’t outright racist and embraces people of color on the farm. It’s not nearly as harsh and combative as the Fox News version of white grievance.
The co-option of diversity throughout Yellowstone is one of the most fascinating aspects to me because visually it is a very diverse show. You have a full slate of Native American characters. Not necessarily Native American actors, I think the Native American community would want us to note, but Native American characters who have their own settings, their own backstories, their own politics. That’s pretty rare in a prestige television show. And they are offered up as being at least as complex as the Duttons. You’ve got Black cowboys.

Which I always love to see.
Yes. Listen, I’m a big fan of Black cowboys.

They were the original cowboys.
And the show is gorgeous. It’s shot beautifully. You’re getting a lot of visual eye candy. All of these people are getting good lighting and good costume design. It’s amazing visually, but the politics of having that kind of diversity is very cosmetic, which is the preference of white identity politics that says, For liberals to call us racists, when we accept all people, this is the American principle of a melting pot. But always with the assumption that “you” will aspire to be like “us.”

That is actually more of a conservative principle than having just outright blatant racist, and it’s how conservative politics actually operates in most people. The show is actually quite sophisticated in offering up a conservative politics that looks more like the nuanced way that people actually experience it than the sort of firebrand of conservative politics that we usually get.

Oh yeah. Any Yellowstone meta-analysis is really asking what Americans can and should think of institutions. You see this family that says, In order to defend our territory, we cannot rely on any institution. The cops can’t do it. The courts can’t do it. The government can’t do it. So either we do it ourselves or we co-opt those institutions toward our own end.
That’s right.

And when I think of it that way, it’s like, Oh, this sits right next to a lot of framing of political discourse happening in conservative politics right now. And Yellowstone, whether we want to see it or not, is in conversation with those ideas.
Absolutely. Yellowstone is a powerful cultural object in large part because it does not feel like a political object to millions of people. When you tune into that show and see that extreme apathy toward social progress and the institutions that have made it possible, then you have on some level accepted the frame that social institutions are failing, that they are going to continue to fail — and that the logical response is not to shore up those institutions. If Yellowstone was a liberal show aimed at liberal politics, its foundational principle would be reformation, right? But the conservative principle of Yellowstone is withdrawal. It is to withdraw from social institutions and double down on the family as the only thing that can save you.

There you go.
That’s it.

What I found so interesting in the discourse around your piece and people talking to you on social media about whether or not they watch Yellowstone is that it seems like some liberals only felt comfortable telling you that they watch the show through DMs.
Yes. One woman wrote a very long DM to justify herself and explain to me that she was a true progressive. I think she told me who she voted for. And then she said, “I can’t say any of this on social media because I have a job.” And I was like —

To think about your preferences being so tied to your identity and your performance of your identity to other people — that just saying you watch a soap opera is a challenge to your social status — was amazing. Very sociological, but amazing.

It is so interesting to see the response to your piece and to the show itself feel so polarized because, as you argue, it’s not that cut and dried. It’s not just stereotypically conservative. It’s not just anti-elite. In fact, it has some media elites working in and on this show. Taylor Sheridan, who made this show, was nominated for an Academy Award a few years ago for the script he wrote for Hell or High Water.
Which, let me tell you something: I saw some reporting that Taylor Sheridan has a spread that is the size of Manhattan.

Exactly. He’s elite-elite.
Do you know who I now think of Taylor Sheridan as being the parallel to?

I think of him as the white person’s Tyler Perry.

Did you hear my jaw on the floor right now? Please unpack this for me.
They’ve both identified an audience that feels isolated and rejected by mainstream popular culture. They have invested a lot of creative energy in building a whole universe of characters for that audience. And they take a lot of pride in being outsiders in the mainstream Hollywood system.

Now, I think Taylor Sheridan has better wigs on his sets hands down.

Well, that’s a low bar.
And he’s definitely spending more money on his shows than I think Tyler is spending. But their audiences are so loyal and bring out the same sort of shame and embarrassment among people who feel like they shouldn’t be watching it.

Wow. I love that. When I watched the first season with my Aunt Betty, we just watched it for the fun. She still watches it, and I asked her this week, “Do you think of the politics of this show in terms of conservative politics and white politics and grievance politics? Do you think about any of those things when you watch Yellowstone?” And she said, “No, it’s just fun.” And I wonder, do we think most viewers are watching it with the eye that we are discussing right now? And do you think it’s fair to put this frame of politics on the show? I love doing it, but there might be some folks who say it’s not fair to do all that with this soap opera.
Not only are there folks who would say that — those folks have said it to me. So yes. Your Aunt Betty is like my Aunt Helen or my grandma or all of the other people that I grew up watching stories with. They have been trained by popular culture how to consume something like Yellowstone without thinking about its politics.

This interview excerpt has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Sheridan’s Texas property — where Yellowstone is filmed and which he purchased for more than $300 million this year with a group of investors — covers 266,000 acres, making it nearly 20 times the size of Manhattan.
Yellowstone’s Free-Range, Organic Brand of White Grievance