"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Women in Westerns

Howdy, Ma'am

The West of the Western movie has always been an essentially masculine place. Looking at it impartially, that is a bit odd because traditionally women have been associated with nature and freedom, while men have been, stereotypically, the conventional, law and order types. So we might imagine that men would be more urban creatures, setting up businesses and building churches, while women would relate to the wide open spaces of the frontier. But the reverse is true.

In the Western myth women, or anyway white women, are the civilizers. The men in Westerns roam free, explore, mine, punch cattle, drink in saloons, get into gunfights. The women run the home, teach school, organize temperance leagues and go to church.
It is true that the early West was a very male place. Mining camps, especially, were full of men who had left their families back home to make money on their own. “This is no place for a lady” kind of thing. Even when settlers came in and towns started to grow it has been estimated that men may have outnumbered women in the West by as much as 7:1.

In the Hollywood West women are usually genteel, prim and against violence. A classic example is Amy (Grace Kelly, right) in High Noon. She does everything to try to persuade her new husband the marshal to abandon the town and go away with her rather than face the gunmen. But of course in Westerns “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” (and eventually Amy stands by her man, even abandoning her Quaker principles by shooting in the back the man who is about to kill her husband).

Or think of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) in
My Darling Clementine. She is all grace and Eastern civilization (actually she’s too prim by half) juxtaposed with the tough Western gunmanship of Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda). Gene Tierney does the same to Fonda in The Return of Frank James. She’s not so prim but she’s just as urban and urbane.
In Four Faces West, a charming 1948 B-Western with Joel McCrea, Frances Dee (Mrs. McCrea) is a nurse, though she could just have well have been a schoolteacher, also from the East, shocked by the violence and brutality of the West, who brings McCrea’s character to civilization.

In The Gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) is an aging gunman wanting to hang up his irons but he knows that sooner or later some punk kid is going to get him. He wants to see his estranged wife and son one last time. What is his wife doing? Why, she’s the schoolteacher, of course. Schoolteaching was a sign of respectability, civilization - womanhood in fact. Carroll Baker in Cheyenne Autumn or Molly Stark Wood in The Virginian are the same.

These women suggest that a man don’t necessarily gotta do what a man’s gotta do, if you’ll forgive the grammar. The West would be a more civilized place if he didn’t. Or didn’t gotta (my syntax has gone all to hell now).

If they aren’t urban schoolteachers, women are sturdy ranchers' or farmers' wives. Here again they are often against violence. In
Shane, Marian Starrett says, “Guns aren't going to be my boy's life.” And when Shane answers that “a gun is a tool, no better or worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel, or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it,” Marian replies, “We'd all be better off if there wasn't a single gun in this valley, including yours.” She’s right, of course.

These women epitomize sexual morality too. The love of Shane for Marian Starrett or Ethan in
The Searchers for his sister-in-law is threatening to the standards of civilization and has to be suppressed or sublimated. Shane’s chaste courtship of Marian is the courtly love of a knight for an unattainable lady.

The redemptive woman became a standard trope of the early Western, especially those of William S Hart, Hell’s Hinges (1916) for example. The good woman who makes a Western badman see the error of his ways and reform is a classic plot device and had been since The Virginian in 1902 or before. It was to last.

But these women are symbols of civilization in an essentially male drama of a lawless West. If a woman did top the billing of a Western – Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, for example – it was for commercial/box-office reasons, not because she was going to play the dominant role in the story.

Just occasionally a woman was the heroine of a Western. Lillian Gish excelled as a girl driven mad by the frontier life in the silent movie The Wind in 1928. But this was incredibly rare in the early days.

But in Westerns there was another kind of woman. From the 1930s on, ‘colorful’ women of the West like Annie Oakley or Calamity Jane were featured in movies, though screen Annies and Janes were notoriously false and often the pictures were actually just tales of how these women found true love with the male lead.

There was another trend of strong, dominant women, sometimes shown as bandit chiefs. Belle Starr, 'Queen of the Oklahoma Bandits', was a favorite of B-Westerns and appeared in several, as did Rose Dunn, 'Cimarron Rose', who was romantically involved with Bittercreek Newcomb of the Dalton-Doolin gang. One movie, Belle Starr's Daughter, even combined them and had Belle as Rose's mother. Dietrich was the mob boss who manipulated men in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in 1952. Barbara Stanwyck commanded her Forty Guns in 1957 and, in a lighter vein, Jane Russell did the same in Son of Paleface.  Then there was Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar. These women wore pants and low-slung holsters. Stanwyck made rather a specialty of grande dame Western women. In The Violent Men or Cattle Queen of Montana she was a cattle baroness and not a very scrupulous one either. Later she ruled over The Big Valley on TV.

But often these were women playing men, if you see what I mean. In the case of Johnny Guitar it was a deliberate reversal of roles for effect. Feminist, possibly? The film is admired by feminists anyway. But to this man Johnny Guitar appears as nothing so much as a Western in drag, a camp classic. But I’m probably swimming in dangerous waters here.

Where they weren’t symbols of decency and civilization or men-women, female characters were often ‘dancers’, ‘saloon girls’, or, as the modern Western dawned, more daringly, ‘upstairs girls’. These were euphemisms, of course. The blunt word for what they really were could not be used.  The puritanism of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the Hays Office censors and Hollywood self-censorship too wouldn’t allow the use of such a term.

Foreign women are especially likely to play these roles. Marlene in Destry was ‘Frenchy’ (naturally, for a German). In High Noon, Mexican Helen Ramirez’s past is alluded to. Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) in McCabe & Mrs. Miller was English. Perhaps film makers didn’t want to offend American apple-pie motherhood, and dubious foreigners were a safer bet. Or maybe the (male) movie makers just thought they were more exotic.

If American, such women were sometimes named after places, presumably the places where they had plied their trade, like Dallas in Stagecoach, Colorado in Colorado Territory, Denver in Wagonmaster, Waco in The Silver Whip, Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, Dakota Lil, and so on. It was a sign of doubtful respectability.

By the late 60s and early 70s the professions of ‘saloon gals’ were being more blatantly described. Think of Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller, Faye Dunaway’s Mrs. Pendrake in Little Big Man, Jeanne Moreau’s Martine in Monte Walsh or Stella Stevens’s Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. In the 1980s we had Lorena in Lonesome Dove and in the 90s the abused women who band together to revenge one of their own in Unforgiven. The mealy-mouthed oblique references of the past had been banished in a blaze of 60s and 70s frankness. The frankest - and bleakest - depiction of the exploitation and abuse of women by men comes in Deadwood.

In the standard Western plot, the male hero, Randolph Scott, for example, dallies with two belles, a prim-and-proper one and a racier saloon gal, finally, of course, opting for the ‘decent’ lady with whom he departs in connubial bliss in the last reel (for naturally no hanky-panky was permitted until the nuptials). There were a zillion examples of this but take, as just one, Powder River (1953). Just occasionally our expectations are confounded when the hero chooses the faster woman. But it was rare.

Macho director Budd Boetticher famously defined a woman’s role in a Western as making the hero react. “In herself she has no significance whatsoever.” This unpalatable opinion was reflected in Western after Western, where Hollywood starlets (as they were termed) may have been given high billing in the cast list, for publicity/sales reasons, but had only a peripheral role to play in the plot.

But of course the times, they were a-changin’.

In 1969 Kim Darby’s spirited Mattie even bossed cranky old John Wayne about in True Grit. She was an equal partner in the chase, despite her youth. Women weren’t just adjuncts any more.

In the 1990s there was a revival of the woman-with-a-gun character of the 40s and 50s. In Bad Girls (1994) four tough and feisty ‘working’ women go on the run pursued by Pinkertons. In The Quick and the Dead (1995) Sharon Stone did a Clint impression as a female gunslinger out for revenge. And in this century Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz were Bandidas in Mexico (reprising Bardot and Cardinale in Les Pétroleuses in 1971).

In reality, though, the woman of the West did not go about with a Colt on her hip and have quick-draw showdowns against male gunslingers at high noon. She was, instead, the foundation rock of Western expansion, settlement and society.

One of the great things about modern Westerns is their portrayal of women. Gone are the prim teacher/saloon gal stereotypes. We begin to see the Western woman as she must have been and women are shown as real people with their own characters and agendas. Take a modern film like The Missing. Cate Blanchett is a single woman living the ferociously hard life of the frontier. She runs the place and doctors the local folk and she sets out to find her abducted daughter with courage, skill and force. This would have been essentially a male role in earlier Westerns. Or watch the recent The Homesman where Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy is incredibly strong and resourceful. Here we see the real steel of the frontier woman.

Actually, this notion had been prefigured in the splendid Westward the Women, directed by William A Wellman back in 1951, in which misogynistic Robert Taylor gradually learns respect for feminine true grit as the tough women fight off Indians in the scorching desert. Four years later Taylor again surrendered to the dominant woman – Eleanor Parker’s amorous pioneer – in Many Rivers to Cross (though that was a very weak picture compared with Westward the Women).

Where ‘less respectable’ women do appear in modern Westerns, the appalling exploitation of such women by men is the main focus. Watch Broken Trail for its sympathetic (but not patronizing) portrayal of Chinese women and girls sold into slavery for sexual purposes. There is certainly a feminist tinge to
Unforgiven. The women who pool their money to hire gunmen to punish the cowboys who cut up one of the ‘sisters’ are empowered, dominant. They live in a violent, hard world and can be just as violent and hard as the men if needs be.

We've come a long way from
My Darling Clementine. But Westerns have always reflected the mores and culture of the era in which they were made. In fact Westerns of the 1940s and 50s were probably more reflective of the standards of those decades than they were of those of the frontier 1870s and 80s. So it is not surprising that, even in what is still a very male world – the production of Western movies – women in 21st century pictures are more independent, stronger and have more character.

Are we closer now to the real woman of the West? I think so. But then I’m a man.



  1. Hi Jeff
    very interesting post and (as always) good writing!

  2. Indeed a very nice post! Earlier this year there was a piece in The Guardian ( https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/21/jane-got-a-gun-most-women-in-westerns-dont?0p19G=c ) regarding women in western films though I think who wrote it could benefit a lot from the references in your post Jeff.
    Currently with all the political correctness there's quite a few movies with women as protagonists playing a Clint persona... January Jones alongside Ed Harris in Sweetwater (2013), Francesca Eastwood in Outlaws and Angels (2016), Eva Green in The Salvation (2014).
    Others recent movies sway from the traditional roll of women in westerns, such as Meek's Cutoff (2010) where they're represented similar to women in The Homesman (2014).

  3. Thanks for this, Felipe.
    I found the Guardian article rather interesting.
    Also some good tips on recent Westerns, and women in them.
    I hope to get round to reviewing them soon!
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Jeff,

      I've been reading your blog for some weeks now and it's been such a good read! I'm new to the genre and it has been an enlightening experience. While trying to understand the genre and its history I am curious to know if the great directors like John Ford, Delmer Daves, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Sturges criticized the spaghetti westerns. At the time did they say anything? I haven't found any material online regarding this...

    2. I'm not sure that someone like John Ford would even watch any. But certainly the spaghetti did have an influence on the mainstream American Western from the late 60s on. As an appendix to his book Spaghetti Westerns, Christopher Frayling writes on this impact. It's a rather pretentious film studies book, reading too much into everything, but he does also have some good points.
      How wonderful to be new to the genre and have an ocean of great Westerns to explore!

    3. Haha it has been a life changing experience Jeff! And I'm glad there are so many Westerns to watch!
      I've heard of Christopher Frayling's book I will eventually read it. Thank you for the suggestion. Although from what I've been in touch with I tend to think that people tend to read too much into the Spaghetti westerns... I believe more recently Quentin Tarantino kind of rekindled the fad... Haha. I've heard he's retiring, got my fingers crossed. Too overrated if you ask me... And he says he hates John Ford! What kind of serious filmmaker says something so outrageous? Maybe he's a shocker haha
      Thanks again Jeff!

  4. Glad to find someone else talking of Meek's Cutoff ! Westward the women is by no doubt one of the best westerns ever and there is at least an other example of a group of women with Fort Petticoat - Audie Murphy replacing Robert Taylor- that Jeff does not really like... Crawford and Stanwyck, in spite of Jeff's coldness are among the most proeminent roles in the genre with Dietrich - again Jeff.... You may consider to add the two women of Pursued who are essential. and also Lilian Gish, the most memorable of all the western "mothers" in Unforgiven. By the way you might also consider the Indian women one day who are absent of your essay, when since Pocahontas and Sacajawea, they have shown some importance isnt'it !? Thank you for your very rich blog. JM

  5. I mean The Unforgiven of course, sorry...JM