The Feminist Western: A Vision of Equality

JULY / AUG 2017: BY CHARITY BISHOP

Westerns are often male-centric tales, drenched in the symbolism a great untamed frontier where you survive on pure grit and determination with a trusted rifle at your side. As women gain a more significant presence as leading characters, the modern western has evolved from a male-dominated script to stronger female roles. In many older westerns, the women serve as a backdrop: wives, sweethearts, or prostitutes.

Since The Missing, women have taken on more powerful, central roles. In that film, Cate Blanchett plays Magdalena, a woman who sets out to rescue her daughter from an Apache brujo (warlock) and a life of forced prostitution. She takes on a role that fifty years ago would have gone to a man: she plays a determined mother who will stop at nothing to save her children. This forces her to reunite with her aged and estranged father, Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones), who helps her track down the fiend. Even an enemy’s curse cannot defeat her indomitable spirit.

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The film itself shows a woeful lack of factual information about cattle and life in the west (my cowboy father, at one point, asked, who wrote this script, it’s obvious he’s never branded cattle!); but in terms of pure entertainment, it has a bit of everything—from a brutal adversary to a high stakes shoot-out and a tearful female reunion. Magdalena asserts herself early on by telling her daughter to never use her “monthly course to gain sympathy from a man.”

Because westerns are often gritty, violent affairs, it’s not unusual for the studio to assume their primary audience is a man, so in most modern westerns, the woman thinks, acts, and shoots for herself, but often recruits an older, wiser cowboy (or ex-husband / boyfriend, or brother) to help her face down gunslingers and provide the masculinity required to beat the hell out of adversaries.

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Another recent example of this is Jane Get Your Gun where the title heroine (Natalie Portman) dedides to save her husband and their ranch from the notorious Bishop Boys outlaw gang. After her husband comes home shot, she recruits her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost, to help her defend the shack. She is a fierce, determined, admirable woman of great pluck, sheer determination, and absolute loyalty to her husband “in sickness and in health,” but she also faces real threats that women in the west would have faced: being overpowered, smacked around, and even kidnapped, with her enemy (Ewan McGregor) intending to use her as a whore.

This film should have been better than it is, since the pacing suffers from a script that feels slow even when the stakes are high, but it’s a solid example of a “feminist” done well in a western setting. Jane knows her own mind, but she also knows her limitations. A similar terrific female character is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit. After somone guns down her father in cold blood, Mattie decides to bring him to justice and recruits the “trigger-happy, drunken” US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Though Rooster isn’t impressed with her gumption at first, he forms a grudging affection for the “half-pint” little miss who won’t take no for an answer. (This film is a remake of an original, starring John Wayne.)

The recent remake of The Magnificent Seven had a strong female role; when savage thieves ravage a small town, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) seeks justice. She takes what little funds the town can provide and seeks protection from Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who recruits six fellow gunslingers. Emma is a constant force in the background of sheer reasoning and courage. As a sure shot, who refuses to stay put, she even saves Chisolm’s life.

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Whenever most stories attempt to “modernize” and feminize a story, sometimes it loses the true definition of feminism along the way. True feminism believes in equality between the sexes; the man need not diminish, for the woman to stay strong. Many stories go this route; they invent strong women, and weak men to contrast them, or insist the woman is more enlightened, where the man is more barbaric. It’s hard to put “weak” men into westerns, so equality between the sexes becomes a strong central driving force in the modern western.

In all of these stories, the characters have nuance, depths, former regrets, and make mistakes, but provide rich symbolism in their need for one another, as separate strong individuals. The Old West and its hardships force them to work together and offset one another’s natural weaknesses; to complement one another as men and women do in real life.

Even though the settings are often familiar, and modern audiences cannot relate to a life of constant peril from gunslingers, of shoot outs at high noon, rustlers, and rattlers around the campfire, the human emotions and relationships between the characters are real, and transcend the barriers of time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

 

 

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