Women and the Western: in Front Of and Behind the Camera

Ward Bond, Frank Ferguson, and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954)
Johnny Guitar (1954)

When it comes to discussion of  “women in westerns”, viewers unfamiliar with the genre might struggle to name more than a handful of female characters, beyond Sharon Stone as The Lady in Sam Raimi’s cheese-fest, The Quick and the Dead, or the character of Mattie Ross in True Grit, and no female directors at all. The western is often seen as male-dominated, and the west itself has, in the past, been frequently portrayed as an exclusively male space where women are either absent or present solely as nameless prostitutes, as victims of violence to provide motivation for male characters, or as wives – a shorthand in the concept of manifest destiny – whose only purpose is to bring the “civilising” home to a “wild” land.

It’s frustrating, because while many westerns are guilty of compounding these stereotypes, there are just as many which aren’t. Even in the earliest days of cinema, we find examples of westerns directed by, and starring, women. In 1917, film pioneer Ruth Ann Baldwin made ’49-’17 – thought to be the first western directed by a woman. It tells the story of an elderly judge who wishes to relive his youth in the Old West of 1849, and so hires a theatrical troupe to build a mock frontier town. It’s a pastiche of the mythology of the west that anticipated the revisionist western by decades.

Even among “Golden Age” westerns of the 1950s, not known for their progressive stance, we don’t have to look far to find better examples of female representation. In The Furies, Barbara Stanwyck epitomises the classical deities of vengeance as the iron-willed, ruthless Vance. Female power and antagonism is also explored in the wonderfully overblown Johnny Guitar, where Joan Crawford plays Vienna; a tough saloon-owner at war with the local town, and especially with moralistic, brittle businesswoman, Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Forget Johnny Guitar himself; it’s the seething hatred/fascination between these two women that steals the film.

"High Noon" Grace Kelly 1952 United Artists ** I.V
High Noon (1952)

Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon might be a  traditional western in many ways, but it leans away from cultural and gender stereotypes for both male and female characters. Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a former marshal trying to start afresh with his new wife, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly), a Quaker who abhors violence. And so, when Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) – an ex-convict from Kane’s past – returns to even the score, Kane is torn between leaving the town at Miller’s mercy, or breaking his promise to Amy and fighting the man. This moral and ethical wavering from Kane is part of what makes High Noon great; it’s also the reason that many within Hollywood absolutely loathed it, calling it both “un-American” and “unmanly”. The western hero epitomised by actors like John Wayne was eternally macho, rigid, conservative and emotionally distant, which from a 2020 perspective, looks a lot like toxic masculinity. At the time, Howard Hawks and John Wayne disliked High Noon so much, they made Rio Bravo in response, with Hawks stating (spoiler alert): “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western,” (John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn, 2005)

The differences between the two films in terms of female representation are also stark. Rio Bravo’s screenplay, written by Leigh Brackett, is one of its strongest elements, but when it comes to character, Hawks and Wayne’s influences are obvious. Angie Dickinson plays Feathers, a classic Hawksian woman. While wise-cracking, her abrupt devotion to Wayne’s sheriff John T. Chance – a man who begins by insulting her and refusing to apologise – makes her less than believable. In High Noon on the other hand, we have two very different supporting female characters. Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado) is cool and fierce, a shrewd saloon-owner and former lover of both Kane and Miller, who knows trouble when she sees it. She’s also compassionate towards pacifist Amy, supporting her, talking through their decisions and what it means to stand by someone. And for all of Amy Fowler’s meekness, her ultimate actions mark her out as someone with more grit than she’s often given credit for.

The revisionist westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s saw a welcome shift in approach to the western genre, subverting and demolishing the idea of manifest destiny, while exploring perennial western themes such as law, morality and conscience. Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966) is a notable example; a nightmarish, surreal western written by Carole Eastman and starring Millie Perkins as the beautiful, cruel, black-hatted Woman. 

Millie Perkins in The Shooting (1966)
The Shooting (1966)

Although many spaghetti westerns are revisionist in tone, they’re also somewhat notorious for their lack of nuanced female characters, and for making wearying use of sexual violence. While Sergio Leone might not have been the most progressive in his attitude towards women, in the ultimate western classic, Once Upon a Time in the West, Claudia Cardinale’s character Jill McBain nevertheless stands out as a powerful driving force within the film’s narrative. She determinedly defends her property, highlights the cycles of violence that even the “good” characters engage in, and ultimately, claims her right to an independent future.

The story of the west is also necessarily one of immigration. Decades of gold and mineral rushes, land seizures from the Native American population and grants like the Homestead Act brought waves of settlers from within the United States and immigrants from across the world, many following the dream of freedom.

The experience of an immigrant woman in the west is explored in Nancy Kelly’s 1991 Thousand Pieces of Gold. Inspired by the true story of Polly Bemis (Rosalind Chao), a woman from rural northern China who was sold into slavery and smuggled to San Francisco before being taken to a saloon in Idaho. With a screenplay by Anne Makepeace, and based on the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Thousand Pieces of Gold is a film ahead of its time in many ways. Recently re-released after a 4k restoration, it’s a wonderful example of how the western genre can encompass different types of narrative – including ones that espouse compassion, dignity and empathy in the face of cruelty and hardship.

Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

Another filmmaker to focus specifically on the experience of women in a western setting is Kelly Reichardt, with her 2011 film Meek’s Cutoff. A masterful, restrained drama about pioneers lost on the wagon trail, Reichardt uses cinematography and perspective to literally put her audience in the position of the women of the party. Michelle Williams is excellent here as Emily Tetherow, who ultimately takes charge to challenge the dubious leadership of the expedition.

A glance at the films mentioned above reveals that many of the most interesting westerns by, about and starring women are decidedly off-Hollywood. As a genre – after the ten-year boom-and-bust in the 1990s thanks to the success of Dances With Wolves – the western seems to be perpetually on the edge of a revival. Female-focused westerns are certainly part of this new wave, yet so far, many have fallen short. Tommy Lee Jones’ 2014 film The Homesman, for instance, was dubbed a “feminist western”, but its depiction of women as a resource for domestication, singularly crushed by life in the west, isn’t exactly nuanced. Likewise, Jane Got a Gun, produced by and starring Natalie Portman, continues the disappointing trend; as a film, it has all the ingredients for a strong revisionist, feminist western, but in execution, somehow ends up flat and unmemorable. (What it might have been had Lynne Ramsay stayed on board to direct, as originally planned, we will never know).

Thankfully, filmmakers outside of Hollywood are approaching the western from fresh perspectives. Lily Ana Amirpour’s 2014 debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was billed as “the first Iranian vampire western”. Set in the ghost town of Bad City, Sheila Vand plays the mournful, sinister Girl. While not wholly a western, it’s an unexpected, joyous mash-up of vampire movie, noir, and moody pulp that wears its spaghetti western credentials on its sleeve.

Indonesian director Mouly Surya, meanwhile, set out to make a western precisely because she dislikes how male-dominated the genre is. Her Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2018) focuses on the journey of Marlina (Marsha Timothy), a widow who takes revenge on a gang who assault and rob her. Shot on Sumba Island, Marlina combines the arid, lonely landscapes of the western genre with Tarantino-esque deadpan, episodic storytelling.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2018)

Returning to America, last year saw the release of writer-director Nia DaCosta’s debut feature Little Woods; a neo-western, transplanted to the frontier of North Dakota and Canada. Here, we follow Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a former drug-runner caught between compassion and lawfulness. DaCosta deftly handles western motifs to highlight the film’s overarching themes of violence, hope, self-preservation and morality in the face of a broken system; in short, the American Dream run dry.

As for the future, there’s a slate of Hollywood westerns in the works, many of them inevitable rehashes, from Mel Gibson’s The Wild Bunch to a rumoured Young Guns reboot. However, if the above films have told us anything, it’s to look away from the studios to find good examples of westerns made by, and starring, women. Happily, this year sees Kelly Reichardt’s return to the genre with First Cow, a poignant and decidedly anti-macho western set in 1820s Oregon, about a Chinese man, King Lu, and a mild-mannered Jewish cook, Cookie Figowitz, who become friends and start an illicit milk-rustling and cake-baking business. And with the recent re-release of Thousand Pieces of Gold, perhaps, finally, westerns by women are finding the wider audiences they deserve.

by Stark Holborn

Stark Holborn is a film reviewer, games writer and novelist. Stark is the author of Nunslinger, published by Hodder, and of a recent novella, Triggernometry. You can find Stark on Twitter @starkholborn or at https://starkholborn.com/

3 replies »

  1. This is such a groundbreaking article since watching SILVERADO a few weeks ago, I too posed the same question to my dad, that is why are women only ladies of the night, older toughies or damsels in distress in Westerns?

    Besides reflecting the dank truth of those toxic times, they relegated them to side shows. Your article includes the game changers and I swear when I read your title , I thought of THE HOMESMAN and of course JANE GOT A GUN. Even in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Haley Bennett was given short shrift when the action became male centric though she was one of the protagonists. As for THE HOMESMAN, Hillary Swank’s centrality to the proceedings was abruptly shortchanged with the way she was cast out of the script after an hour and a half.

    So I am thankful for your suggestions and inclusions. As for MEEK’S CUTOFF, I have read and seen clips and have been intrigued by Ms.Kelly’s new work FIRST COW which is very much underrated.

    You have written a much needed article to counter the blinding lights of conventional male Western tropes. Also for the inclusion of the Malaysian film.


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