As a female fan of westerns, there’s a certain feeling you get while watching DVD special features. Maybe it’s the bevy of film critics talking about how The Wild Bunch changed their life, or the directors who saw The Good, The Bad And The Ugly as children and so decided they wanted to make movies. The feeling can be articulated in a simple sentence: “Where are all the girls?"
And, you realize, the makers of such special features aren’t being sexist or exclusive in having only male speakers, you’re just not the target audience and never have been. Sure, it’s great that you loved their movie, but you’re not really expected to- and if you do, there’s still a suspicion that you’re not fully getting it. It can make you feel like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon A Time In The West, all the male eyes on you as you ride into a town where your kind is rarely seen.
Thus, I find it interesting when western movies try to change things up in this regard and put a female character in the lead. Female supporting cast members have always been common enough, and some of them are great (I particularly love the women in High Noon and Montgomery Clift’s love interest in Red River), but giving them the bulk of the screen time is something different, and it seems to me that there are three main ways filmmakers go about it- gender can be irrelevant, it can be patronized, or they can try treat it “normally”.
In the first category is Johnny Guitar. One of the things I love about this movie is that no one gives any clichéd “I can shoot as well as any man!” speeches- Joan Crawford is tough and Mercedes McCambridge is scary, and these are facts no one questions. Their gender isn’t exactly ignored (Vienna spent her life in saloons, and is proud of the fact that she actually owns this one), but it isn’t treated as their sole character trait. Did women in the old west really have gunfights and face down lynch mobs? Maybe, maybe not, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no time to spend “proving your worth”; it’s already been established, and you’ve got a railroad to fight over.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cat Ballou, a movie that pretty much defines the patronizing category. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun movie and Lee Marvin as Kid Shaleen is a joy to behold, but one would think that even a comedy about a “bandit queen” might occasionally take its main character seriously. Jane Fonda is leered at by every single character, the camera included, and she’s treated as flighty broad constantly bailed out by guys who have a thing for her. She robs a train (though the plan was Lee Marvin’s) and then gets upset when people hate her for it, and when it comes time to gun down the man responsible for her father’s death she doesn’t get any grand gunfight, but instead poses as a hooker to get into the man’s room and only ends up shooting him in a struggle for the gun (presumably so the studio could argue it was an accident and let their heroine escape punishment by the censors.) I’ll forgive the fact that she ends up with a character who pretty much tried to rape her earlier in the movie (it was the sixties, after all), but that’s really the least of it; the very idea of her being a competent western hero is treated as a joke in itself.
The aforementioned Once Upon A Time In The West is a good example of the third category, the “normal” one. This woman does something other than shoot a gun for a living (here’s a tip- if she’s a supporting character she’ll be a teacher, if she’s a main character she’ll be a whore.) No shoot-outs in the street for her, and there’s no reason for her to have them. What she does have is a general sense of decency and integrity, more so than the gunmen around her, and because of this she’s the only one to survive or have an actual life to live after the bad guys go down. The concept is almost subversive in a genre that relies so heavily on violence- to have a central character who has a semi-realistic position in the world and doesn’t get any fights, yet still manages to impress and come out on top.
I’m going to hazard a guess that women who like westerns enjoy them for the same reasons that men do- we love the sight of the Arizona desert, we like the idea (whatever our politics) of taming or surviving in a wild land where the law is what we make for ourselves, and we like to imagine that we’re Clint Eastwood. Sometimes filmmakers give us what we want and sometimes they don’t, but we’re rarely on the forefront of their minds. The “female” western can be good or bad, but whether the heroine is a fighter or a lover, it works best if there’s reason to watch her besides her gender. Girls can like westerns, but nobody likes being a novelty act.