In Which I Question the Role of Women in Westerns

I’ve harped on this before, and I will do so again.

I love Westerns. I really, really do. It’s  new found love but love nonetheless. But I have a problem, and it’s the same problem I’ve had with many other genres of film. Why are all the women in westerns prostitutes or fearful farm women? Now I know what you’re argument is going to  be – women weren’t anything else back then. They either made their own money by whoring themselves around, or they kept up the homestead while their husband went and traded with the Native Americans.

Belle Star, the Bandit Queen

But you’re wrong. Because there is a long history of women taking up guns and robbing stagecoaches, rescuing damsels from distress, and having shoot outs in the street. Just look up the names Sally Skull, Big Nose Kate, Calamity Jane to name a few. There were female doctors and saloon owners, female homestead owners and cattle drivers. There were notorious female bandits (Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen, anyone?) and marauders.

The thing that is so alluring about the old west is that it was a place where anyone could make their fortune, men and women alike. But we don’t see that story in modern westerns – we see the story of the men who don’t follow the law, the men who are wanted for robbing banks and the men who trap the bad guy.  We do not see the female sharp shooter with two pistols under her skirt and two in a holster on her hip. We do not see the female  bank robber (except for you, Bonnie) or stagecoach robber, and we do not see the mother who is able to defend her homestead from bandits, kids and all.

The point is, these women did exist. They weren’t special cases or one in a million. Women regularly took care of themselves in the old west. I’d like to see more of that in the movies.

True Grit was the latest movie to get this right, and even now the young female lead was not recognized as being so. I stand by my opinion that Hailee was unfairly  nominated for best supporting actress. The was supported by Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges. It was a great cast and Jeff Bridges did a great job – but Hailee was still the lead.

Perhaps someday movie executives will stop saying that women do not sell movies. That women do not go to movies. Perhaps someday there will be more female directors, writers, editors, producers, directors of photography.

One can only hope.

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone!

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