Women are generally thin on the ground in westerns and they usually fall into one of three character types. There are the "good" women, often blonde, who act as caregivers and create homes for the men around them; they are either mothers or virgins and always morally upright, angelically good, and often victims. Then there are the bad women. Whether explicitly or not, they are sexually available and are to be found in saloons and brothels, but they often have a heart of gold and rediscover their "true" virtuous womanhood when they fall in love with the right man. Third, there are the exotic women, that is, any female character who isn't white. They could be among the "bad" women, but are never found among the "good." Native American and Mexican women are usually without personality, sexual objects, bargaining chips, or silent servants; black women are nearly as rare as unicorns in these pictures. Sexual violence - though obviously not explicit in films made under the Hollywood Production Code - is ubiquitous and it is frequently at the root of escalating violence, whether the gun-wielding men are trying to prevent it from happening to their womenfolk or avenging them after it does. As is the case with so many film genres, westerns suffer from a dearth of female characters. Many have none at all, many have only one, and when there is more than one, there is usually the "good" one and the "bad" one.
The films in this list are not so much feminist as fascinating to watch from a feminist point of view. Though in recent years, filmmakers like Tommy Lee Jones and Kelly Reichardt have been making revisionist westerns with a female-centric if not feminist slant, the basic conventions of the genre - one that I really do enjoy - require a ton of overhauling to eliminate the misogyny (and racism - oh, lord, the racism) inherent in stories of white men shooting their way through moral quandaries. Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, widely touted as a feminist western by critics, is visually stunning - the cinematography by Chris Blauvelt imbues the desolate landscapes with a luminous beauty - but the mind-numbingly slow pace of this existential non-story about a wagon train that gets hopelessly lost on its way to Oregon never quite works, though it might have if the characters had been better defined. Though it's one of the most frequently cited when talking about westerns and feminism, it's a film that's less about feminism and more about how Americans have lost their way. Frankly, I don't feel that I got very much out of it.
One aspect that is often regarded as feminist in western films is women shooting guns, but this is a fallacious assumption. Shooting is easily integrated into the misogynistic vision of femininity of westerns and even in the most deeply sexist films - Ride Lonesome comes to mind - the women might shoot guns. It doesn't make them more liberated, especially given that in most of these films, in the end they require rescuing anyway and their motivation for shooting in almost every case is a desperate bid to avoid rape. How women use guns is much more important than whether or not they do. Weapons use has become a standard ploy to make misogynistically depicted female characters seem less so and I'm not buying it.
Calamity Jane (1953)
Calamity Jane, by far my favorite Doris Day film, pits rough, tough, shooting and hollering Calamity Jane (Day) against citified, feminine would-be singer Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie). Both of them like a handsome lieutenant (Philip Carey), but Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) isn't about to give up pursuing Katie. The film could easily have been deeply misogynistic, but, while it's certainly not feminist, it's surprisingly progressive. Calamity and Katie end up becoming best friends, a rare example of friendship between women that plays out as a genuine relationship with only a tenuous connection to their romantic competition, with the two of them even prioritizing their friendship over prospective marriages. Calamity's brief transformation into a traditionally beautiful woman in a bouffant pink dress doesn't last because she hates it - best of all, the film supports her in that and permits her natural character, totally unfeminine by traditional standards, to withstand even the perilous waters of romance. She even sings her big love song in pants. Calamity Jane isn't revolutionary, but it does have a heroine who gets into a full-out fistfight with Wild Bill Hickok, while singing "I Can Do Without You."
The Harvey Girls (1946)
Another musical, this film stars Judy Garland as a mail-order bride who takes one look at her husband-to-be and calls off the wedding, instead joining the group of newly arrived single women, including Virginia O'Brien and Cyd Charisse, come to work in the new Harvey House Restaurant. One of the rare westerns that can boast nearly as many female speaking roles as male, The Harvey Girls is at its core about a clash of values: the Harvey girls are resilient and virtuous, while the dance-hall girls, led by Angela Lansbury, are tough as nails and open for more than one kind of business. Men play major roles in pushing the action forward and the conflict is mirrored in a cat fight over a man between the "good" woman and the "bad" woman - as I said above, this is not a feminist movie - but it's refreshingly gynocentric. Plus, the songs, by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, are great fun.
High Noon (1952)
Filmed in almost perfect real time, High Noon is a strong contender for the best western of all time. Like so many such films, here we have the "good" woman - the blonde Grace Kelly - and the "bad" - Katy Jurado (an actual Mexican actress playing a Mexican woman!). Though Kelly plays a virginal Quaker and Jurado plays a savvy woman who has had more than a few lovers, the two ultimately become allies, though it's a relationship formed less of confidences than of moral courage. The film centers around Will Kane (Gary Cooper), a former marshal who has promised to put aside his gun to marry the Quaker Amy, but has to face one last gunfight when he discovers a killer he had captured earlier is on his way for his blood. His pleas for deputies go unheard, as friends skulk away and time runs out. There are a few aspects of this film that make it interesting from a feminist point of view. First of all, Will and Amy, though literally just married at the beginning of the film, are equal moral agents; he believes in violence that prevents further violence, while she condemns all violence, no matter the motivation. Second, while Will's journey is fixed from the beginning, it is Amy whose character develops and whose morality is tested and it is ultimately her decision that decides the fate of her husband. Third, marriage is portrayed as a genuine partnership in this film, a relationship between two independent moral agents. Kelly may play a blonde paragon of virtue, but even she has to struggle with the thorny tangles of violence, duty, love, and religious principle.
The Homesman (2014)
Co-writer-director Tommy Lee Jones's revisionist western was generally christened a feminist western - it's not, but it seems as though he gave it a try. Hilary Swank gives a satisfyingly thorny and challenging performance as Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman who volunteers to chaperone three young women who have lost their minds (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter) back east where they can be cared for. She hires a moody old coot (Jones) to help her make the five weeks' long journey, during which they encounter hostile Pawnee, a disgustingly rapey lout, and the despoiled grave of a child. The film, however, goes wildly astray in the third act. MAJOR SPOILER ahead: About three quarters into the film, Mary Bee talks Briggs into sleeping with her and then hangs herself while he's asleep. The sex scene is refreshingly awkward and oddly sweet, and, most unusually, the primary subject is free consent on both sides, but the suicide doesn't make sense and seriously weakens the film. First of all, I don't believe this of Mary Bee's tough, yearning, forward-thinking character filled with plans and ambitions, not to mention a fervid evangelistic faith. Second of all, the incident shreds the film's pretensions to feminism by automatically making Briggs, a quintessential western misfit, the prime mover of the plot, not to mention the rescuer of the three madwomen, who remain silent and helpless to the end. The Homesman is a worthy attempt, but ultimately the filmmakers - all male - didn't have the guts to follow through and actually produce a truly feminist western.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar is a bizarre western melodrama, with wacky jewel-toned Trucolor cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. and an insane plot about a saloon-keeper named Vienna (Joan Crawford) and her bitter quarrel with a jealous local named Emma (Mercedes McCambridge). I can't say I so much like this movie as feel enjoyably baffled by its weirdness. The women in this film are both as violent as the men and as vulnerable to the sort of gruesome violent ends, like hanging, female characters rarely meet with in westerns of the period, while the final shootout is between the women, while the men stand by, one might almost say cowering. Though the reasons for the quarrel are convoluted, they are essentially fighting over a man, which is highly disappointing, though it's interesting to contemplate that if Vienna and Emma were played by men, the movie would be fairly routine. I can't quite decide whether this film really qualifies as feminist, since it breaks so many rules that it nearly creates a new genre - these women are out for blood, they pursue the men they want, they run businesses, they shoot people, and they really, really hate each other. And did I mention that Crawford waltzes around in a variety of boudoir-inspired balloons of tulle through all this?
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
One of the greatest westerns of all time and still a sorely-needed plea against violent vigilantism, this film is a ground-breaking study of the American character - and Americans don't come out looking pretty. The reason that I recommend it specifically to watch from a feminist point of view is Jane Darwell, best known for her roles as Ma Joad and the Bird Woman (from Mary Poppins). The film concerns an unauthorized posse that captures three men they accuse of murder and cattle rustling and debates whether to hang them on the spot or take them into custody and let the law handle it. Out for blood, the mob is opposed by Gil Carter (Henry Fonda), as well as a notably black reverend played by a notably uncredited Leigh Whipper. Here's why Darwell is so important: she plays Ma Grier, a flinty frontierwoman and one of the most vocal champions of hanging their quarry. She expresses disdain for the law and a ruthless appetite for revenge; she's racist and nasty. In other words, she's a despicable character. But, as a woman, that's extraordinary. She isn't a "good" woman obviously, but neither does she belong in the usual "bad" woman category because her badness is entirely divided from her sexual purity or lack thereof. Her moral status is un-moored from her identity as a woman and that makes her character pioneering, if not totally unique.
As in so many westerns, in Stagecoach, there is a "good" woman - the married and heavily pregnant Lucy (Louise Platt) - and the "bad" - a prostitute forced to flee a morality league, Dallas (Claire Trevor). They are two of the passengers on a stagecoach en route through perilous Apache lands. As great as it is, Stagecoach set more conventions in stone than it flouted, but what draws me back to this film is the bond between the two women. Initially, Lucy is horrified and disgusted to find herself in the vicinity of a prostitute, rebuffing her friendly advances and preferring to scorn her as an inferior. The tides turn when Lucy goes into labor and the only person capable of helping her is Dallas, thus forging a needed, but in the end tender and understanding friendship between the women. Although Dallas is a fallen woman, she's by far the most capable of the motley travelers, the warmest, the kindest, the least prejudiced, and the least violent. By the end of the film, she's earned the respect of both Lucy and at least a few of the men in the coach, including of course her lover the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). Ultimately, of all the films on this list, this is the least subversive, but the elements are there for the right screenwriter and director to remake this into a genuinely feminist (and hopefully less racist) film.
True Grit (2010)
True Grit is a legitimately feminist western and it's frankly one of my favorite films of this decade so far. The Coen brothers' film stars Jeff Bridges, who was never better, as mean, wily Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as a puffed-up Texas Ranger, and Hailee Steinfeld, in her debut, as fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, on a mission to avenge her father's murder and see his killer (Josh Brolin) hang or shoot him herself. Mattie is brutally honest and quick with a cutting insult, a keen negotiator, and doggedly determined. The men around Mattie don't come to think of her as a surrogate daughter, or the mother hen of the outfit, and despite some historically realistic and decidedly icky sexual comments, she never becomes an object of lust. These tough as nails frontiersmen are compelled to respect her, ultimately accepting her as a peer in their quest to apprehend a murderer, each for their own reasons. Her use of guns is also noteworthy. While most female characters in westerns use guns exclusively as protection against rape, Mattie uses a gun the same way that male characters use guns: as a form of defense, yes, but also as a tool, as a bluff, and as a means of killing her enemy. This is a pretty damn near perfect movie and for feminist western fans, it's the holy grail.