Are 21st Century Westerns the New Feminist Genre?

The Western genre is synonymous with rugged masculinity, but in a slew of new 21st century films that might be changing...

Despite being part of a genre often lauded for its fistfights, gun-slingin’, and wild horseback rides, it seems as if Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) broke the mold for 21st century westerns. It’s a film that starts in silence, and Lee lets that quiet percolate as Heath Ledger’s Ennis and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack size each other up sideways, with flinty squints and sultry drags on their cigarettes. Herding sheep in the mountains they fall in love, wrestling, lassoing, and whopping and hollering up a storm. There’s a deep emotional and sexual connection between the two, but circumstances, fiancées, and the bigoted times they live in seem destined to keep them apart.

While not a feminist film, Brokeback Mountain brought to the fore certain sexual innuendos that Westerns of the 1950s and ‘60s would have forcibly denied, even if they seemed at times to be an implicit component of the genre. When Jon Stewart hosted the 78th Academy Awards, he pointedly made a gag of this when he joked, “Brokeback Mountain tarnishes the noble Western tradition—rugged men who represent the heterosexual ideal.”

But it does seem as if Brokeback paved the way for a new kind of Western, one in which sexuality and gender is more complex, more nuanced, and one in which women play a decidedly central and empowered role. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2011) was just one of the films post-2000 that gave ample screen time to female characters in a form that Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White generally defined in The Film Experience as one with “characters, almost always male, whose physical and mental toughness separate them from the crowds of modern civilization.” Yet, it appears that the criteria for this genre is progressively evolving. Gone are the days of rendering female characters like Natalie Wood’s Debbie, the virtually voiceless victim and prize in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

Brokeback Mountain was released the same year as Down in the Valley, albeit writer and director David Jacobson’s latter film flew under the public’s radar. That movie centers on a troubling romance between Harlan (played by an unnerving Edward Norton) and Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood). Harlan considers himself a cowboy trapped in the soulless, arid modernity of San Fernando Valley. While Tobe is Harlan’s object of desire, she’s also learning to navigate her own desires, a pleasant twist in portraying the ingénue.

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But while Tobe has the gumption (as the film progresses) to resist Harlan’s pleas for them to run away together, it costs her when Harlan instinctually shoots her. This particular film seems to embody the Westerns of the subsequent 10 years where women are stronger, more determined, and do not acquiesce to the needs of others. However, Down in the Valley also highlights a pervasive problem of women in Westerns being punished, raped, or violently assaulted for attempting to defy gender roles and stereotypes regarding independence and sexuality.

Just in the past two years, three very different Westerns received accolades (or at least attention) for their female leads. Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room (2015) centers on three southern women in the aftermath of the Civil War. Augusta (played by Brit Marling) and Louise (played by Hailee Steinfeld, who had a much stronger role in the 2010 Western True Grit) are sisters who work tirelessly on their property alongside their slave Mad (played by Muna Otaru in a powerful performance).

When Louise suffers a wound, Augusta rides to the neighbor only to discover she’s drunk poison. It is not until Augusta reaches the nearest town that she encounters two Union soldiers who are raping and murdering everyone in their path. Augusta catches the eye of Moses (a chilling Sam Worthington), but she outsmarts him and his companion before they can push unwanted sexual advances on her. Nevertheless, they soon catch wind of Augusta’s trail and a game of cat and mouse ensues, with a home invasion akin to Straw Dogs and similarly disastrous sexual consequences. In some ways, the culminating horror of the home invasion, resulting in young Louise’s rape, is like the notion of the “Final Girl” in horror films where we have to see the woman tortured first before she can escape and survive.

Yet, despite the violence inflicted on these women, a feminist undertone persists, perhaps due in part to Julia Hart’s screenplay.

“Learn to be a man instead of wife,” Augusta dryly says at one point in a film in which the women farm, cook, clean, and shoot with equal grit and determination. They’re utterly self sufficient, whether or not they embrace that autonomy. And at the end, after defeating the soldiers, the women realize that the only way to survive is to leave their home and go out into the world, disguised as male soldiers. There’s a cunningness to these feminine protagonists, as well as an acute internal strength. You see that same grit in Hillary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman (2014).

Mary Bee is akin to Augusta, Louise, and Mad in that the film’s opening montage showcases her plowing, sweeping, cooking, and pumping water. In a section of this sequence, she pauses while brushing her cascading hair and pats it down softly—this is not a hardened woman, but one who attends to each detail fastidiously, whether it be a hair out of place or the furrows of the land. When she proposes to a man named Bob that night, she propositions him with the hope of children, but also strategically, as if this is a business venture. However, she’s rejected under the premise that she’s “too bossy.” Perhaps it is because she is emotionally untethered that she volunteers to drive three women who have lost their minds to Iowa in a wagon.

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There are many extreme long shots of the glistening, flat Nebraska landscape that recalls passages from Marilynne Robinson’s novels or Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces where Ehrlich writes, “The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding.” Here, too, the light and wind play over the surface of the Nebraska and Iowa landscape with flashes of brilliance in the face of Mary Bee’s “most difficult truths.”

Mary Bee stumbles upon Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs in a precarious situation and offers to relieve him if he’ll do as she says. He’s soon accompanying her on her journey to Iowa as an accomplice. In a pivotal moment in the film, a naked Mary Bee implores George to have sex with her, even though he once described her as “plain as an old tin pail.” They copulate, and when George awakens in the morning, Mary Bee has hanged herself. It’s a surprising, darkly disturbing moment in the film for a variety of reasons. Mary Bee’s suicide seems completely out of left field, even if her circumstances are relatively bleak. And the fact that Mary Bee kills herself the morning after sleeping with George seems to make a moral judgment on her character.

The positioning of those two scenes suggests that her sexual needs are what ultimately lead to her demise. It’s an uncomfortable plot twist that turns George’s character into a patriarchal and paternalistic figure. It almost appears as if Swank’s character has to die so that Jones’ character can flourish. Thus, while Mary Bee initially appears to share the same literal and figurative strength of the female characters from The Keeping Room, the death of Mary Bee’s character pushes The Homesman from feminist frontier to the tired, traditional narrative of the white male savior.

In some ways, this reductive ending may say more about the Western as a genre in and of itself than of Jones, or sexual politics in the 21st  century. Reviewing Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) in the early ‘60s, film critic Pauline Kael noted, “The Western has always been a rather hypocritical form. The hero represents a way of life that is becoming antiquated. The solitary defender of justice is the last of the line; the era of lawlessness is over, courts are coming in… The Westerner, the loner, must take the law into his hands for one last time in order to wipe out the enemies of the new system of justice.”

In a genre saturated in notions of masculinity (pointedly marked by the recurring use of the third-person pronoun “he” to describe the hero or the enemy), it’s hard to divorce the masculine from our understanding and appreciation of this genre. Though Mary Bee’s suicide is a stunning surprise narratively within the film, in the canon of the Western, it makes unfortunate sense. “The Westerner, the loner, must take the law into his hands,” and it is through this masculine savior that we are led toward the right side of the law, that we are led into the dusky, desert light.

In contrast, Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun (2016) did not play in many theaters, but Natalie Portman’s performance as the titular Jane was yet another maturation of her acumen as an actor. With her husband brutally wounded, Jane extracts all the bullets, takes her children to neighbors, and fixes up the house, before riding all day and evening to visit her ex-lover to help prepare her for a brutal home invasion that will soon descend upon her homestead. But Portman is not a damsel in distress. If anything, she’s strategic and rational, ensuring she’ll have the best shooter in town to help defend the house alongside her.

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Yet, prior to the film’s release, the media itself undercut Jane’s strength; The Washington Post began an article with, “The trailer for Jane Got a Gun is finally floating around the web, and it has everything a Western fan might want: a damsel in distress, an evil villain with evil, villainous facial hair, sawed-off shotguns, a ‘wanted dead or alive’ poster ad, [and] lots of galloping horses.” Like the women in The Keeping Room, Portman’s character is raped and she loses her first daughter at the hands of the Bishop Boys outlaw gang. But, also similar to those same women, she fights back fiercely, culminating in the film’s iconic moment where she shoots John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), punctuating each shot with the next word in the question: “Where’s. My. Child?” Is Jane the stereotypical trope of the battered damsel? Or is she more complex, more nuanced, under Portman’s careful performance and deft acting ability?  

It is true that Jane must suffer profusely at the hands of men before she can regain the reins of control. This begs the question whether these films are, in fact, feminist movies or whether they simply have feminist themes and moments in an otherwise traditional, hetero-normative, and masculine genre.

Similarly, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy is the quintessential villain of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), inverting our expectation of a male antagonist. Yet, she is brutally assaulted onscreen multiple times, a pervasive feature of Westerns and horror films where women suffer as a mode of perverse entertainment.  Still, Daisy is no sweet Southern Belle. She’s ruthless and heartless, and laughs in the face of brutality and death with blood covering her face, like vomit did Regan’s in The Exorcist. Thus, while the Western genre seems to be pushing female characters to the fore, there is still a tendency to punish and inflict cruelty on female characters that keeps these films from being branded feminist or narratives worth fully heralding.

It seems like studios and directors are increasingly featuring female protagonists in Westerns, which helps achieve a much-needed female visibility for movie-going audiences. But the lack of female directors for the genre is still glaring, though Kelly Reichardt’s Western Meek’s Cutoff (2008) is undoubtedly one of the strongest Westerns that the 21st century has seen thus far. Nevertheless, the form appears shackled to its precursors, especially when it comes to notions of gender, sex, and race.

In our current political climate where women and women’s issues are at the fore thanks to Hillary Clinton and Ivanka Trump, one can’t help but recall the so-called double standard of Melanie vs. Ivanka that Jill Filipovic wrote about in The New York Times: “[Men] want an old-fashioned wife but a modern, professional daughter.” Perhaps American audiences want their genres old-fashioned and retro, too, even as we forge ahead in issues of equality and representation. We’ve got our Homesman, but we’re still waiting on our “Homeswoman.”