This article contains spoilers for Yellowstone and 1883.
On the surface, Taylor Sheridan, Paramount’s golden-boy and keystone to the neo-Western, is one of the most prolific new voices for male moviegoers and television viewers. His works are visceral, raw, violent, and he’s been responsible for creating some of the toughest of tough guys in his television work like Mayor of Kingstown, Yellowstone, and 1883. Yet Sheridan has also been praised for his creation of strong female leads; modern women who are equal to their male partners and counterparts. These women, such as Beth (Kelly Reilly) from Yellowstone and her ancestors Margaret (Faith Hill) and Elsa (Isabel May) from 1883 have become unlikely role models because of how they stand out in these testosterone-driven shows.
In the prequel, we follow the origins of the Duttons coming to Montana to begin their family dynasty, and along the way see the connections between two generations of the Dutton family. It becomes fairly clear that Dutton women (even those who marry into the family as Margaret would have) possess some notable similar characteristics that make them who they are. For audiences, it’s been an enjoyable study of these generations, 140 years apart; to see the specific wood these Dutton women are carved from. Let’s take a look at some of those defining qualities of Margaret, Elsa, and Beth.
Call it strength, call it drive, call it the iconic Dutton “take no crap” attitude, Margaret, Elsa and Beth all have it. Beth has become iconic in her own right to audiences because of how little she cares what others think (save perhaps one person). Ultimately though, it comes down to the Dutton women focusing on what they want in life, and going for it and if someone gets in their way, that person is eliminated one way or another. In Season 4 of Yellowstone, Beth promises to destroy anyone who might destroy the Duttons, and for the remainder of the season she fights for her family, destroying the lives of Summer, her adopted brother Jamie, and tries to bring down the entire Schwartz & Meyer corporation from within, which is undoubtedly going to happen knowing that Beth stops at nothing to get what she wants.
Her great-great-grandmother (or great-great-great depending on what article you read) perhaps was the original Dutton woman of resolve. It’s hard to imagine what the pilgrimage was like for the original Dutton clan and hundreds of other American pioneers making their way west a century and a half ago. Even within the first six episodes of 1883, we have seen how many challenges have hit their group, how many people have died, and how much Margaret has had to do to survive.
To anyone who is a fan of the show, this also means these women have either plotted to kill, or actually killed to prove their resolve. Beth in the final episodes of season 4 was on a warpath that seemed as if she was going to kill the prisoner responsible for attaching her family during a conjugal visit she set up. Even if that plan went awry, she eventually manipulated her brother Jamie (Wes Bentley) into ridding the world of the real culprit… and she did it all with a clear conscience.
One aspect that audiences may not have picked up on is how in the case of Beth and her great-aunt Elsa, there are only two people that could ever get in the way of that resolve… their fathers. Elsa didn’t listen to her mother’s warnings when it came to falling in love with the charming cowboy Ennis (Eric Nelson), but if her father, James (Tim McGraw) had told Elsa to back off… she would have. Beth, while she may still fight her father for what she feels is right, is concerned with his approval in a world where she doesn’t care about almost anyone else’s opinion. In fact, in four seasons of Yellowstone, John is seemingly the only one who’s ever won against Beth. That includes whenever she and her love Rip (Cole Hauser) may not agree on something. This personal touch shows that these Dutton women, as strong as they are, still have the ultimate bond with their fathers, and it’s a beautiful little Easter-egg of a character trait to include.
They Play by Their Own Rules
Make no mistake, Sheridan’s writing is very, uh … phallocentric. That of course, doesn’t mean that women can’t enjoy the show, but the writing often leans towards the creation of worlds where men are in charge. Until, that is, the Dutton women show up.
Elsa is a great, subtle example of a young woman in 1883 who breaks all the rules by the fourth episode, showing what these Dutton women will do in order to show their resolve; she became a cowboy, she wore pants while riding, she did “men’s work”. This even shocked her mother, who by all means was not considered “proper” by many. Yet look at how much Margaret doesn’t fall into stereotypical female roles of the time. One small example is she doesn’t discipline her children like her sister-in-law Claire (Dawn Olivieri) would. Perhaps redefining what motherhood is. This relationship with Elsa can easily be compared to the somewhat distant relationship Beth had with her mother, as well.
You can also see how quickly Margaret will pick up arms to protect what’s hers, even if that means killing those who come after them, something that the European immigrants can barely fathom. This may be another example of simply defying gender norms, but the Dutton women simply don’t care what others do, only what they need to do. Elsa as well, after losing Ennis goes right for the man who shot him, showing that cold streak audiences are accustomed to seeing in Beth. At that moment, Elsa didn’t care about anything else. It was her vengeance to be had, regardless of any kind of consequences.
Beth has her share of blood on her hands, as mentioned, but it’s more than that. Beth plays by her own rules in every aspect of her life. This is no doubt to regain control of a life that seems to spin out while she was still in puberty. This means Beth is going to love the way she’s going to love. Beth and Rip can make plans to get married under the stars, but if she changes her mind the next day, they’re going to get married on the ranch using a kidnapped priest. Beth, while extremely close to her father, John (Kevin Costner), talks to him more like a fellow fraternity member rather than her father. Some of the language she uses would make that priest blush, and throws John off constantly. Yet the men in her life still respect her.
A lot of these traits are stereotypically male in some regards, but another forgotten aspect of Sheridan’s writing is he’s not trying to create female characters who exhibit traditionally 6male characteristics, he’s trying to show women of all types who are equals in every respect. When audiences of 1883 see Elsa wear pants instead of a skirt while becoming a cowboy in her own right, it’s a symbol of function and their aforementioned resolve more than it is the “masculinization” of Elsa.
The women of 1883 and Yellowstone are still feminine, considering their respective time periods and environments. The superficial characteristic of being stunningly beautiful aside, these women are still women. They fall in love, they want to be loved, they want to care for their family, and be a good partner to the men in their lives. And while this may not be an article about those men, it’s important to address the men these women have found.
The reason James doesn’t stop Elsa from doing what she wants or loving who she wants to love is because she’s just like her mother in so many respects, and that’s the key word… respect. James respects the strength of Margaret, and he wants to foster that in Elsa. When Elsa challenges her role in society, she asks the enamored Ennis if he’s ever seen a girl like her before, and when Ennis admits she’s one of a kind, you can see how much he loves that about Elsa.
In Yellowstone, Rip often calls Beth ‘crazy’ with a smile on his face, knowing that no one can truly ‘tame’ this woman, nor does he want to. This respect among partners, this bond between lovers or fathers and daughters or husbands and wives is a trait that isn’t pushed to the forefront all the time, but it allows the female characters to embody modern ideals of womanhood even if the show takes place in 1883. With 140 years of family pedigree like that, it’s no wonder Beth is one of the strongest members of the family.
The Sheridan balance can be seen in more than just the careful yin and yang of gender roles. For all the toughness shown by almost any character, male or female, we’ve seen them all go through loss… and feel it. It’s a great reminder that these bloodthirsty, vengeance seeking cowboys and cowgirls are still in fact, human.
But the losses two of the Dutton women have felt actually define them. Elsa, after losing Ennis perhaps didn’t completely change, but if compared to the bonnet wearing, rosy-cheeked child she was only a few episodes ago, she’s matured, and it would be very easy to say, she’s become a Dutton woman, in fact.
We saw a similar switch flip on Beth through a series of flashbacks. One tells the story of how she lost her mother in a riding accident. An accident where Beth may not have been completely at fault, but certainly felt her mother blamed her. This made her act out even more, seducing a young Rip, and forcing herself into more adult situations.
Eventually this led to a young Beth becoming pregnant, and not knowing what to do, asking her brother Jamie for help. Jamie made a massive error in judgment, and while attempting to help his sister, brought her to a clinic that sterilized her. This justifiable grudge is something Beth has never forgiven Jamie for, and was the ultimate catalyst in becoming who she is. Both women had their innocence ripped from them, and had no choice but to become stronger, adult versions of themselves. A loss of their childhood, even when separated by completely different lives is a tragic but common trait our two female protagonists share.
Perhaps knowing these traits have been successful in previous female characters he’s written, Sheridan will continue to redefine what it is to be a “strong female lead”. Yet that’s simply a seed, planted by a writer. The Dutton women seem so much more real than that, as if they’ve taken on a life of their own, defying expectations (much like they would take control in their world). In the meantime, the Dutton family story continues, and audiences will no doubt clamor to see what these female role models will do next, and how through their actions they themselves continue to redefine that ideal.