Feminism In The American Western

In the fifties when overt feminism was considered by the mainstream taboo it was nowhere as evidenced as in Hollywood.  Even this rule has an amendment; that strong female characters were even scarcer in the western.  In Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur and Shane, we can find an abundant source of pictorial testimony to such effect.

Shane is a film about a man who helps a group of men take their rights back from one particularly corrupt man; in short Shane is about men.  But, as in anywhere else, where there are men there are women.  So far as the story is concerned, the principle female lead Marian, played by Jean Arthur, has little to do but a good deal to say.  She is the voice that motivates her husband and guides the hero Shane down a righteous and redeeming path, she is a middle-aged sex symbol.  Those are her roles, for better or worse, and one may even argue that such a role was a thing of the times in the old American West.  Certainly this was a typical part in any Hollywood horse opera.

It’s not surprising that Lina is such a weak character given the little attention to character in the film.  The picture is comprised of two-dimensional characters occupying a narrative as fundamental as it is simple.  If she had exhibited any personal strength at all, it may have feminized the male characters, as is the intention in Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie, but that came later.  In a film about reinforcing the American machismo it would have been unwise in the early fifties to give Lina guts, it would have left the American male living in fear of the atom bomb, feeling insecure and out of date.

On a different end of the spectrum is Janet Leigh’s character Lina in The Naked Spur.  Though her social roles are clearly the same as the ones in Shane, her character is not.  Through out the film she takes the control of Robert Ryan’s escape since he cannot do so himself.  She may do this out of subordination, or just indebtedness, never the less, she is his instrument of action.  Lina lures James Stewart’s character away, entices other men, and aids Ryan’s character at ever chance.

Though she is dominated, the power she is entrusted with and exerts becomes the foundation for her liberation in the film’s climax.  She does not stay feminist for long once Stewart proposes, but for that instant there is that glimpse of things to come.

Lina may be a far cry from Ellie of Heaven’s Gate or Mrs. Miller of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but that single instance is a sign of change to come.  It is compelling to analyze westerns of the fifties as a reflection of contemporary times, especially Anthony Mann’s work. His films are strewn with sexually dominated women and selfish revenge minded men, all often motivated by material possessions.  Of the same caliber as Mann’s Naked Spur, Man From Laramie and my favorite Man Of The West, were the films of Robert Aldrich.  Aldrich on his first Hecht-Lancaster production Apache did for the Indians what Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson would do in the seventies, humanize them [this theme was a subplot in Mann’s film  Winchester ‘73].

Despite the conservative nature of fifties cinema in Hollywood, there were subtle and nuanced advances that would luckily not go unnoticed in Europe [R.W. Fassbinder used the western as a means to tell his story Whity reflecting the racial turmoil of West Germany in the late sixties].

-Robert Curry


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Filed under Spring 2012

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