Women of the Western — Female-centric Horse Operas


Since the dawn of film theory, film critics have loved the Western; probably because its engagement with formula and its psychological subtext are so obvious, so close to the surface, that theorizing about westerns is a bit like kicking gravel and striking oil. The genre bears a similarity to tales of knights errant, who similarly were bound by codes of honor and used strength and wit to defeat malevolence, &c &c &c… Part of what makes the Western attractive for film theorists is the way it shifts and evolves too — spiraling off subgenres like Curry Westerns, Northerns, Oesterns, Red Westerns ands Spaghetti Westerns — and engages other genres like samurai films and noir. But whereas a little bit of research turns up several scholarly works addressing women’s place in the Western, I haven’t been able to find any that focus on female-centric Westerns, nor been able to uncover a clever or cutesy name for the subgenre. When I started this blog, I thought I’d come up with a tiny handful, but was quickly surprised at how many Westerns feature females in roles of central importance.

Real women of the west. washing clothes (left), famous madame Chicago Joe (center), bandit Belle Starr (right)

The Wild West was, to be sure, a male-dominated place. Of course, there were women too who, just like their male counterparts, were probably more likely to run a ranch or work in town than to find work as gunslingers, bandits and bounty hunters… although there were those too. The National Cowgirl Museum Hall of Fame has, since its founding, sought to better document the contributions of women in the west. Although women in Westerns generally seem to symbolize civilization/the east, making cowboys uneasy with their use of risque talk and their attempts to transport urban conventions to an untamed land, in real life, that role would’ve been impractical and probably abandoned pretty quickly. When there’s work to be done, propriety and traditional societal constructions would just get in the way. In fact, in Wyoming, for example, women gained the right to vote in 1869, over 40 years before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. The photographs of Evelyn Cameron depict no-nonsense women who have little in common with the dippy, ditzy cowgirls of Gil Elvgren‘s art or Hollywood cowgirls. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Hollywood is in the business of portraying reality, but it’s interesting to look at the decisions they make when constructing mythology.

Cowgirl pin-up art

For one, as I mentioned earlier, though set in the west, many of these films aren’t primarily thought of as Westerns, but rather Western-spoofs or just musicals set in the west. But taken as part of the Western tradition and accepting that hybridization is par for the course, someone could probably make some interesting points. As with more commonly accepted Westerns, these women occupy many of the same roles: homesteaders, romantic prizes, saloon girls and prostitutes. But, as with their male counterparts, highly fictionalized accounts of lead slingers are popular (e.g. Buckeye Annie Oakley and Missourians Belle Starr and Calamity Jane). And, although prostitutes appear in many of these films, usually they’re sanitized to great degree and I couldn’t find any films that focus, even in fictionalized accounts, on real life famous madams and prostitutes of the west such as Squirrel Toothed Alice, Dora Dufran, Eleanora “Madam Mustache” Dumont or “Chicago Joe” Hensley… unless you count Calamity Jane and Belle Starr’s daughter, who did engage in prostitution, although I don’t think that’s ever acknowledged in any films about them.

THE 1930s


I couldn’t find any silent Westerns centered on women, unless you count The Perils of Pauline, which famously served primarily to place the heroine in harm’s way with Natives, Pirates and other dastards, to invariably be saved in the nick of time by a gentleman. Annie Oakley (1935), as far as I know, has never received any recognition for being the first Western to star a woman. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a widely discussed or seen film, although Barbara Stanwyck makes anything worth a go.

THE 1940s

Arizona movie poster 

In the 1940s, Lady Westerns became a lot more common, with most of their stock roles represented, including hard-working pioneers, [Arizona (1940)], gunslingers [Belle Starr (1941)], Pistol Packin’ Mama(1943), Belle Starr’s Daughter (1947), Montana Belle (1948), Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949)), saloon girls [Belle of the Yukon (1944)] and mail order brides, [The Harvey Girls (1946)].

THE 1950s


The Dalton Girls poster

As the sun set on the Golden Age of the Western, several of the most enjoyable female-centered Westerns appeared. Musicals, at the same time, were in the middle of their so-called Golden Age (often having been said to have begun on stage with the Western-Musical hybrid, Oklahoma!), so perhaps the amount of crossover shouldn’t be surprising, including Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Calamity Jane (1953), Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), Red Garters (1954) and Oklahoma! (1955). But several of the most bizarre/enjoyable Westerns were also made in this period, including the underappreciated Rancho Notorious (1952) of Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray‘s classic Johnny Guitar (1954), Roger Corman’s Gunslinger (1956) and Samuel Fuller‘s Forty Guns (1957). There was also Reginald Le Borg‘s fair to middling film, The Dalton Girls (1957), which is almost only interesting because it concerns a gang of cowgirls.

THE 1960s


Westerns, on the whole, declined in popularity in the 1960s. Those that were made, by and large, often used the form to challenge conventions and reflected a more complicated morality, with the evil, bestial Natives’ role reconsidered and the efficacy and appropriateness of violence called into question. However, the Lady Western seems to have carried on pretty much the same, with silly and sexy women dominating Heller in Pink Tights (1960), McClintock! (1963), Cat Ballou (1965) and 100 Rifles (1969) — although the latter looks a little more serious in tone. But the drop-off in numbers matches the wider decline of the genre.

THE 1970s


In the 1970s, the cynical, pessimistic, revisionist Western really came into being. The light and fluffy-looking Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976) look distinctly antiquated next to McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Awakening Land (1978) — the latter an epic tale of frontier life that’s technically a Midwestern.

THE 1980s


The movie poster (left) and the real life Kansan bandits (right)

Cattle Annie & Little Britches (1981) seems to be the only example of the genre made in the ’80s. It was a fallow period for Westerns on the whole and Cattle Annie & Little Britches has hardly been seen by anyone. Pulled from theaters after a week and never released on DVD or VHS, it nonetheless has a fervant cult following.

THE 1990s


The ’90s saw a real resurgence of the genre and when people think of Westerns starring women, other thanJohnny Guitar, the Young Guns-esque Bad Girls (1994) and Sam Raimi’s cult film The Quick and the Dead(1995) are probably the first ones that come to mind. The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) is a sadly underviewed, well-told, sedate and realistic Western. Frankly, despite possible intentions, Buffalo Girls (1995), the Kelly LeBrock vehicle Hard Bounty (1995) and The Wicked Wicked West (1998) look pretty suspect. On the other hand, The Rowdy Girls (1999), with a cast of playboy bunnies, and Petticoat Planet (1996), directed by the homoerotic eye-candy auteur David DeCoteau, probably harbor no pretensions.

THE 2000s


Gang of Roses (2003), I assume, is a sci-fi western. How else to explain the silicon cyborg Lil Kim‘s appearance? The cast look more like Coyote Ugly waitresses than believable cowgirls, with hideously misguided wardrobes. An online description of Bandidas (2006) described it as one of but a handful of female-centered Westerns, and noteworthy for injecting humor into the genre. When one considers the three dozen examples in this blog, with more than half making attempts at humor, the description of Bandidas doesn’t seem so much a function of dishonesty or braggadocio; rather, it just reflects the understandably widespread ignorance of the subgenre.



Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing Boing,Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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