Race, gender and genre
The western genre has been viewed by literary historians (Fiedler, 1949; Smith, 1950) as the popular cultural form in and through which America moulded and popularised its imperialistic myth of 'white destiny.' This myth, to which white Americans looked to justify European expansion and the expropriation of native Americans, was based on concepts of linear progress and a Darwinian hierarchy. The mythology of the frontier set the tone of American popular democracy (Fiedler, 1949; Smith, 1950; see also Cawelti, 1971; Wright, 1975; Buscombe, 1989; Shohat and Stam, 1994). In this mythology, Native Americans were identified with the trope of 'virgin land,' as innocently childlike, pure and natural — and inevitably destined to be obliterated by the march of 'progress.' The western genre thus reworked the political, economic, and cultural conflicts of the historical USA into a mythic struggle between nature and civilisation.
In the 1970s, structuralist and post-structuralist film theorists saw this dichotomy as the fundamental structural antithesis of the genre (Cawelti, 1971; Wright, 1975; see also Fiedler, 1949; Smith, 1950; Buscombe, 1989; Shohat and Stam, 1994 : 114-119 and 141-143). Cawelti (1971) outlined three basic western plots, the simplest being the story of a hero protecting the townspeople against Indians or outlaws. The wilderness' population of heroes, outlaws and 'savages' are men but the town is dominated by women.
This sexual division frequently embodies the antithesis of civilisation and savagery ... Women are primary symbols of civilisation in the western. (Cawelti, 1971 : 47)
In the classic western, women represented the moral values of socialised domesticity, and society is thus seen as feminised and weak. The individualistic hero is strong, but must live out a wandering exile from feminising domestic comfort. The ambivalence in the hero's desire for, but rejection of, society provided the male spectator with an imaginary resolution of a perceived conflict between individual and society (Wright, 1975 : 131-5). Buscombe (1991) saw the figure of the tomboy as having a normalising function in this cultural narrative. Gender boundaries had become confused as the East (identified with the feminine values of cultured society) crossed the boundary into the West (identified with phallic self-reliance). The tomboy figure represented an effort to re-establish those boundaries:
[I]t's unusual for the woman who starts out wearing pants, carrying a gun and riding a horse to be still doing so at the end of the movie. Suitably reclad in dress or skirt, she prepares to take her place in the family, leaving adventure to the men. (Buscombe, 1991 : 241)
Although (white) femininity symbolised civilisation, female sexuality was also associated with the trope of a 'dark continent' via conceptualisations of civilisation and sexuality owing much to Freud.
there is an affiliation between the Otherness of the 'primitive' and
the Otherness of 'woman' and in Freud's work it is possible to detect
the conflation of [white] female sexuality ... with that of the
unknowable and fathomless sexuality of the primitive ...
Freud observes that the sexuality of children in societies at "a low level of civilisation ... seems to be given free rein." He notes that although this may result in communities free of neuroses, he speculates that this advantage may "involve an extraordinary loss of the aptitude for cultural achievement." (Young, 1996: 23 citing Freud, 1986: 318)).
Freud thus mapped 'the primitive' over his model of the pre-Oedipal (pre-gendered) phase of character development by associating the "mental life" of "the primitive" with that of children (Freud, 1914 : 5). Cawelti speculated that the nostalgic mood of the western genre opened out a phantasmic evocation of Oedipal right-of-passage or initiation into manhood; a working through of the psychological tensions between individualistic (phallic) drives and integration with social controls (repression). The 'dark girl' (or male 'savage') thus metaphorically locates in a pre-Oedipal (pre-social, and thus pre-gendered) space within this significatory system. Gender codings are thus often unstable in this genre. For this reason, the gender or race of iconic characters can become interchangeable. Perspective nevertheless remained organised along racialising lines in an encirclement perspective:
The point-of-view conventions consistently favor the Euro-American protagonists; they are centred in the frame, their desires drive the narrative; the camera pans, tracks and cranes to accompany their regard. (Shohat and Stam, 1994 : 120)
Hooks challenged this model of exclusion with a discussion of African American identification with Native American history and culture, and of the presence of black cowboys in frontier society (1992 : 184). The genre appeared to be popular with black audiences since several black-cast films of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as blaxploitation movies, were westerns (listed in Bogle, 1991, see also "Black America's Rich Film History," Ebony, February 1993, pp.156-160 : 158). This would also seem to indicate some diversity of reading strategy. Furthermore, Stam did not mention that the IMR institutionalises what is specifically a (white) male perspective. Female protagonism received no comment in his analysis of Soldier Blue (Ibid : 119) and there is no recognition of a possible diversity of reading practices along sex-gender lines.
Representation of gender and sexuality was also subject to diachronic shifts in the genre's significatory system. Duel in the Sun (1946) is associated with a cycle of adult 'Freudian' westerns made in the 1940s following the trail of Hughes' salacious epic, The Outlaw (1943) (Buscombe, 1991 : 44). In the run-up to the PCA test-case presentation of lesbianism in The Children's Hour (1961), it was already becoming easier to deal with adult themes. In 1959, Warlock "came closer than anything seen before to suggesting homosexuality" (Buscombe, 1991 : 45). Issues of Civil Rights and, later, of US involvement in Vietnam also produced a correlative tendency in westerns from the 1950s onwards to re-evaluate the role of Native Americans in US history. The battle of "good versus evil" transferred to the TV cop-show genre. Self-parody and revisionism appeared in the western genre which tended increasingly towards self-reflexivity (Shohat and Stam, 1994 : 119; Films, 3 :9, 1983 : 16-17). Wright's more structuralist approach (1975 : 74) identified a narrative form associated with the cultural dominance of a professional elite towards the end of the 1950s in which society attacks a strong, 'expert' hero and expels him. A strong female character often fights alongside him. Johnny Guitar (1954) is a transitional example in which the strong female character actually takes the place of the hero (Wright, 1975 : 78) — this was extremely popular with lesbians and gays (Russo, 1981 : 103; Olson, 1994 : 58). This popularity may be partly due to the parodic self-reflexivity of its presentation of the crossdressed protagonist (reflecting the tendency to self-parody in this era).
Kuhn argued that a transgressive pleasure in representations of crossdressing in the musical or theatrical genres opens out precisely through a parodic emphasis on a divergence between sexed body and gendered performance (1985 : 58). Whilst this may explain a camp element in lesbian pleasure in the western genre's tomboy, Mulvey's account of heterosexual feminine pleasure in this figure relies, instead, on the post-structuralist construct of the spectator's regressive, nostalgic, flight to the western's fantasy setting in the manufactured innocence of America's 'childhood.' It is this regression which opens out a troubling of gender-boundaries and it may be this nostalgic function which is primarily productive of lesbian (as well as heterosexual male) pleasures in the iconic western tomboy.
Tomboys (and the very idea of lesbianism) emerged as an exotic and often fascinating extension of the male myth, serving as a proving ground for its maintenance ... In the popular arts especially, such women were simply perceived to be 'like men,' and they conjured up a far more appealing androgyny than did male sissies. The tomboy image was amusingly daring and aspired to strength and authority, while the sissy image discredited those values. (Russo, 1981 : 6)
The crossdressing adult tomboy could not be represented as the innocent child of the wilderness, however, and Vienna's crossdressing protagonism signifies her rather unmistakably as a lesbian figure (Graham, 1995 : 178). This necessitates a 'splitting' of protagonism enabling displacement of pathology onto the co-protagonistic character of Emma. A similar manoeuvre characterises treatment of the professionalised, crossdressing, protagonist of Seven Women (1966). Far from being dispelled, however, a subtextual lesbian-eroticism tends to dissipate into paranoia which, in a Freudian context, merely emphasises it (see White, 1991). The figure of the tomboy here almost converges with the homoeroticisation of the dark girl's relationship with the outlaw, but remains distinctively tomboyish in Vienna's protagonistic degree of narrative control and independence.