Feminist film theory and the western genre
Mulvey's (1981) analysis of the significance of the western tomboy was based on structural and post-structural analyses of the western (Kitses, 1969; Cawelti, 1971; Wright, 1975), as well as on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic perspectives used in theories of film spectatorship (Stam, 1992 : 146-1582). The questions of female protagonism and spectatorship were addressed as an afterthought to Mulvey's seminal (1975) essay in which she had argued that the relay of the gaze set up by Hollywood's IMR enforces the masculinisation of any spectatorial position offered by popular film. Criticised for focusing on the male spectator and proposing an apparently impossible, or passive and over-present, identification for women spectators (Mulvey, 1981 : 69), she revisited her earlier theorisation to examine how the female spectator might identify with female protagonism. In respect of the former, she intended, specifically, to address the question of the female spectator who ". . . may find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides" (Mulvey, 1981 : 70). As regards the latter, she concentrated on films "in which a woman central protagonist is shown to be unable to achieve a stable sexual identity, torn between the deep blue sea of passive femininity and the devil of regressive masculinity" (70).
Although Mulvey (1981) acknowledged that sexual orientation may be a factor in female identifications (69) she nevertheless focused exclusively on the (normalising) feminisation process, noting that Freud's inability to treat 'the woman' as a discrete entity but only as 'the-same' (pre-Oedipal) or 'not-the-same' (post-Oedipal) leaves 'the woman' oscillating between active and passive positions in the relay:
Three elements can thus be drawn together: Freud's concept of 'masculinity' in women, the identification triggered by the logic of a narrative grammar, and the ego's desire to phantasize itself in a certain, active manner. All three suggest that, as desire is given cultural materiality in a text, for women (from childhood onwards) trans-sex identification is a habit that very easily becomes second Nature. However, this Nature does not sit easily and shifts restlessly in its borrowed transvestite clothes. (Mulvey, 1981 : 72 – emphasis hers)
In Mulvey's Proppean analysis of narrative structure it is the hero's marriage which effects narrative closure, phantasmically reiterating for the male spectator the resolution of the Oedipal struggle towards social integration. Mulvey pointed out that the Western's treatment of this structure opens out the disruptive possibility of a refusal of marriage at the culmination of the tale; personified by the hero riding lonesome (unmarried) into the sunset. Mulvey argued that the resultant tension between the poles of integration and refusal eventually led to the splitting of the western hero, citing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a prime example. This is one of the many westerns dealing with the transition from the lawless frontier or unfettered range to settled townships and social regulation in which the man who marries signifies this settlement and regulation. He is often actually a lawyer or sheriff. The hero who refuses marriage signifies the frontier or open range and resistance to the coming of the (symbolic) law. The western narrative can thus be seen as a kind of national 'coming of age' tale, forging a national identity for America in the register of historical myth, whilst also registering a personal nostalgia for a juvenile phallic eroticism and freedom from (the 'white man's burden' of) social responsibility. These personal and interpersonal structures are thus metonymically related.
According to Mulvey, in Duel in the Sun, female identification with the protagonist, Pearl, is masculine in the sense that it is based in a regressive, gender-undifferentiated, phallic narcissism. Prior to the stage of Oedipal conflict, Freud did not differentiate between the libidinal drives of girls and boys. His identification of the libido with the masculine was, as Mulvey pointed out, merely conventional. For Freud, the libido is neither male nor female, but has a 'masculine' character insofar as the active principle is always culturally characterised as masculine. In women, a degree of active or masculine drive survives the massive repression which Freud argued was necessary to effect a feminine resolution of the Oedipal scenario.
The correct road, femininity, leads to an increasing repression of 'the active' (the 'phallic phase' in Freud's terms). In this sense Hollywood genre films, structured around masculine pleasure, offering an identification with the active point of view, allow a female spectator to rediscover that lost aspect of her sexual identity, the never-fully-repressed bed-rock of feminine neurosis. (Mulvey, 1981 : 71 - emphasis hers.)
The western tomboy thus personifies the conflicts of a feminisation process which must 'repress' active drives; thus signifying a feminine nostalgia for the pre-Oedipal period of phallic activity. According to Mulvey, this is always an element of female pleasure in any cinematic representation organised by the gendered relay of the gaze. The female spectator's 'masculinised' position in the relay, emphasised by the 'masculinisation' of the female protagonist, engenders in the heterosexual female spectator a 'restless' tension between phallic nostalgia and socially correct feminine passivity.