Feminism & Mid-20th Century Western Films: An Unlikely Parallel

The growth of feminism’s influence in American society during the mid-20th century paralleled the rise of strong, independent female characters over the traditionally weak women of Hollywood western film. The shift of female character types in a predominantly patriarchal genre correlates with the rise of feminism and the increase of movements rights, especially in the late sixties. Chronologically from the 1950s to the late 1960s, the films The Furies (1950), Cat Ballou (1965), Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and the The Belle Starr Story (1968) progressively portrayed their female characters as more and more independent and strong over the course of the decades. However, since the western genre is classically male-dominated, even strong and independent female characters are still continuously subordinated by the males of the films, making the action heroine merely a copy of their male counterparts. Therefore, the influence of feminism is limited on this typically masculine-dominated genre.It is obvious that women were not valued in the writing, production, direction, and casting in the majority of western films in the mid 20th century.

This neglect for the importance of female roles in film created a sexist approach to casting women into lesser roles in western films. Women were restricted to either being portrayed as feminine- hypersexualized or innocent- or copying the ideals of masculinity. Only the masculine type female characters could be portrayed as outlaw heroes, as masculinity is the heroic ideal of the setting of the Wild West in these films. Femininity is trivialized in the western film genre, as females who express themselves as women are stereotyped as either hypersexualized or innocent. In the 1965 film Cat Ballou, the development of the main female character, the namesake of the movie, displays how negative influences of the western lifestyle can cause a “fragile” female to turn into a ruthless outlaw. This innocent character type is first portrayed by main character Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) in the beginning of the film, where she is depicted as a young school teacher who is naive, ignorant and new to the reality of American society. This innocent character type that Hollywood reinforced with the limiting gender roles that movie directors forced upon females in the film industry was, and is, extremely common.

In the fifties and sixties, innocence was seen as the only socially acceptable characteristic for women, especially young women. Society convinced young women that in order to be accepted, they needed to be innocent, virginal and willing to serve their future husbands at beck and call. Hollywood western films further enforced this ideal by creating characters who could not hold their own opinions, and who needed either their fathers, husbands or some male figure to “rescue” them when troublesome times came along. Women of this time were supposed to be protected from the dangerous ways of the world. In the case of Cat Ballou, she was a young, innocent school teacher, who was influenced by the negative elements of the Wild West lifestyle, such as robbery, gambling, prostitution, and other activities of the sort. These changes in her environment caused her to become a wild, dangerous outlaw, who was not afraid to express her sexuality and opinions. Cat Ballou transformed from an innocent school teacher into a ruthless outlaw. According to society, this occurred due to negative circumstances in her life that as a “fragile” female, Cat could simply not resist. Both the film and society are teaching men and women alike that women are not capable of making their own decisions, and that any influence of slight significance will have a huge impact on said woman, because how could she resist? The portrayal of women in films such as Cat Ballou have a hidden message in the woodworks of the analysis of the film; that women are not strong enough on their own to make their own decisions, have any power, be responsible for finances, and the list goes on. Even though Cat Ballou makes a name for herself as an outlaw and a train robber, she is depicted in the film as if she can’t do anything alone. In one specific scene, Cat Ballou attempts to rob a train alone, and the conductor won’t give her the money she demands, even while held at gunpoint. Then, one of the male train robber’s in Ballou’s gang of outlaws fires his pistol towards the conductor, and he immediately folds to the robbers. The filmmakers deliberately make it a point to have the main female character needs the assistance of a male in order to accomplish anything that she wants to do

The sexist claims made by Hollywood films, especially westerns, have built up so much over time, that they eventually led to the surge of women’s rights movements occurring in the late 1960s and are even still occurring today. The issue with these claims by Hollywood’s producers is that society believes what they are told. As is evident today, American citizens are known for being very easily influenced by the media, especially by Hollywood films. Due to the popularity of Western films in the mid 20th century, it makes sense that people embraced their obsolete and sexists views on the roles of women in society. Females of all kinds in this time were limited to the confines of what society believed was the “proper place” for a woman. The ideals of femininity were constricted to either hypersexualization or innocence. Society only accepted innocence as an acceptable trait for future mothers and wives, and women were also expected to maintain their image in order to live up to the high standards of American society. The suburbanization boom in the 1950s helped create the stereotypical housewife, and it also shaped the ways in which society expected women to behave. The example of the film Cat Ballou epitomized the ideals of the ways women were expected to act through the early stages of the main character’s development, when she was still a school teacher.

These unfair and sexist views of women prevented them from being able to contribute to society in other ways, rather than just home-making and child-rearing. June O. Underwood, researcher and professor at University of Nebraska, examines how women of old western films were expected to act, “The true woman was supposed to be submissive, pure (sexually innocent or sexually faithful), pious, and domestic” (Underwood 95). Underwood’s historical analysis of the proper role of women at this time is a nearly perfect description of what society expected of women, and these principles were directly reflected into the behavior of many women in the 1950s and 1960s. Similar to the sexist limits on female characters in the film Cat Ballou, are the same as the ones in Bonnie & Clyde (1967). The main female character of this wildly popular film, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), faces extreme amounts of discrimination, solely based on the fact that she was a woman. In the film, Bonnie is first portrayed as innocent hometown girl, who later turns into a ruthless outlaw alongside the love of her life, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty). The directors make it a point to portray Bonnie first as naive, and she only changes her ways because she cannot resist the tempting, dangerous actions of her beau Clyde, whose negative influences eventually leads to the duo’s violent death.

In a controversial analytical film review published shortly after the film’s release, the author praises Beatty’s performance, while humiliating Dunaway, putting on a damper on future castings for her, “She [Dunaway] is thoroughly original in her handling of the Bonnie Clyde character, and makes you believe in her as a restless beauty out for adventure, pathetically needing to feel like someone special” (Variety Magazine, 1967). The authors’ unfair interpretation of Bonnie’s motives as a character prove that the hurtful words of this film review not only affect the actress the comments are directed toward, but also any individual who reads them. Both men and women alike who read this film review will think that since the author made these assumptions, that it is okay to make sexist comments about any woman, when it definitely is not.