The evolution of women in western movies: three iconic examples

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If there’s one genre that relies heavily on gender stereotypes, it’s the classic western, as this paper outlines. Typically starring a strong and brooding cowboy type with a simultaneous penchant for gun-toting violence and good, old-fashioned chivalry, it casts its leading men as heroes and its leading ladies as helpless and fragile.  

Recently, however, a number of talented filmmakers have begun to fracture this norm. Placing women at the pinnacle of the action, they’ve been taking female characters from their traditionally secondary roles and turning them into the drivers of the on-screen drama. 

That being said, these are not the first women in westerns to subvert this stereotype. While the change has undoubtedly been gradual, a number of actresses over the years have stepped outside their on-screen boxes and placed themselves at the centre of the story, helping to pave the way for the plethora of wonderful tales that are only now being told.  

Mary in A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)

A recurring theme in westerns is card games, and especially poker in particular. Still widely played today, this high-stakes pastime translates to some thrilling on-screen action. So popular is the game even now, that extensive online directories, such as this site, exist with the sole purpose of reviewing online poker rooms and bringing the best offers and bonuses to players. This is perhaps one of the reasons that A Big Hand for the Little Lady remains immensely enjoyable to modern audiences, but its subversion of stereotypes also has a role to play. One of the first westerns to depict women as more than just a bit part, its story revolves around the characters of Meredith and Mary, a husband and wife who stake all they own on a single game of poker. When Meredith, played by Henry Fonda, is taken ill, it’s left to his wife to take over from him, despite her lack of experience. While this might sound like rather typical western fare, there’s a twist: Mary is actually a trickster named Ruby, who sweeps the floor with the competition before making off with their money.   

Sarah in Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970)

When it comes to westerns, they have a habit of casting women as either virgins or villains, but Sister Sarah turned this TV trope dramatically on its head all the way back in 1970. The spaghetti western Two Mules for Sister Sarah cast Shirley MacLaine opposite the iconic acting might of Clint Eastwood, but this film deviated far from the standard on-screen formula. Feisty, interesting, and strong-willed, the titular character was eventually revealed not to be a nun at all, but rather a prostitute masquerading as a holy sister. Nonetheless, the heroine quickly proved handy with a gun, ensuring that she was never relegated to the tired old role of the damsel in distress. 

Ellen in The Quick and the Dead (1995)

25 years after Sister Sarah – in albeit comedic fashion – proved to the world of westerns that women were worth more than the black-and-white roles of virgin or villainess, the character of Ellen burst onto the screen in The Quick and the Dead. Assuming the typically male trope of the ‘man with no name’, she was known only as ‘the lady’ – an avenging angel hell-bent on revenge but nonetheless able to fight her own battles. Seeking vengeance for the death of her father, Ellen, played by Sharon Stone, was the female embodiment of every brooding male character Clint Eastwood had ever played. The result was an electric film that would change the role of females in westerns forever.    

Tell us, isn’t it time you treated yourself to the sight of these three amazing female characters lighting up your screen? 

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