Essay on Women in Early Westerns

Essay on Women in Early Westerns

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Westerns connote images of dirt, dust, guns, horses, cowboys and heroes: physically strong, iron-willed, independent, resourceful, quick-witted men. Although the modern Western (the writings of Louise L’Amour, Zane Grey and the numerous films starring John Wayne, Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry) seems to focus on this ideal hero, the genre actually also provides women with strong, self-reliant, active roles. In fact, many texts that precede the typical modern Western had females as the main characters. However, the role of the heroine still differs from that of the hero; the role does not defeminize women but gives them depth as characters. These women still retain their femininity and domesticity, but they also rescue those around them, take care of themselves, and have a relationship with the land. The Girl of the Golden West, a play written by David Belasco around 1905, perfectly demonstrates this idea. The heroine, the Girl, speaks frankly, carries a gun, takes care of herself, protects the miners’ money, and actually rescues the villain. At the same time, she comforts her boys, desires to recreate the home she remembers, and, epitomizing female virtue, converts the road agent with her love. Other earlier works also provide examples of active, strong women. These earlier works laid a foundation and created a tradition from which the modern-day Western evolved. The tradition began in the earliest days of the colonies with the captivity narratives and eventually blossomed into stories such as The Girl of the Golden West, undoubtedly a Western with a heroine.

In her book, West of Everything, Jane Tompkins discusses the essential elements that define the genre. From her discussion, one can extract a working definition: the setting, th...

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...of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Rowlandson, Mary. A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.In Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. Ed. Mary Kelley. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1942.

Southworth, E.D.E.N. The Hidden Hand or, Capitola the Madcap. Ed. Joanne Dobson. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly. Ed. Ann Douglas. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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