Why do Westerns keep failing their female characters?

The new Netflix limited series Godless is a bloody western set in La Belle, a town where most the menfolk have been killed in a mining accident. But is Godless the feminist western we’ve been waiting for?

Feature by John Bleasdale | 05 Dec 2017

The short answer to that introductory question is no, but here are some more detailed early reactions. Anne Cohen at Refinery 29 argues that the seven-part mini-series might (barely) pass the Bechdel test, but it doesn’t justify the label ‘feminist’: “it feels like a missed opportunity to have built up the conceit of a 'no man's land' ruled by women, and fail to deliver on the feminism.” The theme is taken up by author Justina Ireland on Medium: “Men are the center of every storyline, and when the women appear it’s as interlopers rather than as fully fleshed out characters.” With a Game of Thrones rapey-ness and a male-driven narrative, Jill Gutowitz over at Dazed headlined her piece “Women Deserve Better than the Faux Feminist Western Godless”, and writes that “just because there are women shooting guns doesn’t make it feminist. It’s insulting.”

The vociferousness of the criticism was provoked by a promotional campaign and a trailer that wrote all sorts of feminist bad-assery cheques that the show couldn’t pay. To be fair, writer-director Scott Frank sought to downplay the feminism, telling Variety:  “I wasn’t interested in making a giant feminist statement. I don’t know that I have the right to.”

In fact, the unmanned town of La Belle is only occasionally Godless's setting. Following a massacre, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his 30-strong band of outlaws go on a manhunt for ex-member Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). Goode has taken refuge on the ranch of widower Alice (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dochery), on the outskirts of La Belle. The town’s half-blind Sheriff (Scoot McNairy) rides off on a quixotic mission to capture Griffin, who's drawing towards the town with his gang.

The eagle-eyed will spy that this spoiler-free synopsis features three men to one woman so far. As the show goes on the town comes into it as all roads leads to La Belle, and the women – notably the Sheriff’s hard-as-nails sister Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) – begin to do what a woman’s gotta do. But anyone expecting a stereotype-busting revisionist western is going to be disappointed.  

Godless is more post-modern than feminist. It revels in its landscapes and gunplay, its pithy quotes and references. There are direct lifts from John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. As Frank told Variety in the interview quoted above: “I really worked hard to embrace all of the clichés.” Even Mary Agnes feels like a spin on Deadwood’s Calamity Jane, who was played with foul-mouthed relish by Robin Weigert in that HBO show. This reverence for the already done doesn’t bode well for the women of the piece who embody some pretty tired clichés: the whore with the heart of gold, the damsel in distress etc.

But Godless is only the latest in several recent faltering attempts to show women out west.

Back in 1994, Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell, Mary Stuart Masterson and Madeleine Stowe teamed up to play prostitutes turned outlaws in Bad Girls, a grrl power spin on Young Guns. Problems began in production when female director Tamra Davis was fired mid-shoot and the script by Yolande Turner and Becky Johnston was drastically rewritten. Noted male Jonathan Kaplan took over, the leads began to argue over the costumes and the result was a tedious mess.   

A year later, Sharon Stone at the height of her fame teamed up with Sam Raimi to make The Quick and the Dead, an inventive comic book western, featuring a quick draw competition and an obligatory Gene Hackman. Godless references the film, but instead of Stone's sharpshooter character it's Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Kid who's being riffed on by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays wannabe hero Whitey.

Tommy Lee Jones directed the somber-to-the-point-of-suicidal The Homesman, a tale of misogyny, mistreatment and female madness, which boasted a top rate performance by Hilary Swank as well as the director himself. Its tale follows a spinster (Swank) who's escorting three insane women to a safe refuge in Iowa with the help of a man whose life she has saved (Jones). The conclusion it draws – that the Wild West is No Country for Young, Middle-Aged or Old Women – is almost bleak beyond words, despite a late crowd-pleasing turn by Meryl Streep.

As with Bad Girls, Jane Got a Gun started off with a female director then lost her – in this case Lynne Ramsay. And, as with Bad Girls, Jane Got a Gun ended up shite. Natalie Portman is the eponymous Jane who must pick up the rifle to defend her homestead from Ewan MacGregor’s American accent when her doofus husband (Noah Emmerich) gets himself half ventilated. Any sense of Sister’s Doin’ it for Themselves is hampered by the fact she immediately runs off to fetch her ex-boyfriend (Joel Edgerton), and the plot makes much of the to-and-froing of Jane’s affections. So not really a feminist western, unless, as Lindy West wrote in The Guardian on the film’s release, “your criteria for what constitutes feminist media is ‘contains a woman’”.

What would happen if you didn’t fire your female director? Well, independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt managed to get through Meek’s Cutoff intact and the result is a genuinely feminist western. Michelle Williams is Emily, one of a group of settlers heading west. With survival at stake, she must take matters into her own hands when her party's guide (Bruce Greenwood), who's leading them off trail, seems to be unreliable. The inadequacy of the masculine stereotype of the cowboy and frontiersman is contrasted with the know-how and growing courage of Emily, and makes Meek’s Cutoff a rare questioning of this male-dominated genre.

Although a second season of Godless hasn’t been announced, one would hope Netflix, producer Steven Soderbergh and Scott Frank might look to expand on that ‘no man’s land’ premise and this time tell the women’s stories. They could get Reichardt to show them the trail.   

Godless is currently streaming on Netflix