Women in the Western Genre are dealt a predictable hand. However, movies like Painted Woman have come to change that.
When you think of women in the Western genre, what do you think of? Do you think of the pure maternal homesteader? Or how about the prostitute with a heart of gold? And you can’t have a good ol’ Western without a damsel-in-distress, right? These tropes have been pervasive representations of women in the Western genre since its inception. And, in all honesty, it makes the Western genre hard to embrace as a female viewer because of the predictability of the tropes. However, initially, the Western genre wasn’t specifically written with the female or minority viewer in mind. It was written for white heterosexual males.
Let me explain. The Western genre encountered a massive resurgence in popularity during the 1950s. Why? It reinforced this American ideal while Americans were freaking out about the possibility of going to war with Russia. The themes focused on the lone male hero fighting and winning against all odds. This fixation on the white male hero figure meant that women and minority roles were placed on a backburner. They were decorative at the worst and things to be saved last. Overall, these roles give the impression of a lack of importance. This didn’t coincide with what research focused on the Old West has discovered in recent years about women and minorities. In fact, they neglected to dive past the surface of these roles despite the meaty historical material available at their fingertips. Luckily, film and TV creators have been working to change that.
Progress has been made.
In the past few years, there’s been a massive push for more well-rounded representation of women and minorities in the Western genre. The most memorable example that comes to mind is Netflix’s Godless (2017), which was met with mixed criticism.
Much of Godless was promoted to be a very woman heavy show, with an emphasis placed on the autonomy and the independence of the women in the show. However, the reality of the show was that it was more focused on the story between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and their blood feud. The town full of mostly women ends up getting caught in the middle of that feud. The women throughout the course of the series are also defined by their relationships with men. There is a dependence placed on those relationships, which keeps the show from elevating the female characters past becoming fully actualized characters.
Although I was not too disappointed by the characterization of the female characters in Godless, there was something more that I wanted from the series – a singular focus. A piece that might specifically focus on the women instead of using them as a backdrop. A piece that would push the boundaries of what we think of when we see a female character in a Western. That is where James Cotten’s Painted Woman comes into play.
How does Painted Woman confront those tropes?
At the very beginning of the film, you are introduced to the main character Julie (Stef Dawson). Initially, you start to believe that her character will be the same type that we have seen before i.e. the soiled dove archetype. She is someone who appears to be a damsel in distress. She needs to be saved and appears to be too weak to pull herself out of her situation. However, throughout the course of the film, we see Julie transcend and ascend past the trope that we believe her to be. According to director James Cotten, the development of Julie’s character pushing past the trope we see her as initially was purposeful:
Julie’s arc might start off as [a] trope because she herself has become one, but that doesn’t define her. Circumstance lead her to this place, because she’s not yet a fully realized person yet. Abuse and hate have kept her locked in this shell of survival. It’s all she knows. And that doesn’t make her bad. I was really hoping that people would judge her in the beginning, because that’s what the audience needs to learn. They are just as guilty of her being in that situation if they judge her for it. If you notice, Julie wants to escape from it. So much so that she believe Frank might do it, and when he turns on her, she only manages to escape through luck and circumstance. Why? Because she isn’t fully realized as a person. She’s not ready to make these decisions on her own.
The intentions of her character as we watch the story unfold helps to pull the viewer in. Why? Because this development is unexpected. You can see this type of care placed with male characters in other Western genre pieces, but this care isn’t something typically seen with female characters in the genre. That care, in my opinion, is what helps to elevate Painted Woman to a level of significant importance in the genre.
Creating a female character that pushes past the trope she’s become to a more self-actualized and an intriguing person is what we need to see more of if we are to keep the Western genre relevant to modern audiences.