Shooting Stars: Women and Guns in the Post-war Hollywood Western

This source preferred by Christa Van Raalte

Authors: Van Raalte, C.

Editors: Thomas, D. and Smith, S.

This thesis proposes that representations of women and guns in post-war Hollywood Westerns have a disruptive impact on the textual and ideological coherence of the films, and that this is symptomatic of underlying cultural anxieties around gender roles and gender difference. The theoretical context is drawn from two distinct paradigms: critical writing on the Western and feminist film criticism. That these rarely intersect suggests there is room for a fruitful contribution to be made by a feminist analysis of women in Western films.

Three key questions are addressed: In a genre traditionally associated with a male lead, how does the presence of a powerful female lead impact on narrative structure and inflect generic conventions? How are issues of agency and desire articulated around the image of the gun? How are questions of gender roles and gender difference worked out through the iconography of costume?

The post-war period provides an apt focus for the study, given the social upheaval attendant on the transition from war to peace, and the increasing concern with issues of gender identity seen in a range of contemporary film genres. All eight focal Westerns and Western hybrids discussed in this dissertation address these cultural tensions by drawing on the structural and thematic conventions of genres more usually associated with female leads.

The study finds that, across the range of texts, different narrative trajectories and conventions pertain for male and female protagonists, and that a female lead in a conventionally male genre gives rise to a degree of structural and generic realignment that has both aesthetic and ideological repercussions; that female agency and desire are both highlighted and problematised through their association with the gun - a signifier associated principally with masculinity and the privileges thereof; that costume provides, in effect, a visual commentary on the changing status of each heroine, particularly in relation to traditional conceptions of gender and gender roles.

It concludes that there is a ‘difficulty of difference’ at the heart of these films, which, I have argued, speaks to unresolved anxieties about the cultural meaning of gender.

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