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More than transsexual identification: female subjectivity in westerns

In more recent texts on Westerns one can frequently find theses that women have a longer and more meaningful role in this genre. Historical research is even stronger in confirming the fact that women had an important share in conquering the Wild West. Nevertheless, as feminist film criticism pointed out, the Western is perceived as a predominantly or even exclusively male genre. That means, among other things, that female characters were not theorised as heroines but as functional stereotypes. Initial reactions of the feminist film theory were directed at Westerns dealing with a predominantly male set of problems while critic interpretations (that mainly dealt with male Oedipus trajectories) played a secondary role. Hence, when it comes to female characters in Westerns the problem is not only that Westerns very often provide a simplified image of femininity. Discussions on Westerns that do not take into consideration the complexity of female roles are equally problematic. Though reactions of feminist criticism were more than necessary, it is clear that they couldn't be comprehensive at first. Female characters representing a substantial deviation from the usual pattern were left out – the sexually active/morally problematic woman from the West as opposed to the sexually passive/morally exemplary/ideal wife from the East. Here I'm mainly thinking of the analysis of Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946), the film that motivated film theorist Laura Mulvey to new thoughts on the visual pleasure in narrative films articulated in the essay Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey's discussion about transsexual identification as the basis of visual pleasure is immensely encouraging for further thoughts on the possibility of including a female audience in 'male' genres. Nevertheless, the key question I would like to pose in this essay is the following: Is transsexual identification the only possibility that is being offered to spectators when it comes to Westerns? Or is the following question equally pertinent: Is the Freudian active/passive dichotomy within its real sense something that goes for Westerns, that is, can the difference between male and female characters be defined this way? Though in the meantime feminist criticism has opened additional ways of studying the Western, a whole series of female characters have still not been mentioned or at least not sufficiently mentioned, characters whose status has not yet been explored. These are characters that put pressure on exclusiveness, on theses of the Western being a genre of male desire or theses that female spectators of the Western (as a possible subgenre of the action film) can enjoy it only if they identify themselves with male characters who, as opposed to the female characters, were considered to be active. In other words, if they identify themselves as transsexual. The basic thesis is that women of action that are being discussed in this essay successfully combine "masculinity" and "femininity" and that gender performativity works perfectly clear in these examples from the period of classical Hollywood. Within the plots of the Wild West where all the laws that will come with "the boons of civilization" are being questioned one finally needs to consider heroines who are stronger than the law of patriarchy.

Saša Vojković

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