Uma Thurman as Sissy Hankshaw in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)

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This feature first appeared in the November 1993 issue of Sight and Sound

Think of spring. Spring 1993, to be exact. Visiting my friend Holly’s painting studio, I discovered a wall of toy guns and holsters from the 50s, testimony to her childhood passion. And not just hers. When my friend Judith comes to New York, she insists on eating at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, a restaurant in the Village that serves perfectly passable food but is really frequented by grown women with cowgirls on the brain who deem digestion more pleasurable when surrounded by the cowgirl kitsch of some half-dozen decades. Even my friend Kate, who grew up in Amarillo and used to answer to the name of Tex, returned to her roots (sort of) to make a little videotape titled Queers on Steers. Now, Holly’s six-gun wall has been around for ages, Kate shot that footage a while back, and even the Cowgirl Hall of Fame wasn’t nearly new – but suddenly Holly and Judith and Kate’s tastes were hip and fresh instead of outré. Dear reader, you’re uh, ‘forgiven’ if you think you know why.

Yes, Clint swept the Oscars and, going one step forward, cowgirls were now a good idea. The wonder, I suppose, is why it took so long, given the prevalence of cowgirl myths in girlhood fantasy, for the subject to dawn on LA. No matter: suddenly the name of the very upmarket Rodeo Drive took on new meaning and, if the trades were to be believed, LA overnight turned downright cowgirlesque. Variety didn’t give a damn if generations of American girls had been busy dreaming up cowgirls of their own. There were deals to be made.

Unforgiven (1992)

Maggie Greenwald and Gus Van Sant were ahead of the pack. She had just finished directing Suzy Amis in The Ballad of Little Jo and he already had directed and edited Uma Thurman and company in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But rumours and trade stories about new female westerns appeared in the press nearly every week in early summer. Tim Hunter was set to do one called (really) Guns’n’Roses with various rumoured actresses, at one point including (really) Sharon Stone. Producer Denise Di Novi had teamed up with John Duigan to do Outlaws for Columbia. Tamra Davis was hired to direct Bad Girls, a five-prostitute western for which she picked actresses like One False Move’s Cynda Williams and Guncrazy star Drew Barrymore.

By September, the hot weather was over and so was the hot trend. Tim Hunter’s project was a no-go, Outlaws was put on hold, and Tamra Davis was fired from Bad Girls along with cinematographer Lisa Rinzler and actress Cynda Williams. What was left? The two independent productions. The Ballad of Little Jo had an OK run, while Even Cowgirls Get the Blues caused early consternation on the festival circuit. Meanwhile, for this writer, as for others before me, the air began to swirl with new tumbleweeds: ideas about female westerns, what they are, the genre to which they claim to belong, and the reasons why the road to putting cowgirls on the screen leads to such a rough ride.

Renegade westerns

“The western hero, who seems to ride in out of nowhere, in fact comes riding in out of the nineteenth century… Every word he doesn’t say, every creed in which he doesn’t believe is absent for a reason… The point-for-point contrast between a major popular form of the twentieth century and the major popular form of the nineteenth is not accidental. The western answers the domestic novel. It is the antithesis of the cult of domesticity that dominated American Victorian culture.”

Jane Tompkins took a beating for her film analysis in last year’s West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, yet her assessment of the genre’s overarching significance in literary as well as cinematic form is right on target. If civilisation and language had become female spheres, Tompkins argued, then the western represented an attempt by men to get back their own, by creating a separate sphere where language was fundamentally a mark of weakness and where technology, religion, cultures and the female sex were marginalised, or devalued, or absent entirely. If the western, then, is the male half of a universe bifurcated by gender, then no wonder that the female western is having so much trouble being reborn.

Tompkins goes so far as to assert that the “western doesn’t have anything to do with the West as such”. She rejects all the arguments regarding western metaphors, the tropes of civilisation and frontier, and argues that the western is more truly “about men’s fear of losing their mastery”: The ritual nature of westerns, then, might well be linked to male insecurities about that mastery and the need to have the certainty of their power reaffirmed through an eternal cycle of repetition – in other words, through the elaboration of a genre. (Don’t forget, here, the equivalences that the critic Linda Williams traced between westerns and pornographic films: the link to pornography could prove as important to thinking anew about the western as the examination of the western was for her re-thinking of porn.)

Posse (Mario Van Peebles, 1993)

Tompkins and Williams both have their focus upon the westerns of the past; I have mine upon the present. Once the cracks in the hegemonic façade of Wild West mythology began to crack, it seemed only a matter of time before transgressive forms of the genre would start to show themselves. Once the Smithsonian could mount a show decolonising western mythology and Mario Van Peebles could use star-power to put Black posses on the screen, then the No Trespassing signs could start to come down along lots of the borders governing access to the genre. Was it, then, only a matter of time before the gender-bending fashion so prevalent in most other spheres of US culture in the post-Crying Game era would bring gender trespassing to the western? Think again. It’s just as possible that Posse could work precisely because the in-the-hood genre it transplanted to the frontier was just as committed to a violent all-male universe as the western ever was.

Also, keep in mind that cowgirls mean different things to different people. This summer, when cowgirls were still enjoying their greenlight momentum, Harper’s Bazaar’s Joseph Hooper wrote an article on the male fantasy of the cowgirl that’s the very embodiment of wet-dream projection, straining to define the cowgirl mystique in boy-consumption terms and foolishly concluding that the cowgirl aura persists because she is profoundly “reassuring” to men. She proves that nature and sex are good and on his side.

Take Hooper as representative of the normative, red-blooded American male’s sense of cowgirls: tight jeans, rolls in the hay, spunky but ultimately less mannish than stand-by-your-mannish. You would never know, from reading Hooper or watching Greenwald’s film or reading the original Tom Robbins novel from which Van Sant adapted his film, that the cowgirl myth is a centre-piece of lesbian culture too, nor that the history of cross-dressed “passing women” on the frontier has been found in lesbian archives rather than western museums. You’d never know that the figure of the cowgirl has been a source of power to heterosexual women, too, embodying strength and freedom as forcefully as the male counterpart sparks fantasies of escape in the menfolk, at least in the US. Indeed in the Nineties such male claims to cowgirl fantasies sound an awful lot like compensatory and proprietary gestures towards an out-of-control object.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

For all Hooper’s certainty, the history of the western periodically reveals renegade attempts to shift the ground. Given any genre’s always-voracious need to reinvent itself in order to stay the same, even female characters occasionally rise to different positions in defiance of genre codes. Such shifts are particularly pronounced in the westerns made in the 50s, when Marlene Dietrich starred in Rancho Notorious (1952), Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957), and when Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge tangled in the great lesbian-cult-western, Johnny Guitar (1954). The genre rules get bent again in the 70s, with feminist critics of the western pointing to films like The Hired Hand (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971) and Comes a Horseman (1978) as similar openings for women in search of the kind of power Tompkins says the western is specifically constructed to deny.

Tamra Davies, researching past westerns for clues to her future one, went for My Darling Clementine (1946) and Once upon a Time in the West (1968). But she, and we, would do well to heed the opinions of Jacqueline Levitin, who in her early 80s reappraisal of the western contends that only Mae West is able to triumph over the obstacles of the form. Klondike Annie (1936) and My Little Chickadee (1940), both half a century old, are still in the vanguard. Levitin argued that they are the only American-made westerns that “bear the stamp of a woman’s point of view, and the only ones that deal with the West from the perspective of women’s power.” But what about today? Fifties. Seventies. If the urge strikes every other decade, then female westerns should be on the schedule again.

Enter Maggie Greenwald. Greenwald says she has wanted to make a western ever since she was a child. Indeed, there’s something childishly fairytale-like about The Ballad of Little Jo, not at all what you’d expect from the butched-up descriptions of the rugged crossdressing western the press kit describes. Suzy Amis plays an Eastern society woman who slips up and gets herself pregnant. In short order, she’s exiled from her family and community (ie the East) to the horrors of poverty, vulnerability, attempted rape, and betrayal (ie the West). Traversing the frontier on her own, without protection, she realises that there’s only one way a woman can survive the West: to disappear into manhood. So she cuts off her hair, cuts a scar in her face, changes her clothes, and presto, Josephine is Jo.

[Little Joe Monahan, the person on whom this film is based, is regarded to have been a transgender man. The film The Ballad of Little Jo, however, characterises Jo as a woman disguising herself as a man.]

Little Jo finds the town of Ruby City, where ‘he’ passes, becomes a miner and then sheepherder, and finally settled rancher; Jo fights the cattle interests and becomes just one of the guys all the way until death reveals her secret. Greenwald chooses a journey-of-the-innocent structure, and whenever the going gets rough, hey-donny-donny music surges on to the soundtrack and a montage of images tries to move the narrative along to its next high-point. I guess that’s the “ballad” part of the title.

Suzy Amis as Jo Monaghan in The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

It’s obvious early on that Ballad is not a film ‘about’ cross-dressing or sexual transgression, nor about Little Jo’s psychology or inner life. Rather, what Greenwald offers is a view of the West from the perspective of a changeling, a creature whose alteration of herself alters as well as her (and our) experience of the frontier and the kinds of life it dictates to its inhabitants. Greenwald’s view of Little Jo’s transformation as lack rather than gain is certainly disappointing to viewers in search of lesbian prehistory or convincing butch behaviour (especially so because the film is based on an actual woman, Jo Monaghan, whose true gender was only discovered after her death). The film does better on what must have been more comfortable ground for its director: the everpresence of male violence – against other men and, in its sexual form, against women – and the absence of female options.

Greenwald wants to immerse us in the brutality of the “real” old West, but along the way she stumbles on to something much more interesting and unexpected: the interplay of race and gender. David Chung plays Tinman, an ailing Chinese worker whom Jo rescues from lynching and takes on as a hired band. A fellow outsider to the white male West, he immediately detects Jo’s true gender and they become secret lovers. While Greenwald seems pretty unconscious of the stereotypes of feminised Asian masculinity that she finds it convenient to deploy here, the scenes of Amis and Chung making love are truly hot, with his long hair and her Nautilised body played for counterpoint. They’re also Ballad’s most transgressive scenes, suggesting as they do the exchange of roles and the interplay of dominance and submission that Greenwald is so loathe to explore in any same-sex pairings.

Actually, Greenwald comes close to doing just that – but the scenes involve Jo and a man, not a woman. Ian McKellen is cast in a minor role as Percy, a woman-hater whose intimate affection for the male Jo turns to rage when he discovers the truth. I don’t know whether Greenwald’s casting of McKellen here is ironic, iconic or subtextual red-herring, but it’s an interesting spin. Jo, though, is ultimately more rancher than cowpoke. For the ever-elusive figure of the cowgirl, look elsewhere.

Cowgirls’ revenge

“Ha!” said Jelly with dramatic disdain. “Movies. There hasn’t been a cowgirl in Hollywood since the days of the musical westerns. The last movie cowgirl disappeared when Roy and Gene got fat and 50. And there’s never been a movie about cowgirls… Cowgirls exist as an image. The idea of cowgirls prevails in out culture. Therefore, it seems to me, the fact of cowgirls should prevail… I’m a cowgirl. I’ve always been a cowgirl. Caught a silver bullet when I was 12. Now I’m in a position where I can help others become cowgirls, too. If a girl wants to grow up to be cowgirl, she ought to be able to do it, or else this world ain’t worth living in.”

John Hurt as The Countess and Angie Dickinson as Miss Adrian in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Enter Gus Van Sant. The infamous Bonanza Jellybean (henceforth Rain Phoenix) delivers this speech in the original Tom Robbins novel, and most of it has made it into the film as well. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of the story. For everyone who post-dates the Seventies, know that Even Cowgirls Get the Blues concerns the adventures of one Sissy Hankshaw (that’s Uma Thurman to you), born with giant thumbs and a consequent talent for hitchhiking. Sissy, star model for the Yoni Yum line of female-hygiene products, is dispatched by her employer, the arch-decadent Countess (John Hurt), to his Rubber Rose dude ranch cum health spa, where he has similarly dispatched a team of German admen to shoot a commercial of Sissy’s cavorting in nature. in this case, in a pas de deux with a flock of whooping cranes.

Alas, the Rubber Rose manager Miss Adrian (Angie Dickinson) has her hands full, battling a crew of ornery cowgirls who aim to overthrow the patriarchy and restore the ranch, its diems and herds to the natural state of equilibrium of cowgirls and nature. Oh, and overlooking all the action from his mountain home is “the Chink”, a Japanese-American escapee from a World War II internment camp misnamed by a renegade group of Native Americans called the Clock People who rescued him from a snowbank. Add to that a serious side-plot concerning the whooping cranes, peyote, the FBI and a certain Delores Del Ruby (Lorraine Bracco) and you can begin to imagine what Van Sant has taken on.

Or can you? The film has already managed to divide critics by both gender and generation, and only the goddess knows what a mass audience will make of it. My guess is that it’s an instant, serious and lasting cult film. For sure, it’s the craziest, most genderbending, transgressive western that’s ever made it to the screen. But remember that this is a film based on a novel that originally appeared in 1976 in serial form in a magazine called High Times and it bears all the marks of its time of origin. For all the buzz, two decades long, regarding Cowgirls as a classic feminist text, on closer examination it’s no such thing. Robbins would be quite comfortable with Hooper, both of them happy to provide sexual services to any cowgirl that might cross their path.

The Robbins novel surprises the faulty memory with its determined heterosexuality and male-centered narrative: the narrator is constantly inserting himself into the action and finally even awards himself a central role in the plot. This was great literary fun, but rather undermines the conceptions of the novel as a dyke playground. Instead, it’s true to its time, offering a reminder of what sexual liberation, heterosexual-style, was like. Robbins even has Bonanza Jellybean explain all the girl-girl sex to Sissy as just a man-shortage thing. The cowgirls on the Rubber Rose Ranch? “There’s not a queer among ‘em,” declares Bonanza.

Uma Thurman as Sissy Hankshaw and Lorraine Bracco as Delores Del Ruby in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Gus Van Sant, bless his soul, has changed things a bit. In fact, he’s taken almost every bit of heterosexuality out of the movie (except “the Chink”, but that’s another story) and queered things up. Bonanza and Sissy fall so sweetly in love that it nearly gave me an acid-flashback to the earliest days of innocence of lesbian-feminism. The cowgirls’ debates over group action and gender-appropriate strategies made me remember the worst nightmares of consciousness-raising groups and collective decision-making. My favourite line? “This furniture’s too masculine!” The showdowns between Miss Adrian and Delores are hysterical reminders of how the women’s movement divided women, with femininity pitted against revolution as either/or decisions. The whole plot of the whooping cranes is probably as good a fantasy as any regarding the origins of eco-feminism.

As this article goes to press, Cowgirls has not yet been released, not even in the US (where it’s scheduled for the autumn). so it’s too early to say how the general public will react to its hip mix of history, humour and whacky intelligence. The cameos alone should be a tip-off that this is no normative biopic: Roseanne Arnold as a palm-reading psychic who angers little Sissy’s mother by predicting “lots and lots and lots of women” in her child’s future; River Phoenix as a guru-seeking hippy who tells Uma how “bummed out” he and his pals were by “the Chink”’s shaking his wanger at them; William Burroughs as a random pedestrian worried about how gloomy the sky looks.

So far, Cowgirls has had two festival debuts. Word from Venice was mixed. At the Toronto Film Festival, the critical reception was chilly if not hostile. Keep in mind, though, that today’s film press corps is a markedly male fraternity. Many of my beloved colleagues are just too square, too old, too young, or too heterosexual to enjoy the hallucinatory irony that this time machine movie provides – though the notably hip editors of publications like Vibe, OUT and the Village Voice are on my side in believing that the movie has a great constituency in store, both today and in the years to come.

It may, though, be ahead of its time. Or maybe Gus stumbled on his way to the 70s revival and landed, not in a Robbins-replay commercial dream, but rather in a genuine lesbian-feminist movie. If so, while popular Richard Linklater picks up accolades for Dazed and Confused, his bland-revival party movie, Van Sant may suffer the critical scorn usually reserved for women directors. No matter: Cowgirls is irresistible fun. But is it a western? Only a fraction of the film actually takes place at the Rubber Rose ranch: the rest of it transpires in the sites of Sissy’s childhood, or in the New York apartments of the Countess or Sissy’s erstwhile suitor Julian and his Beautiful People friends, or in one of the mysterious Clockworks, or on the road, a Ia My Own Private Idaho.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Ah. but the Rubber Rose scenes that are there allow us to begin to imagine what a female western might look like, if one could ever really be made. If, say, Johnny Guitar could borrow Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis from Thelma & Louise (the closest thing to a female western so far) and imagine them shooting not at each other but at the good ole boys just outside the circle of firelight. You see, I suspect that the only way a female western could ever be devised, one that could take advantage of the formulas and retain the magic of the genre, would be to replace race (cowboys versus Indians) with gender (cowgirls versus varmits).

Whatever solution anyone decides to try, if any other female westerns make it into celluloid this decade, it would be wise to heed Jane Tompkins once again, who warns that “westerns pay practically no attention to women’s experience” in part because “when women wrote about the West, the stories they told did not look anything like what we know as the western” since “women’s experience as well as their dreams had another shape entirely”. Offering no genre solution, she points instead to the work of feminist historians and literary critics who work on such material.

But what about the movies? It’s clear that the western genre is still strong, and that it remains pretty resistant to attempts by anyone not empowered by the original formulas to find a way in, be they women or Native Americans or Asian-Americans. In film, where metaphor is so much more literal and images more condensed than in literature or history, the basic dilemma facing anyone intent on fashioning a mainstream version of a female western is obvious: how to find a way to give women as much power as men without making them lesbians, how to avoid pitfalls of butch and femme while retaining credible female characters, how to fashion any truce at all between sexuality and exploitation. I like to imagine Julie Christie, retrieved from the archaic world of McCabe and Mrs Miller, set into a newfangled western where she could kick her opium habit and get on with the next chapter. Hey, no one said it would be easy.

Epilogue

Winter approaches. A new print of Johnny Guitar has just played to packed houses at New York’s Public Theatre. k.d. lang is about to release her soundtrack CD to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Word has it that Di Novi and Duigan are starting work on a production of Little Women instead of Outlaws, a move from the frontier to the sitting-room that could make Tompkins look like a prophet. Jonathan Kaplan is directing Bad Girls, the western that promised to be a transgressive Tamra Davis film, with a budget more than double the size she was given. Kelly Frost, an actual cowgirl and cowpoke-consultant-to-the-stars, is awaiting the release of Lane Frost, a biopic on her late husband.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Maybe Bad Girls or Lane Frost or something else in the works will mess with the formulas, prove me wrong, get things right. I’m not holding my breath. I suspect that Jon Tuska was right when he said he very much doubted that “a western film that is not a mandate to go forward proudly, a western film that reveals the crimes and follies of the past rather than pretending only to find triumphs and righteousness regarded, a western film in which everyone is consumed by some form of materialism” could ever be “commercially feasible”.

So I’m waiting instead to see Even Cowgirls Get the Blues again. I’m listening to a lot of country and western music. There’s a Jimmie Dale Gilmore concert coming up. But life has a funny way of playing tricks. Here’s what has shown up in top-40 country-radio rotation, autumn 1993, just as this article heads for your hands. Credit goes to singer/songwriter Toby Keith for his tune, “Should’ve Been A Cowboy”.

“I’ll bet you never heard old Marshall Dillon say,/ ‘Miss Kitty, have you ever thought of running away, settling down? Would you marry me?/ If I asked you twice and begged you pretty please?’/ She’d have said yes in a New York minute./ They never tied the knot, his heart wasn’t in it./ He just stole a kiss as he rode away./ He never hung his hat up at Kitty’s place./ I should’ve been a cowboy.”

Domesticity and the frontier. Sex and marriage. Settlement and escape. Men and women. Civilisation and its discontents. Sound familiar? Feel free to hum along.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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