Rhinestone Cowboys, Part 3: Acknowledging the Corn

Image: Robert James Russell.

“Looks like you’re having a pretty good time playing with yourself.”


Ellen (“The Lady”) / Sharon Stone
The Quick and the Dead (1995) / 108 minutes run time

Image: Original 5x7 watercolor and ink by Robert James Russell.

This is a good story.

Asa Shinn Mercer, in his twenties, felt the call of the Pacific Northwest, was convinced it was Paradise. With the approval of the territory commissioner, he founded the University of Washington and — unceremoniously, being the only college graduate in the vicinity — was hired as the sole instructor and its first president in 1861.

But, see, there was a problem. Men in the territory outnumbered women nine to one, and Mercer knew that to draw more prospective students to the school, there had to be women — there had to be desire and love and, eventually, yes, propagation. So, Mercer traveled back to the East Coast and used his considerable charm and connections to hire women under the guise of needing schoolteachers for the territory (which was not completely untrue). He then traveled back to Washington with the “imported” women, and in May 1864, was hailed as a hero: the women, save one, married off as planned.

The Quick and the Dead isn’t a good film. Well, the first third of the film isn’t particularly good, but it picks up. Sam Raimi’s kinetic, visual flares work better during the plot’s silly shootouts and outlandish (and, yes, often dangerously stereotypical) character introductions. The energy takes a story riddled with Western truisms and makes it palatable. The film, which introduces Sharon Stone as “The Lady,” a mysterious, quick-drawing drifter hellbent on revenge, seems, however, narratively imbalanced: Is the movie trying to say something — anything — about women in the West? Is this an anthem of empowerment? Or is this B-grade schlock that somehow managed to get an A-list cast?

Writer Simon Moore, in John Kenneth Muir’s The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi, reflects: “When you introduce women into that kind of world, something very interesting happens and you have an interesting dynamic straight away.”

So, no to the deeper meaning, then.

And yet, Sharon Stone’s Ellen — deliberately silhouetted in the opening shots to appear manlike, striding into view from the desert horizon, wearing a long duster, face concealed until the “reveal” that comes moments later — does hold some significance, some historical milestone, at least in passing.

Westerns, as a genre, quickly became dramas about male bonding and friendship and male desires and testaments to manhood. Even now, people use the phrase — I’m loath even to write it — “cowboy up” to call someone out for not acting brave or “manly” in some expected way. The history of the West is again co-opted by a world run by men: the West is for strong, burly males who pave the way for the rest of society, gentleman explorers and friendly bandits and honorable cowpunchers whose role is to usher forth modern society to the wild, untamed lands, to lead its inhabitants to their destinies. Their role is to rescue the hapless women — to be needed and desired — and to punish the Native Peoples that kidnap and murder and rape — to be admired, mythologized, worshipped.

What they want is simple: for poems to be written about them.

It’s a symptom of a larger disorder: the pulp novels and Western pictures that helped re-define the West skewed its history and painted over people of color, women, whole fragments of truth entirely, and inherently did so to promote some sagging inferiority white men seemed to carry with them on a microscopic level. And so, women, especially, in this genre, became props and trophies. They were fought over and won. And even today, scanning through the breadth of Western films and novels, they still haven’t had their proper due.

When I was younger, watching old Clint Eastwood films especially, I didn’t understand why women didn’t have bigger parts, why it was always the men playing with guns, why the women were there for Clint to glare at, mumble to, and move on from. In a particularly gruesome bit of misogyny, in High Plains Drifter, Eastwood’s The Stranger comes to town, and in the first 20 minutes, drags Mariana Hill’s Callie into the livery stable and rapes her. Watching this for the first time is jarring, to say the least, and waiting for a payoff is infuriating: There is none. This act, random and violent, goes unpunished.

Even now, the mythos of the Cowboy seems to wring its spectral hands around the necks of male writers, dragging them down into spirals of chestnuts. Westerns are about men and for men — men must have the parts. And in many ways, we’ve seen the genre become quite reductive in recent years. Take, for example, the critically-lauded 2018 film Hostiles. In it, Rosamund Pike plays a plainswoman, a wife and mother, whose family is massacred in front of her. And yet, we learn almost nothing more about her than what happens in these first five minutes of the film. Instead, she’s there to show stalwart Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) the rapturous joy of compassion, that treating the Native prisoners as humans — gasp! — is the right thing to do. She’s there to complete the circuit of his narrative quest. And that’s basically all she does. The film is very much about the men: it is their war, their fight, their grief, their sadness. Pike’s Rosalee is never fleshed out; her story is cannibalized for the greater good of the men that surround her.

Why do we erase women’s stories in history, when there are so many stories to tell?

Pearl Hart was inspired by Annie Oakley, but lived a life of crime. Along with her partner, Joe Boot, she disguised herself as a man and robbed a stagecoach in Arizona. Caught a short time later, Hart proclaimed at her sentencing, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” She never did hang for her crime — she became pregnant while in prison. To avoid a scandal, Arizona Territory governor Alexander O. Brodie pardoned and released her back out into the world.

Loreta Janeta Velázquez masqueraded as a male Confederate soldier during the Civil War. Cuban-born, Loreta fought at Bull Run, Ball’s Bluff, among other infamous battles, discharged only when her ruse had been discovered. But no, that wasn’t the end: Loreta reenlisted, fought at Shiloh, and worked for some time as a Confederate spy. She later wrote a book about her exploits, but had most of it called into question. Even years after her death, Loreta, a woman, couldn’t even have her own story.

Laura Bullion was known as Rose of the Wild Bunch, disguising herself as a man to take part in the crimes of the infamous Wild Bunch. Her father was a known bank robber. Here, it seemed, her life was predestined. In 1901, Bullion was arrested for her part in the Great Northern train robbery, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bullion was released in 1905, moved to Tennessee, and died — years later, in the 1940s — from heart disease. She spent the last parts of her life shifting from job to job, unable to settle or find peace. Her heart, it seemed, had had enough.

Women’s roles in Westerns settled, by the 1950s, into those of purity and beauty, defenselessness, hopelessly dependent on the hero — the cowboy — coming to save them. Any notion of identity and personality had been scrubbed clean. They were, like the mesas along the horizon near-blotting out the low-desert sun, the city of gold always over the next hill, the next hill, the next hill, there only to push the story forward.

But it seemed to me even when I was a kid — more so now, yes — such an obvious thing: that women would need to get revenge, too. Shooting a gun isn’t about brute strength, but keen eyesight, quick-draw hands, dexterous trigger fingers. Don’t women have those things, too? Don’t they need to ride into town and duel and drink and fuck and cuss? Don’t they have their own stories worth telling?

Yes.

Their stories are important, necessary, need-to-know tales that round out what the West was.

Yes.

Their stories, good and bad and in-between, are the campfire tales that should be told.

These are good stories.

ROBERT JAMES RUSSELL is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online and on Twitter.

Bibliography

Brown, Dee. The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West. University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Cameron, Ian, and Douglas Pye. The Book of Westerns. Continuum, 1996.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.