Shooting (a) Woman - Comparative Study of Gender Roles in American and Italian Western Movies

Master's Thesis, 2007

106 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Literature part
2.1. Some Introductory Notes about Gender
2.2. Gender and Movies
2.2.1. What is Feminist Film Theory?
2.2.2. The Male Gaze and Following Approaches
2.2.3. Cinema as Mediator of Patriarchal Ideology
2.3. Westerns and their Gender Roles
2.3.1. The Western – Background and Definition
2.3.2. The Western – The Male Genre
2.3.3. The Western – What Roles Do Women Play?
2.4. Differences in the (Visual) Culture of Italy and the USA
2.4.1. Hollywood versus European Visual Culture
2.4.2. What is “American” about the Hollywood Western?
2.4.3. How “Italian” is the Italian Western?
2.5. The Western, the Nation, and Gender

3. Method Part
3.1. Film Analysis
3.2. Sampling
3.3. Method Critique

4. Empirical Part
4.1. Hollywood Westerns
4.1.1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
4.1.2. El Dorado
4.1.3. The Professionals
4.1.4. The War Wagon
4.2. Spaghetti Westerns
4.2.1. For a Fistful of Dollars
4.2.2. The Big Gundown
4.2.3. A Bullet for the General
4.2.4. Once upon a Time in the West
4.3. Comparison

5. Conclusion

6. Sources
6.1. Bibliography
6.2. Filmography

1. Introduction

Sergio Leone, the well known Italian Western[1] director, once criticized the woman’s role in the Hollywood Western as follows:

[T]he woman is imposed on the action, as a star, and is generally destined to be ‘had’ by the male lead. But she does not exist as a woman. […] Usually, the woman not only holds up the story, but she has no real character, no reality. She is a symbol. She is there without any reason to be there, simply because one must have a woman […].

(Leone quoted in Frayling 2006 : 129)

This critique of women in the American Western seems to imply that the Italian Leone himself tried to depict women differently in his Western movies: either to let them completely out or to provide them with a real character, with a reason to be in the film. Is his way of depicting women then prototypical for the other Italian Westerns? Is there maybe even a specific Italian way of representing gender roles in Western movies which is different from that of their American counterparts?

In general, Western movies have been harshly criticized for their depiction of women. Many authors have argued that the Western in general is a genre that focuses mainly on men and masculinity and leaves only small space with narrow stereotypes for women (see for example Mitchell 1996, Tompkins 1992, French 1997). But first of all, the role of women in the Western cannot so easily be subsumed as an accessory part, as some authors would like to do. Her role may not seem important at first sight, but indirectly she plays an important part. “Without a woman, the Western wouldn’t work,” said Anthony Mann, a successful Hollywood Western director (Blake 1998: 306). The woman in the Western is essential as motivator of the male action and also as kind of antithesis to him.

Secondly, those authors that dealt with the woman’s role in the Western did not differentiate between Italian and American movies. But it is quite important to be aware of the differences between the Spaghetti and the classic Hollywood Western. There are many differences between these two kinds of movies so that they actually constitute two different genres, with the Spaghetti Western being a subgenre (Frayling 2006). And the gender depiction in a movie very much depends on the genre (Williams 2007). Moreover, gender relations may differ from culture to culture and country to country (Yuva-Davis 1997: 43). That makes it highly probable that Spaghetti Western differ in their gender depiction from the American Western. And the Leone quotation in the beginning already hinted at the possibility that there might be indeed a difference. But despite of a considerable amount of work done on gender in the Western in general, there exists so far no studies in which the two genres are compared according to their gender relations. Therefore this will be done in the following paper. The research questions that are to be addressed are:

1) Is there a difference in the gender depiction in Spaghetti Westerns and Hollywood Westerns?
2) If there is a difference, what are the reasons for this?

To focus on this topic is interesting in many different aspects. Initially, gender relations are important for every human being: they structure life and are a crucial source of identity. And today media contribute crucially to socialization (Esser 2001: 379). Film is a “major force of socialization, providing role models and instruction in […] courtship and love, and in marriage and career” (Kellner 2000: 128). Thus, film plays a role in socialization of gender roles. How exactly fictional media such as movies affect the recipients is a question which is yet not completely answered (van Zoonen 1999: 125). There are different theories dealing with this topic. What is clear so far is that there is no simple causal effect, but the influence depends on other (personal) variables, not just on the media content itself. There is no simple causality of watching a movie and reacting. A variety of intermediating variables, such as education, interest and age do play a role (ibid: 152-153). Thus, we do not know precisely what effect certain media content will have on a certain consumer. But although this influence may differ from person to person, the fact remains: fictional media have an influence on the audience. Some authors argue that fictional film can shape public attitudes and beliefs (Dittmar et al. 1994: 3). As socialization agents, media contribute to the internalization of gender norms. Therefore it is important to research what picture of gender fictional media offer.

Also important is the contribution of the media to the identity construction of the recipient. Identity is an important concept in sociology today, and gender identity is a part of that. The construction of identity is a process, and media reception is also one of the practices in which gender identity is constructed (van Zoonen 1999: 123). Classical cinema stresses sexual difference (Mayne 1994: 54) and presents different gender roles as natural (Green 1998: 16). This may “reflect and reinforce socially constructed notions of identity as essential” (Dittmar et al. 1994: 4). Therefore it is important to analyze movies with regard to gender.

But here it also has to be stressed that meaning is not just inherent in the movies, but arises on three levels: that of production, that of the movie itself and that of the audience (Gledhill 1994: 120). But in this paper the focus will be on the level of the movie itself because this is the most visible part. This is the part the recipients see, their basis for generating meaning. And if one wants to find out what effect it has on the audience, one has to deal with the content of the movie first. Focusing on the differences between movies, for example concerning genre, as I will do, is also crucial because this “affect[s] how films get made and seen” (Dittmar et al. 1994: 4). All these reasons contribute to the importance of the topic presented in this paper.

But still two questions remain: Why Western movies? And why is it important to compare the American and Italian films? Firstly, the American Western is a very important genre. “No genre has retained more continuous popularity” (Lenihan 1980: 4).[2] Indeed, though the number of released Westerns declined strongly after the 70s, we still see nowadays from time to time (neo-) Westerns or Western parodies released. Despite the small amount of recent Westerns, this genre holds essential importance because it is so tightly connected to the American nation:

For the United States, the Western film and the national identity have been inextricably linked. The cowboy has been recognized world-wide as one of the most potent and enduring symbols of America. Each generation has rewritten and refilmed the great Western myths and myth-figures to fit its own preoccupations and perceptions.

(Coyne 1997: Ix)

The western myth is a dominating narrative for the American nation and the Western movie is the genre which deals with that myth. That makes the Hollywood Western such a crucial part of American culture. It is even so important, that some of the presidents or president candidates of the USA have liked to present themselves as westerners or Western fans, because this assigned them with the average American. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford paying tribute when John Wayne died is an example that illustrates quite well the importance of the Western (Coyne 1997: 1). This connection to the American nation makes the Western even more interesting for research on gender, as gender and nation are intrinsically linked (Anthias & Yuval-Davis 1989).

Moreover, this connection between the Western and the US raises the question how the European view on this myth actually was. In their Westerns, the Italians used a genuine American myth and presented their own version of the American past (Frayling 2006). The differences that this European point of view creates, especially according to gender, are interesting in the field of European political sociology.

To answer this question, the theories of gender in movies must first be addressed, in order to give an overview of the approaches towards such a topic. Afterwards, the Hollywood and Spaghetti Western in general, as well as the gender depictions in them will be theorized. As a first approach to explain the expected differences, the focus will be on the (visual) cultures of America and Italy. The last point in the theoretical section will deal with the connection between nation and gender because this may well be a crucial variable for the gender depiction in the different Western genres. In the following methodological section, the film analysis that is used to examine movies of the two genres will be explained. Also the sampling of the movies and the categories of comparison of the analysis are dealt with in that part as well. The last part of the paper, the empirical analysis, will present four movies of each genre and their gender depiction as well as a systematized comparison of the genres.

2. Literature Part

2.1. Some Introductory Notes about Gender

Since the emergence of feminist theories in the late 1960s and 1970s, gender became a crucial point in social scientific discussion. Different fields of social sciences do research connected to gender. Gender studies has even become its own field of study in some universities. Van Zoonen (1999: 6) argues that “gender is a, if not the, crucial component of culture.” It is important to clarify the notion of gender, before doing research on it, as it is done later in this paper. What do we mean talking about gender? Why is it important to study it? Therefore I want to say something about gender in general before I will concern myself more intensively with gender depiction in the Western.

In general, gender is seen as the social aspect of being male or female in contrast to sex which refers to biological aspects of man and woman (Lindsey 2005: 4). To put it more precisely:

Gender is the structure of social relations that centres on the reproductive arena, and the set of practices (governed by this structure) that bring reproductive distinctions between bodies into social processes.”

(Connell 2003:11; [ sic ] cursive in original)

This means that men and women do not differ just in respect to their bodies, but also in social and psychological aspects. The notion of gender implies that these non-physical differences are not necessarily rooted in the body and are thus, not natural. They are rooted in the social and psychological realm; they are constructed via social relations and processes. Hence, Gender creates not men and women, but masculinity and femininity. But this is not as harmless as it may seem. Gender implies not just the creation of differences, but also the creation of inequalities between males and females (Wharton 2005: 7).

In everyday life, gender is very often taken for granted and not questioned. To put it trivially, it seems normal that men like football and women shopping. “These arrangements are so common, so familiar, that they can seem part of the order of nature” (Connell 2003: 3). But gender is not fixed by nature. Psychological studies have shown that most people actually combine both features which are regarded as “masculine” and those regarded as “feminine” (ibid: 5).

In one society there are usually different forms of masculinity and femininity coexisting, but there is also a hegemonic form, which dominates the discourse of what is regarded as typical feminine and typical masculine (Wharton 2005: 5). And although there are different norms of femininity and masculinity, these different forms are still gender. Gender is not fixed and stable but, as stated above, a process. Thus, the gender of a person can change during the course of his or her life. Now I want to address the question where gender differences come from. From the sociological point of view, a biological cause does not have to be discussed. A prominent explanation of gender from a sociological basis is made by the Role Theory. This theory assumes that people learn social gender norms and internalize them via socialization. This causes the sex role system to reproduce itself over time (Connell 2003: 77). I adopt a part of this model as I assume that socialization constitutes a large part of constructing gender identities. But this theory has some problems when it is applied to gender. It neglects the fact that gender practices in society can change, as well as gender identity of individuals in the course of life (ibid: 79). Moreover, the individuals who acquire gender norms are assumed to be passive learners of role models, which has been empirically shown not to be correct. Studies have shown that children can have pleasure in learning gender or resistance towards it (ibid: 78). We construct ourselves as feminine or masculine actively and mostly willingly (ibid: 4). As Connell (2003: 81) argues, children are not just internalizing gender norms, but are rather actively learning how gender relations work and how to navigate among them. “Gender arrangements are thus, at the same time, sources of pleasure, recognition and identity, and sources of injustice and harm. This means that gender is inherently political” (ibid: 6).

Gender is an important part of our identity, it influences all our interactions and is one basis upon which power and resources are distributed (Wharton 2005: 9). As such, it is a basic concept of sociology today. As said above, it is an important component of culture (van Zoonen 1999: 6). It is somehow connected to virtually every aspect of social life, and also for example to the nation and the state. As the Western movie is also connected to the nation state, this is a crucial point of this paper which will be dealt with more deeply in a special part of the theoretical section.

This section should make clear what sociologist mean when they refer to gender and also why it is such an important research topic. On the following pages I want to deal with gender in movies in general, dealing also with question what role gender plays in media.

2.2. Gender and Movies

In the following part I am going to deal with gender in movies in general. As the media contribute crucially to socialization (Esser 2001: 379), also their depiction of gender may (re-) produce or deconstruct gender. In this thesis I want to reveal the gender practices in Western movies. This involves first to examine how far they offer gender stereotypes, i.e. the “oversimplified conceptions that people who have the same gender share certain traits in common” (Lindsey 2005: 3). It also involves checking other practices of gender, for example dealing with the assumed gender of the spectator.

The focus in this part is on the approach of Feminist Film Theories. These theories were the first who researched the issue of women (and later also men) in cinema. These theories cannot sufficiently explain the differences among the movies with concern to this thesis, but they form the basis for all gender studies in movies; they provide the tools for analysis, and were the first approaches that brought this topic into discussion. They revealed general features of cinema which also play a role in the films I will analyze. That is why these theories are the basis for all later critique and research in this topic and therefore I will discuss their central ideas.

2.2.1. What is Feminist Film Theory?

At first, it has to be pointed out that there is not one Feminist Film Theory. There are a lot of different feminist approaches towards film which can be subsumed under the title Feminist Film Theories (van Zoonen 1999: 2). What these theories have in common is the focus on women and femininity in movies and in the audience. The different approaches also focus on different aspects of women in cinema. Some merely deal with the depiction of women in the pictures. That means they address questions as for example: Do the women in the movie perform a variety of labor, or are they housewives? Are they seen more often inside the house than men? Are they shown as more active or passive?

Others ask more what kind of spectator is implied by the movie. This question was first raised in 1975 by Laura Mulvey in her by now classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. There Mulvey argued that the gaze of the hero of the movie, the camera and the spectator is always male. “Spectators are encouraged to identify with the look of the male hero and make the heroine a passive object of erotic spectacle” (Chaudhuri 2006: 31). Most of the later literature refers to this article, criticizes it or develops its ideas further. Mulvey’s explanatory tool was the theory of psychoanalysis by Freud and Lacan which continued to be a widely used theory in feminist media studies.

Another approach in feminist film theories deals with the question of how the soundtrack and the voice of women in cinema create sexual difference.[3] Others focus on gender within a wider network of power relations created through discourse and different technologies of gender.[4] There also exist Neo-Marxist approaches which are concerned with the question how the meaning of gender is produced in cinema, mainly through cinematic devices.[5] On the following pages I am going to further elaborate the approaches which I consider useful for my topic. I will explain how far they can help to answer the research question or to what degree they form the basis of the analysis categories.

2.2.2. The Male Gaze and Following Approaches

Mulvey (1989: 19) argues that in cinema the pleasure in looking has always been split between active (that is, male) and passive (that is, female).

In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. […] The presence of women is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.

(Mulvey 1989:19)

She is not the one who acts, but rather the one who makes him act. The woman is only there as erotic object for the character within the screen story and as well for the spectator in the auditorium (ibid: 19). These three different gazes (that of the man in the movie, the camera and that of the spectator) are connected, so that “[s]pectators are encouraged to identify with the look of the male hero and make the heroine a passive object of erotic spectacle” (Chaudhuri 2006: 31). We want to be like him. We want to possess her, not to be like her (Green 1998: 44). Thus, all spectators are placed in the masculinized position of looking at the woman. This is the reason why Mulvey assumes that the gaze in film is always male (ibid: 35)

Her explanation for this is based on psychoanalysis. According to Mulvey (1989: 14) “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” The deeper source of the male gaze is seen in oedipal phase where the castration fear emerges in the boy. According to psychoanalysis the boy assumes his mother is castrated when he realizes that his mother has no penis as he has. Desiring her he acknowledges his father as more powerful and someone who could potentially castrate him for his desire. This is the reason why every woman can evoke fear of castration as soon as the man looks at her and acknowledges her lack of penis (van Zoonen 1999: 22).

Films master this castration anxiety in two ways: first, by re-enacting through voyeurism, investigating the woman and revealing her guilt (i.e. her ‘castration’), then either punishing or saving her; second, by disavowing castration through fetishism, i.e. endowing the woman’s body with extreme aesthetic perfection, which diverts attention from her ‘missing’ penis and makes her reassuring rather than dangerous.

(Chaudhuri 2006: 36)

According to Chaudhuri (2006: 37) that is the reason why there are much more close-ups of the female body than of the male body. And this connotes that she is valued above all for her outer appearance, unlike the hero whose inner qualities count.

After Mulvey’s article about the male gaze, other authors used psychoanalysis as well to reveal gender relations in cinema. For example, Kaja Silverman (1988) underlined the importance of soundtrack and showed how female and male voices are differently shown in cinema. She based her work more on Lacan’s rewriting of psychoanalysis than on Freud’s original version. There the phallus, the symbol for power, not the penis itself plays the crucial role. She argues that cinema produces castration fear[6] in the spectator due to a lack of reality and lack of power for the viewer. (Silverman 1988: 2-24). The viewer has no influence on what is done by the hero with whom he identifies. Nor can he decide what he sees. All this is determined by the camera’s view. Therefore he feels a lack of power. “To compensate for his own lack, which he cannot bear, the typical male subject projects it onto the female, so that he can sustain a fantasy of being unified and complete.” (Chaudhuri 2006: 48). Thus, the woman in the movie has always to bear a lack whereas the man is the powerful figure with whom the spectator can identify. Silverman (1988) supposes that this is the reason where gender stereotyping in the movies has its roots. The female lack is often illustrated by language, especially by involuntary sounds such as screaming or crying.

This psychoanalytic approach can explain a general tendency in all movies which cling to gender stereotyping. In this case it could explain the similarities between all the movies according gender roles, but it would not help to explain the research question. This way of applying psychoanalysis is on the borderline to essentialism[7], thus, implying the focus of its own critique (van Zoonen 1999: 32). Mulvey does not acknowledge differences among movies based on genres or other variables, but just sees the general tendency of a male gaze. But there are big differences among movies concerning their depiction of gender roles (Gledhill 1994: 111-112). Concerning this, another feminist film theorist, Teresa de Lauretis argued that these narrative structures in the movies are governed by oedipal desire, but that this is not a universal feature (Chaudhuri 2006: 70). Therefore gender representations differ according to cultural, economic and political factors in a given society (de Lauretis 1987: 5).

But still the psychoanalytic basis of these approaches will not be applied in this paper because it borders on essentialism and does not help to answer the research question. It was only dealt with so deeply to explain the basis of the concepts. Nevertheless, parts of these feminist film theories will be applied. The concepts which the Mulvey and Silverman provided, the male gaze and the emphasis on the female voice, are useful and are therefore taken into account in the research as categories. But in this paper other approaches will be used in order to explain the differences between the different Western genres. One of them is explained next: gender depiction in movies as part of ideology.

2.2.3. Cinema as Mediator of Patriarchal Ideology

In this section the focus will be on the part of feminist film theories which regard the gender depiction in movies as part of a patriarchal ideology. This approach offers more possibilities to explain differences among movies and therefore also to reveal the differences between the Hollywood Western and the Spaghetti-Western. Here the ideological framework is dealt with, which is supposed to be socially constructed in cultural and historical processes (van Zoonen 1999: 32). As far as culture and history play a role, there could be differences regarding gender between movies from different countries or spheres of culture. Thus, here could lay one explanation for the research question when we take into account that American movies and Italian movies derive from different cultural spheres. This will be examined further in the fourth part of the literature section in this paper. But now the theoretical approach of patriarchal ideology in movies is explained further.

According to Gledhill (1994:109), ideology is seen as “any particular belief system used to explain society.” Patriarchal ideology can be defined as a belief system which implies that men are superior to women. This does not mean that it is openly said that women are inferior to men, but it can be conveyed by gender stereotyping: ascribing certain features as typically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. And in the patriarchal society the concept of ‘man’ is not just based on his sex, but “[i]t expands to embody other ‘human’ qualities possessed by ‘mankind’ that are collectively understood as good qualities” (Walker 1994: 88). Thus, ‘male’ features are generally more appreciated than characteristics typically seen as ‘female’. And this is the part where movies come in. They can (re-)produce gender stereotypes in a way that is not overtly obvious, but instead is more subtle. Take as example the space which is ascribed for women. In the movie no one says that the woman’s place is at home, but women outside the home tend to get murdered or be murderers themselves more often (Green 1998: 49). This is a sign for codes in the movies which are part of patriarchal ideology. To understand these codes is important for analyzing gender in movies. Therefore such codes will be examined in the empirical part.

This theory does not assume that all movies are equally ideological, but leaves the possibility that some movies are more ideological and some less, due to a variety of reasons. To find out the degree of ideology, it is important to examine what kind of picture of women is shown in the particular movie. This leaves space for the hypothesis that there is a difference between Hollywood Westerns and Spaghetti Westerns, as these movies are produced in two different countries and therefore could have a different ideological basis – with less or more patriarchy inherent or patriarchy conveyed in a different way.

This approach also has an explanation of an aspect which was neglected by most of the psychoanalytic approaches – the pleasure of the female spectator:

“In part, women may enjoy their own depiction as vicarious sex objects, since being a successful sex object is still the most economical way for a woman to get ahead in patriarchalist society.”

(Green 1998: 43)

Hence, here the female spectator is not regarded as masochistic or having a transvestite position when she enjoys stereotypic movies, as some psychoanalytic approaches originally suggested. The female viewer here is someone who is socialized according to this patriarchal ideology. In contrast to Mulvey and some other Feminists clinging to psychoanalysis, this approach views the notion of ‘woman’ as “a social-sexual dynamic being produced by history” (Gledhill 1994: 110). This picture seems to fit much better with a modern understanding of gender as process and changeable, which has many arguments in favor of it and is also assumed in this paper.[8]

Now let us go ahead with other theoretical assumptions. The early Marxist-feminist theorists referred to Marx’s (1974) idea of Basis und Überbau which implies that the ruling class also controls the production of ideas (Gledhill 1994: 109). Thus, the gender stereotyping in movies is due to the male ruling class who also dominate in the film production sector (ibid: 111).

This original Marxist view of male film makers consciously indoctrinating the masses was questioned by Neo-Marxists in the 1970s (ibid: 111). Then it was acknowledged that “genre conventions evolve according to their own internal logic and histories and provide a different kind of aesthetic resource to the filmmaker” (ibid: 111-112). Now it was asked with what kind of filmic devices patriarchy works with. “Thus neo-Marxism changes the project of criticism from the discovery of meaning to that of uncovering the means of its production” (ibid: 113-114, cursive in original). I want to stick to this paradigm and try to reveal the cinematic devices which are used to produce gender stereotypes and thus, reproduce patriarchal ideology.

In this approach there are already some hints which help to deal with the research question of this paper. Philip Green (1998), for example, regards Hollywood as especially ideological. According to him (ibid: 49), the primary social functions of Hollywood are to express normative dreams and communicate ideologies.[9] Mainstream visual culture, as Hollywood is, appeals to the widest possible audience. Hence, the tolerance of content which is deviant from the norm or even subversive is minimal (ibid: 103). There is already a strong hint at the hypothesis:

If Hollywood is indeed more ideological and functions to convey patriarchy more than the European cinema, then it is highly probable that the Hollywood-Westerns show a picture of women which is more stereotypical than in the Spaghetti-Western.

Although this ideological approach sees other causes for the depiction of women in movies, the result is the same as in the psychoanalytic approach: “[M]ost of the women in these films clearly exist only to be looked at and symbolically possessed” (Green 1998: 40). Mayne (1994: 51) sees two possibilities to react to this result scientifically: The first is just to look for more evidence of women’s exclusion, which is what many scholars, as for example Mulvey, have done. The second one is to check if there are contradictions in the movies, which could be a potential threat for the patriarchal status quo. The latter way will be gone into in this thesis, because this does not generalize, but does take into account the dynamic and variety of gender and its representations in cinema (van Zoonen 1999: 33). It is possible that a film seems to confirm sexist ideology, but when read in a critical manner it can undermine patriarchal values (Mayne 1994: 52). This is what will be examined in the two kinds of Western movies. To explain where the assumed differences come from, reference will be drawn to reasons of culture and nation in later chapters of the theoretical part. But now some theoretical assumptions about the Western movie in general and their gender roles in particular will be presented.

2.3. Westerns and their Gender Roles

In the following, I will concern myself with the characteristics of the Western (the Italian and the American variant), especially with regard to aspects which are relevant for their gender depiction. First I will deal with general traits of the genre, then it will be explained what role males and females play in it.

2.3.1. The Western – Background and Definition

At the center of the discussion of Western movies is the notion of myth (see e.g. Kiefer & Grob 2003: 14; French 1997: 15; Kitses 1998: 16…); there are just few authors who do not find the myth approach fruitful (see for example Tuska 1985: 4-5). Myth refers to stories that one society shares (Grant 2007: 29). These stories “embody the common ideals and aspirations of a civilization” (Gianetti 2002: 362). Myths have on the one hand their basis in some historical events. On the other hand, the creation of the myth implies that these historical events are not treated historically accurately or scientifically, but are shaped through repeated retelling and also to make them fit to certain beliefs or ideologies.

Myth in the Western hints at the point that the Western “is rooted in the history of the American nation” (Bazin 1998: 49), concerned with a more or less concrete time period and geographical area. But nevertheless it does not aim to show realistic pictures of history, instead it deals with legends and imaginings about this historical reality, thus, we get the Western myth. In this Western myth is a potential explanations for the hypothesis rooted. To understand this, it is necessary that we first deal with the notion of Western myth further. What exactly does it refer to?

Kiefer & Grob (2003: 15) identify two myths in the Western: First, the frontier myth with its struggle between civilization and wilderness. Second, the myth of regeneration through violence. This is concerned with the building of the American nation through the fight of good versus evil. Grant (2007: 33) argues that the Western is a “mythic endorsement of American Individualism, colonialism and racism.” French (1998: 15) regards the Western as “a reinvention of a male myth,” because it is very much concerned with the construction of masculinity, as will be shown later. Tompkins (1992: 45) goes so far as to argue that:

The Western doesn’t have anything to do with the West as such. It isn’t about the encounter between civilization and frontier. It is about men’s fear of losing their mastery, and hence their identity, both of which the Western tirelessly reinvents.

This already hints at the specific depiction of gender roles with which I will concern myself later on in my theoretical part. It becomes clear that the myth of the West is no topic where scholars easily agree with each other, yet there are quite contrary views concerning what the Western is all about. What most of the authors have in common is that they regard the Western as very much concerned with ideology, although they differ on what is the main ideology behind it.

Assuming with Tompkins (1992), French (1997) and Mitchell (1996) a patriarchal ideology dominating the Western, then gender aspects play an important role in this argumentation. What is so specifically male about ‘the West’? And how is this maleness, or to put it more correctly, masculinity, illustrated in contrast to femininity? Other authors argue for the contrast: Kitses (2004: 17) argues that the Western is even a “genre which puts women at its center. Lucas (1998: 301) even sees the Western one of the finest places for women characters in cinema.” Which of these views are more reasonable? How does the Western usually depict gender? These are the questions which will be addressed in the next theoretical sections of the paper.

Having dealt with the basic background of the Western, the myth, the task is now to define the Western. But this definition is not an easy task as the borderlines between different movie genres can very often not clearly be drawn. There are cases where it is not easy to decide whether a certain movie can be regarded as Western, Western Parody or Anti-Western. Tuska (1985: 12) merely assumes that a Western is “that genre containing films classed as being Westerns by my particular society”. According to him, defining criteria for a Western and then deducing that a certain movie fits to the genre is a tautology (ibid: 12). But his definition does not help us at all. What does he mean with his “particular society? And how can he know what this “society” considers as Western? And moreover, does this “society” always agree on the definition of the genre as if it would consist of just one person? There are cases, for example Little Big Man, which contain all formal ingredients of a Western, yet do not appear as a real one to some people, and for others they do. Consequently, Tuska’s definition of a Western does not explain which movies are regarded as Western, and which are not.

Other authors do not even attempt at presenting a sufficient definition of Western, and simply assume that the reader knows what they are talking about. In the literature there is no definition with necessary and sufficient conditions to be found. And indeed, it is difficult to define the Western according to both kinds of conditions. Either the definition is broad enough to include all movies in general considered as Westerns and includes other movies as well or it is precise enough to exclude those which do not fit the genre exactly, but also excludes some of the movies regarded as Westerns in general. But as it is necessary to provide a definition of the research field, in order to let the reader know precisely what this is about, I decided to present at least some necessary conditions for the Westerns which can be understood as characteristic traits of the genre:

A Hollywood Western is a movie genre, which is, of course, (i) produced in America. (ii) It plays at the American frontier, a border between wilderness and civilization. This may also include more southern regions such as Texas or Mexico. (iii) The time is usually in the mid to late portion of the 19th century, in some cases also the beginning of the 20th century. (iv) The Western has a male hero (Cook 1998: 297). He wears (mostly six-) guns, very often rides on a horse and is usually superior according to moral and fighting abilities (Durgnat & Simmon 98: 76) The classical hero acts according to the well-known tautological sentence: “[A] man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” (Mitchell 1996: 47). (v) There must also be at least one villain whom the hero gets in conflict with and finally has to fight against. Thus, (vi) violence is a crucial part of the Western, too. This is most often shown in the final minutes as the ‘show down’, where villain and hero finally meet and try to shoot each other and at least one of them dies. (vii) In the Western, both the hero as well as the villain gain their identity through action, as their action shows who they are inside (Kiefer & Grob: 13). (iix) As an overall theme there is the tension between civilization and wilderness, hence, the frontier myth which provides main ideas for the plot (Kiefer & Grob 2003: 15).

The Spaghetti Western derived from the Hollywood Western, shares some of his characteristics (i) but is not produced not in the USA, but in Italy.[10] The Spaghetti Western is a late form of the Western, developing in the 60s and finding its end in the 70s, whereas the Hollywood Western developed already in the beginning of the 20th century and is enduring till today, but with changed conventions.

What the Spaghetti has in common with the Hollywood Western is the (ii) place, (iii) time, (vi) violence and (vii) emphasis on action. But it has to be added that the Spaghetti Western tends more than his American related genre to be set in southern regions such as Mexico. Also a certain tendency to set the plot in the 20th century instead of the classic period from the mid to late 19th century can also be seen. But these are just tendencies, not rules. Where the Italian variant differs significantly from the American Western is the (iv) hero and the (v) villain part. These roles still exist, but are not as clear distinguished anymore. The hero is no longer the entirely the good one, but also shares some character traits with the villain. Moreover the Spaghetti Western (iix) is not anymore concerned with the tension between wilderness and civilization as the classical Western is (Frayling 2006: 51). Other different overall themes can occur. Here is another hint at the hypothesis. In the classical Western, women mostly embody civilization and culture (Saunders 2001: 10). Hence the woman stands for one of the contradictory parts on which the movie builds itself. But now that this contradiction is no longer an important issue, the question occurs: what kind of role do women then play? It seems that it must be a different one compared to the Hollywood Western. How exactly their role is depicted shall be revealed in the empirical part.

Another distinction from the classical Western is that (ix) the world of the Spaghetti resembles southern Italian society in some crucial aspects which the American Western of course does not (Frayling 2006: 42). Movies are influenced by their cultural surroundings. This might be the next point which could lead to different gender roles, as different societies have different ways of treating gender. This aspect will be examined in the part devoted to culture in the literature part.

Now I will concern myself with the role gender plays in the Western movies, nearly exclusively with regard to the Hollywood western, as there is not much written about femininity and masculinity with special regard to the subgenre of the Spaghetti Western.[11] Thus, all the theoretical assumptions presented below will concern only the classical Western as long as I do not clearly state that it also fits to the Spaghetti Western. This is also due to the fact that the explanations below deal with the question why the gender roles in the Western are depicted in a certain way. Therefore I have to address the roots of the genre, which is the Hollywood Western.

2.3.2. The Western – the Male Genre

Lee Clark Mitchell (1996) argued in his book Westerns – Making the Man in Fiction and Film that the Western is mainly concerned with the issue of masculinity. According to him:

[Westerns] oscillate between sex and gender, between an essentialism that requires the display of the male body and a constructivism that grants manhood to men not by virtue of their bodies but of their behavior.

(Mitchell 1996: 155)

That means that on the one hand Westerns present an ideal of manhood which can only be achieved by a man: the hero has certain character traits which distinguish him from other men and from the villain(s), which mark him as more masculine than the others are. On the other hand masculinity is also treated as something essential. The Western displays the male body all the time: Very often we watch men bathing, taking a shave, or being beaten and then again recovering. We are supposed to watch how men become men in the typical Western way: “by being restored to their male bodies” (ibid: 151). This puts emphasis on the physical basis of being a man and hence, denies that masculinity is something constructed.

Although Mitchell (1996) regards the Western as the genre which is only occupied, even obsessed with masculinity, he denies that Mulvey’s assumption of the male gaze is applicable in this genre. Instead he proposes that it is especially men who are being gazed at in the Western, although this is not admitted, but done in a covert way (ibid: 159).

For it is the Western hero […] who is placed before us precisely to be looked at. And in that long, oscillating look, we watch men still at work in the unfinished process of making themselves, even as we are encouraged to believe that manhood doesn’t need to be made.

(Mitchell 1996: 187)

Thus, although we do not find the typical male gaze in the Western, there is still emphasis put on males and masculinity. There must be other ways of achieving this.

Tompkins (1992) also views Westerns as the genre which is preoccupied with men and masculinity. She goes even so far to argue that the male cult of the Western is a reaction to the growing women’s influence in culture and public space between 1880 and 1920 (Tompkins 1992: 42-44). She states that that “the Western answers the domestic novel. It is the antithesis of the cult of domesticity that dominated American Victorian culture” (ibid: 39). Going along with Tuska (1985) she regards the Western as an assault on the feminized Christianity of the 19th century. She assumes that the Western rejects domesticity and Protestantism “because it seeks to marginalize and suppress the figure who stood for those ideals”, the woman (Pompkins 1992: 39). But, as Mitchell (1996: 11) rightly stated, Tompkins has no sufficient arguments for her hypothesis. It is surely an interesting idea, but to regard the Western as a conscious attempt to suppress women and celebrate men goes too far, I think. What the filmmakers indeed thought of as their aim cannot be determined. As I will continue to illustrate, the Western is indeed very much concerned with masculinity, but this does not automatically imply that this is consciously done in order to suppress women. Moreover women play a contradictory role in the Western, which very often cannot just be subsumed under marginalization (Cook 1988: 293).

Now the question in focus is in which ways the genre puts emphasis on the male and what specifically it depicts as masculine. The first point is obvious: the hero is always male, “[f]or women can never really be heroes in the Western: that would mean the end of the genre” (Cook 1988: 297). Thus, the audience is usually encouraged to identify with him. As was explained above the genre is very concerned to showing him and his masculinity.

The viewpoint of the woman in the movie is mostly marginal. She is depicted in contrast to him: Very often the woman symbolizes the force of civilization, peace and forgiveness contrary to our hero who stands for wilderness and violence, if it is necessary (French 1997: 21; Blake 1998: 303). Many Westerns show women begging the hero that he should not go and put himself into a dangerous situation. The Western woman often argues that he should not resort to violence but instead try to live a peaceful, calm life with her.

Moreover the man is always put in the position that his point of view turns out to be superior to that of the woman. She can argue whatever she wants, but he will do what he considers right anyway, “because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”. The Western shows us that only men who act according to self-respect and dignity are real men. Imagine the hero would do as the woman wants and just stay at home with her and sit in front of the fire place and relax. This would mean the end of the film, there would be no plot anymore to come. Another possibility is that he could stay home, but then the villain would come to our hero, to the house where she lives as well and thus, also threaten her. This he cannot risk of course. Logically it is always clear that he does what it necessary and right. He acts according to the moral standards conveyed in the Western and she often argues against these standards, but is always overruled (French 1997: 32). This is one of the basic ways the Western employs to stress masculinity and at the same time underline the higher moral and influential weight of men compared to women.

A perfect example for this is offered by the 1952 Western High Noon. Our hero, the Ex-Marshall, is freshly married when a bunch of villains come out of jail and want to kill him. His wife urges him to go away with her and live somewhere else in peace. But of course, he just cannot. He says: “They’re making me run. I’ve never run from anybody before.” When she asks for an explanation, all he offers her is: “I’ve got to, that’s the whole thing.” He has to face the villains, even if his chances are more than bad. First, she is angry with him because he risks his life, for reasons she cannot understand. But in the end the wife stands by her man: She even shoots one of the villains herself in the back, although her moral standard strictly forbids violence in any case. Here the logic of the Western becomes definitely clear: He is the one with the moral standards that are valued more highly. She can give up her ethics, because these anyway have a lower value than his, but he sticks to his Western morality standards, no matter what it costs.

Another way of illustrating man’s superiority is language. As was explained above in the Gender and Movies part, the language in cinema differs according to sex, hence language is another source of creating gender (Silverman 1988). The Western makes very much use of this device to show gender differences and has its own special style of creating binary language differences according to gender borders. In general this happens through depicting the male as silent and calm in contrast to the woman who talks a lot (French 1997: 31). But why is it like this? Why does the hero not talk much? There would be some arguments for a hero that talks a lot: he has high moral standards, which he could explain to others, also the female. If he has the power, why does he not also have the power over language? The answer lies simply in the fact that it is not language that conveys power in the Western, but in fact the opposite. As Tompkins (1992: 64) argues, silence is a sign of dominance.

“The Western man’s silence functions as a script for behaviour; it expresses and authorizes a power relation that reaches into the furthest corners of domestic and social life. The impassivity of male silence suggests the inadequacy of female verbalization, establishes male superiority, and silences the one who would engage in conversation.”

(ibid: 59)

Silence is in our culture very often seen as the domain of the powerful. Those who have the power to decide do not have to explain their decisions: they just act. This is what the heroes in Western movies do: they act. And this action is what counts (Tuska 1985: 234). What is decisive in a Western movie are acts, and very often the most extreme version of action: acts of violence. Talk does not change anything, does not play an important role for the plot. The hero does not have to explain why he is acting as he does. What he does is always necessary; there is no other way than fighting the villain if one keeps to the moral standards of the Western.

But for the women in the Western movie it is quite different. As females are shown mostly as powerless, their only resort is talk. They are usually not allowed to act in the movies, so the only thing they can do is to talk, although this never changes anything. This can be seen from two different points of view. First, as talk has no value, it is left to the women who have no other possibilities than talking. But second, one could also argue that talk is regarded as having no value, because it is traditionally associated with women and femaleness. Tompkins (1992) argues for the latter as she thinks that the Western is merely there to praise masculinity and suppress femininity. In this paper it does not make a difference whether the first variant or the latter is more valid. Anyway there is no definite method to find out in which direction the connection is working. The fact remains: women have to resort to talk, whereas the men act. Therefore the gendered language will be researched in the empirical part.

Language, and especially the male silence is connected to another point of “making the man”: the matter of intentional self-restraint (Mitchell 1996: 101). A true Westerner must have restraint. He never looses his nerves, stays always cool even in the most dangerous situations. The hero does not even blink when he faces the villain, both with loaded guns and just seconds apart from the moment when at least one of them will be dead. But the woman illustrates the opposite of restraint: She shows much more emotion, or better to say: she shows emotion whereas the man (at least as long as he is the hero) nearly never lets anything out which has to do with inner life and emotions. Women can loose their nerves, can dissolve into tears, or break down when some outer pressure gets too great.

Men do not lose their nerves; they have to stay hard and motionless whatever happens (Mitchell 1996: 94-119). That does not imply that the hero has no emotions at all:

The westerner hero, unlike his counterpart villain, still displays feelings and emotions. He is not emotionally bankrupt, but he has put his emotions aside. He has overcome them in rising to the moment of killing

(French 1997: 89)

And language is a perfect indicator of restraint. Not to talk signifies that the man has control over his feelings and physical boundaries. To speak would imply that he opens himself and becomes vulnerable. “But it is not so much the vulnerability or loss of dominance that speech implies that makes it dangerous as the reminder of the speaker’s own interiority” (Tompkins 1992: 56). This interiority, which implies a consciousness of one’s own emotions and thoughts, threatens the self-restraint. All these reasons contribute to the Western hero being silent.

Another point of gender differences is also connected to the language point. It can be subsumed under the term “active-passive-dichotomy”. Men are depicted as active, women as their passive counterpart. Again we see: he acts, she doesn’t (as talking is not considered as an act). This is underlined very often by different spheres ascribed to males and females: Women we mostly meet within the house whereas men we see quite often outside: riding on horses through the prairie, having campfire outside, shooting in the streets of the town. This signals that there are different spheres where men and women belong to. The only situation in which the woman is allowed to act is to help her husband or to protect the family (Cook 1988: 294). Here I want to refer again to High Noon as the perfect example. The young wife of the Marshall does not do anything throughout the movie. She sits in the hotel and waits for a train so that she can leave the town. The only thing she does is talking: to the hotel owner and to another woman. Meanwhile, her husband is engaged in finding men to help him fight the villains: he goes everywhere in town and is seen often on the streets. His search for men even ends up in a fistfight between him and another man. This exemplifies perfectly the different spheres for man and woman and an active-passive-dichotomy. But in the end the woman in High Noon shoots someone – when she protects her husband. Her only considerable action in the movie was to be allowed to protect the family, a typical “female” value.


[1] Italian Westerns are also known as Cinécitta or Spaghetti Westerns.

[2] This actually refers to the Hollywood Western, but also the Spaghetti was very popular at ist time (60s and beginning of the 70s).

[3] The work which focused first on this aspect was : Silverman, Kaja. 1988. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

[4] See especially: De Lauretis, Teresa. 1987. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[5] See for example: Gledhill, Christine. 1994. „Image and Voice: Approaches to Marxist-Feminist Criticism.” In: Dittmar, Linda; Janice R. Welsh & Diane Carson (eds). Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 109- 123.

[6] Here it is meant in the symbolic way: not the fear to loose the penis, but to loose the phallus, that is, the power.

[7] Essentialism would imply that gender is actually naturally determined and cannot be changed. This is a dangerous view because it accepts gender based discrimination and repression as natural.

[8] In the first theoretical part it was clarified that gender is a process and can change over lifetime. But the psychoanalysis sees it as acquired in early childhood which would imply that there is no dynamic, no change assumed. Different gender norms existing parallel in one society would hardly be possible if we stick to the psychoanalytic paradigm.

[9] Namely patriarchy and capitalism.

[10] Some where also filmed in other places, as for example, Spain.

[11] Dealing with this topic are Günsberg (2005) and Landy (1996 and 2000). But both author do very seldom refer to a comparison with the American Western.

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Shooting (a) Woman - Comparative Study of Gender Roles in American and Italian Western Movies
University of Dalarna
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Shooting, Woman, Comparative, Study, Gender, Roles, American, Italian, Western, Movies
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MA Manuela Beyer (Author), 2007, Shooting (a) Woman - Comparative Study of Gender Roles in American and Italian Western Movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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