Bad Girls and Bimbos in Boots

Bad girls in the Old West was not a term just limited to soiled doves or saloon girls. Bad girls in the West, both in reality and on the silver screen, have come to identify women who refused to conform to society’s assigned gender roles and etiquette expected of a lady in the Victorian West. This bad behavior consisted of anything from voicing an opinion to wearing pants, or in a few cases running their own ranches or homesteads – acts that made others view them as being masculine!

Through the history of western film, women have mostly been cast as helpmates, often needing rescue from either natives or bad guys. Some have been a bit saucy with their attitudes and a few have been true bad girls, completely bucking the standard or playing the role of outlaws. Many films that include bad girls center on women led astray by circumstances unique to the West. One example is a character played by Gail Davis in Whirlwind, a 1951 Columbia picture that also starred Gene Autry. Davis’ character in Whirlwind is introduced to the audience when Autry mistakes her for a cowboy watering his horse. Presenting Davis’ character, Elaine, as Laine, the more masculine abbreviation, the role has Davis dressed not just in pants, but actual bluejeans, with a leather jacket and wearing a man’s hat. She is gruff when answering Autry who addresses her by saying, “Hey cowboy,” yet as the story unfolds we learn there is reason for her crude attitude. After the murder of her father, she was raised by a bachelor uncle who was also running a gang of thieves. She is therefore abrasive and appears to be unladylike in both her attire and her behavior. However, as Autry and Laine become close and begin to like each other, her clothing, and her demeanor both change. For example when courting, she wears a riding skirt as they go for an afternoon ride, and near the end of the film when there are hints of a potential marriage she no longer wears a man’s hat and pants, but instead has her hair fixed and wears a full-length, modest dress.

Gene_Autry_and_Gail_Davis_Toronto

Gene Autry and Gail Davis

Spotlighting social prejudices, public outcasts become the leads – both bad girl and bad boy – in the film Stagecoach, a 1939 United Artists production. Stagecoach actually billed Claire Trevor in the top spot over her leading co-star, John Wayne. Trevor plays the role of Dallas, a saloon girl or prostitute, and the entire film is set around the tensions between Dallas and the enforcers of proper society, the League of Ladies, who have cast her and the local doctor (a drunk) out of town. This forces the pariahs, Dallas and the doctor, to sit opposite the two characters playing the roles reflecting proper citizens – an army officer’s wife, Mrs. Mallory, and a proper southern gentlemen – during their stagecoach journey further West. This tension rises as the quasi-bad boy Ringo, played by John Wayne, enters the stage. He is the pivot for the clash between views as he, like Dallas, is a good man who turned bad due to circumstance; however, as a male character, he voices his opinion that Dallas is just as much a lady as Mrs. Mallory. Both Ringo and Dallas have become orphaned due to the harsh conditions of life in the West, but through the storyline, it is revealed that they are not just ordinary and good people underneath the labels society placed upon them, but actually heroes, when both Dallas and Ringo save the day.

Doc and Dallas being thrown out of town.

Women as outlaws are more infrequent in Western filmography, but there are some modern examples. The 1965 Columbia film, Cat Ballou, stars Jane Fonda in the lead role. This comedy places Catherine Ballou center stage – she is educated in the East and returns to Wyoming territory as a teacher. Her circumstances change when she meets a handsome prisoner being transported by a marshal, which starts a chain of events leading to the death of her father. This turns Catherine into Cat, a vigilante seeking revenge for her father’s murder. Although a spoof, this film encompasses many romantic myths about the West; for example, the way Dime Novels led many, including the character Catherine Ballou, to believe the West was full of brave gun fighters, only to find that the hired gun fighter in this film, played by Lee Marvin, is an off-the-mark drunk.

 Click HERE to watch the turning point for Catherine Ballou in the film, Cat Ballou starring Jane Fonda.

In another parody, Bandidas (Twentieth Century Fox, 2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz, two very different classes of Mexican women take the role of Robin Hood-type vigilantes who reclaim stolen gold to save their town. They do so by using their sexual prowess and extraordinary outlaw-type skills to accomplish their goal. This rather cheesy B movie again makes the point that extenuating events have caused the change of course in the lives for good girls, forcing them to step outside social protocols to do what was necessary.

The official trailer for the 2006 Twentieth Century Fox film, Bandidas

The final example is another Twentieth Century Fox film made in 1994, Bad Girls. This film addresses a wider variety of women than found in most Westerns by portraying four types of women in the West: homesteader/helpmate, Wild West show star, Southern Belle, and entrepreneur. These women are some of the many who populated the American West, and similar to the other bad girls – events associated with the West changed their lives. All of these characters were forced into prostitution, one of the most likely destinies of women in the West who did not have a spouse or family to care for and chaperone them. The helpmate became a widow while on the trail in the move west; the Wild West show star’s father went bankrupt and died, forcing her to pay his debts through the only means she could. The Southern Belle had run away from home to the city from a poor farm in hopes of becoming a theater star when reality forced her into prostitution, and finally the entrepreneurial tough girl and leader of the group had been orphaned young and taken by a gang of bandits, where she was brutally treated.

All of these Hollywood portrayals of bad girls in the Wild West reflect a continuity in that the women had once been good, but happenstance and tragedy turned them bad. This leaves the audience satisfied with notions that the West was still that untamed and exciting frontier where people could be free to start over, to reinvent themselves if necessary, to be anything – even a bad girl tough enough to survive the tragedies of the territories. In the end, all these women ride away with some goodness reflected in their character, with some accomplishment, with a victory in overcoming the greatest of odds – not because they needed a cowboy to save them, but because they were bad enough to do it themselves.

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