What to Watch

Bitches of the Badlands: The Myth of the American West Through the Female Lens

With Nomadland and First Cow now in UK cinemas, Lilia Pavin-Franks explores how Chloé Zhao and Kelly Reichardt have rewritten the rules of Hollywood's most fabled genre

In his BFI Film Classics book on Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, Tom Charity defines the Western as “quintessentially American, where white America grapples with its character, its conscience and its sense of self… it romanticises the pioneer and eulogises the wilderness… it trades on fantasies of absolute male autonomy… and it is fundamentally concerned with the construction of the hero.”

For decades, the genre has often harboured a sense of idealism, with American filmmakers utilising it in order to facilitate a falsified and embellished sense of self. Rick Altman, professor of cinema, noted that the semantics of Americanism – bravery, patriotism, heroism, success and freedom – are adjacent to the semantics of the Western. Needless to say, wrapped up in these values is an intrinsic sense of performative masculinity that has firmly positioned films in this genre as “men’s cinema” for much of its lifespan.

The revisionist Western is not a new concept, of course. Long before now, the standard format of the Western been subverted to varying degrees of success, much like in 1983's The Right Stuff, which swaps out humble steed for spacecraft. In the last decade or so, though, female filmmakers like Chloé Zhao and Kelly Reichardt have utilised the genre as a means of further dismantling the problematic myth of the American West (and America in general). Whether it be through the centering of people of colour and women, redefining what makes a hero, or tearing apart perceived notions of stoicism and masculinity, these female filmmakers are further rewriting a genre dominated by white patriarchal ideology.

Zhao’s method of demystifying the West and dismantling this sense of inflated idealism has become a staple of her expanding oeuvre. From her first feature, Songs My Brother’s Taught Me, to her recent Academy Award-winning Nomadland, she has adopted a quasi-documentary approach, casting real people to play fictionalised versions of themselves. Frances McDormand is the obvious (Oscar-winning) exception in Nomadland, playing the central nomad of Fern, though the majority of Zhao’s characters live the stories that they are telling on screen.

Her 2017 film The Rider is a tender tale of a former rodeo star having to adjust to a new life after an almost fatal injury. Brady Jandreau (here as Brady Blackburn) literally plays out his own life, the events of the narrative carefully mirroring true events. As well as casting, Zhao emphasises the realism of her Westerns in the way that she shoots, too. In one scene, Brady and his friends sit around a crackling bonfire, stetsons donned, and candidly regale their past rodeo injuries. Rather than adopt the typical shot-reverse-shot technique, these men’s conversations are filmed almost as talking heads, as they speak directly to the camera with a sincerity that immediately communicates the haunting realism of these horrific accidents.

This documentary approach is extended to the solo shots of Brady, particularly those that show him taming wild horses on the ranch. It’s said that to film these scenes, Zhao let the camera roll for the length of two 40-minute takes, encouraging Brady to indulge in his natural skill. With a distinct intimacy to these scenes, there is no intention to capture Brady at his toughest, at his most stoic, like a typical cowboy. The camera allows him to be vulnerable and soft, simply playing out the most honest version of himself.

There is a beautiful sense of natural spectacle to Zhao’s work, particularly in the way she uses the purity of the wilderness to create art. The presence of the wilderness – which, when juxtaposed against civilisation, offers a central dichotomy found in the Western genre – is never forced. The heyday of the Western conjures up images of huge, Hollywood sets with saloons carefully covered in just the right amount of desert dust, or dirt roads with perfectly timed tumbleweeds rolling through them. But for Zhao, cinematic beauty is to be found in real life. She expertly utilises the real colour palette of nature; the luscious oranges and hazy purples of sunsets, the pastel yellows of wide fields of wheat. By expelling the role of falsified iconography of the Western, Zhao immediately dismantles the grossly embellished sense of self so often inherent to the genre.

In Nomadland, Fern, whilst on her travels, comes across what looks like a movie set for a stereotypical Western. A battered old saloon stands stoically along a sparse expanse of land, its doors scattered with bullet holes. In this scene, it would seem that Zhao takes an explicit visual stab at the once impressive and powerful aesthetic of the West, a whole canon of films that stirred up such a strong sense of heroism and mysticism. Now it stands alone, discarded, worn out and overused; an image of the past barely holding itself together in the modern world.

Reichardt dismantles the myth of the American West differently, mostly by situating her narratives in the everyday, with characters as products of their home lives and daily struggles. She interweaves modern American concerns, such as capitalism’s impact on the working class, with Western semantics and a context more closely aligned with what one might expect from a Western. Her latest feature, First Cow, is a tender drama set in 1820s Oregon which plays on the unreality of the American dream. At its centre are Cookie and Lu (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee), two idealist men who eventually fall victim to the power of the social elite after stealing milk for entrepreneurial baking endeavours.

Here, Reichardt also tackles another of the foundational dichotomies of the Western genre: the masculine vs. the feminine. In both First Cow and Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt’s 2010 Western), there is a distinct lack of masculine bravado or high powered action. Yes, peripheral male characters can be seen acting rough and aggressive (see the men primitively fighting over the oily cakes in First Cow), but they are not granted the spotlight. The focus is kept on emotion rather than bold physicality.

After discovering Lu, a Chinese immigrant on the run for murder, Cookie takes him in without any hesitation. There is an immediate understanding and fragile hospitality between the men. Their communication is soft, but not simply because they are trying to be scarce; they are also soft in their intonations. Over the course of the film, the men perform particularly feminine tasks, especially in the context of a Western – baking, tending to the titular cow, revelling in their ideal dream lives. Cookie and Lu are not, as author Robert Warshow once famously characterised, “figures of repose,” harbouring the same stoicism of lone rangers like those in a John Ford Western. Instead, they care for and help each other; they worry about their futures together. They earn their keep equally, partnering up in business and in life, with neither man taking on the typical masculine role.

The America found in Zhao and Reichardt’s Westerns is expansive and diverse, dispelling dated notions of white patriarchal ideology such as “manifest destiny.” Instead, the auteurs readily position Native American characters and people of colour front and centre, or bring attention to Hollywood’s problematic history of portrayal (whereby indigenous people were narrativised as savage barbarians so as to fit with America’s mythical version of self). In The Rider, all the characters are Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation and Zhao repositions those who would have once been portrayed as the simplistic enemy into complex heroes.

Brady, a young Native American man, embodies the iconic image of a cowboy, his getup usually reserved for the John Waynes and the Jimmy Stewarts. He is an emotionally multilayered character, with Zhao explicitly contradicting the gross stereotypes once played out in the Hollywood Western heyday. In Nomadland, Fern is able to take on the once exclusively male role of the “perpetual wanderer.” Though she is white, it’s not about claiming the land she travels on as her own – it’s about respect and the act of simply existing.

Though the female characters in Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff are not without sin, it is primarily the men who are utilised to show the ridiculousness of the derogatory and dehumanised stereotypes of Native Americans. Meek himself is quick to animalise their “captured” Native American man, claiming to have witnessed his barbaric acts, and his attitude is immediately presented as obtuse and baseless. As the white, male, civilised leader of the pack, Meek would no doubt be considered the hero in a stereotypical Western. Instead Reichardt makes a point of positioning him as a fool, to the point that he actively relinquishes his control at the end of the film. “I am at your command,” he admits to Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow, as they watch a Native American man walk away with more power and knowledge of the land than they could ever dream of.

Perhaps, via their demystification of idealist America, Zhao and Reichardt are in fact offering up the most “quintessentially American” Westerns to date, fully grappling with the country’s character, conscience, and sense of self. It seems fitting that, at a point in modern American history which seems as self-reflective and as problematic as ever, these filmmakers are not only reviving the country’s most famous film genre, but also rewriting its rules. It's these bold reinventions of a genre, once saturated by white male egoism, that truly makes Zhao and Reichardt, in the words of Nomadland's Fern, “the bitches of the badlands.”

Nomadland and First Cow are now showing in UK cinemas.

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