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The Western  
 
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The Western hero is dressed for work and for fighting, but, unlike any other male figure in the culture, with perhaps the exception of a soldier in a dress uniform, is permitted to wear what amounts to a display of masculine jewelry.

Westerns not only present good-looking men in flattering costumes, but also find plenty of excuses for taking those clothes off, at least from the waist up. No other genre offers such a display of partial male nudity, in particular charting the splendid landscape of the male chest, from Gary Cooper's lanky torso in the scene in which he confronts Dan Duryea in Stuart Heisler's Along Came Jones (1945), to the repeated episodes in which the young, tanned, beautiful Jeffrey Hunter bares his shoulders and chest in The Searchers, to Burt Reynolds taking a bath and showing off his hirsute pecs in Arnold Laven's otherwise unimpressive Sam Whiskey (1969), or to Clint Eastwood in a similar bathing sequence in his far more compelling, superbly sinister High Plains Drifter (1973).

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Riding presents the hero in a posture of control and independence. Since ancient times, a man on horseback has represented male authority, and the cowboy on his horse demonstrates the belief that in America this kind of status is available to every man. His position not only subordinates those below, but also focuses their attention on his legs, hips, and crotch, stressing his muscularity and sexual dominance.

In Western movies, art, and other visual representations the heroic male body is dramatized in action. The cowboy hero is displayed as he rides through the landscape, tracks and hunts, dominates horses and other powerful animals, and confronts and fights with other men. Sometimes these battles are gunfights, but he often engages his enemies in fist fights that exhibit the power and beauty of the male body. These sometimes are succeeded by episodes depicting the hero's recovery, which not only demonstrate his resilience but also allow further displays of his beauty and strength. The hero's body is one of the central images of Western film, television, and other visual art.

During the Western's long period of greatest popularity, during the 1950s and 1960s, images of the beautiful cowboy were everywhere, not only in Westerns at the movies and in TV series, but on billboards and magazines and in television ads, particularly in depictions of the heroic all-male Western world of Marlboro Country.

Starting in the early 1950s, Philip Morris conducted a series of ad campaigns to change the image of Marlboros from an elegant ladies' cigarette to one for a broader market of male consumers, using the slogan "Where There's a Man, There's a Marlboro" and images of butch men, such as tattooed sailors and jet fighter pilots before finally settling on the iconic cowboy. There were no women in Marlboro Country, only Marlboro men, rugged and strong-jawed, riding the range clad in the fetishized masculine garb of boots and jeans, chaps and cowboy hats.

Women in Westerns

In Westerns, women usually are presented in highly conventionalized ways, being constructed as objects of heterosexual male attraction and as signifiers of the values of home, family, and property that the Western hero defends.

But by the late 1940s, women in Westerns sometimes were constructed in more extreme terms, as avatars of intense male erotic desire, as in the presentation of Jane Russell (rumored to be wearing a special cantilevered bra engineered by the producer/director, Howard Hughes) in The Outlaw (1943), the billionaire's steamy re-telling of the story of Billy the Kid.

Westerns soon followed that hinted at even less accepted aspects of female sexuality. David Butler's 1953 musical, Calamity Jane, starring the impish Doris Day, presented its heroine playfully, and ultimately married her off to Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel), but was intriguingly suggestive of lesbianism. Until she gets a feminine make-over later in the film, Day is dressed in a form-fitting fringed buckskin shirt and trousers (not a skirt, like Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun [1950], which helped inspire Calamity Jane), and she stomps around the set and lowers her voice dramatically, creating a charming, startlingly butch character.

Lesbian undertones are increased by the fact that in the middle part of the film, Calamity shares her cabin with a femme dance hall girl (Allyn McLerie). For many glbtq viewers, the most subversive moment comes when Calamity, ostensibly in love with a man, sings the lovely, gender-unspecific song, "Once I Had a Secret Love."

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