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The Western  
 
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In the same period another good actress, Mercedes McCambridge, made two Westerns that provided powerful depictions of unconventionally masculine women. The first, Nicholas Ray's brilliant, bizarre Johnny Guitar (1954), reimagines the Western in terms of a confrontation between powerful women over a handsome but largely passive man (Sterling Hayden, in the title role). As Emma Small, McCambridge, dressed in black and wielding a six-shooter, ferociously confronts the film's star, Joan Crawford, who plays Vienna, a saloon owner McCambridge despises.

The film strongly suggests the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunts that then were at their height, as Emma denounces Vienna, accuses her of murder, and, without any evidence, coerces a posse into nearly lynching her. While McCambridge makes her character a relentlessly vindictive harpy, Crawford presents hers as a fascinating mix of femme and butch, dressed in lavish white skirts and then in cowgirl duds in the climactic shootout with her archenemy. For viewers knowledgeable about Hollywood history, the implications of sexual and gender difference are enhanced by the peristent rumors that both Crawford and McCambridge, though married to men, were lesbians.

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McCambridge's other important Western role of the time was in George Stevens's Giant (1956), an epic tracing the shift from cattle ranching to oil drilling in Texas. She plays Luz Benedict, the loud, swaggering cowgirl sister of Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), the heir to a huge spread in west Texas. When Bick brings home a beautiful bride (Elizabeth Taylor) from Virginia, the two women scrap, until Luz dies in a riding accident.

Her influence lives on, though, since she leaves a parcel of land, which turns out to be rich in oil, to her favorite, the family's ne'er-do-well handyman, Jett Rink (James Dean, in his final film appearance). The film's subversion of established gender constructions is less extreme than Johnny Guitar, but still, McCambridge provides a wonderful portrayal of a powerful, blunt, unconventional frontierswoman who can compete with men in just about everything.

Television also provided a depiction of a remarkable Western woman in the series The Big Valley (1965-1969), in the character of Victoria Barkeley, played by Hollywood actress, Barbara Stanwyck. Modelled on Bonanza, the series related the adventures of the Barkeley clan, proprietors of a big California ranch.

Led by indomitable matriarch Stanwyck, the family included characters played by Richard Long, Peter Breck, Linda Evans, and the strapping young Lee Majors. Like Crawford and McCambridge, Stanwyck was widely rumored to have had affairs with women; her marriage with Robert Taylor was believed to be a "lavender" one that permitted the two stars to safely pursue same-sex interests without scandal.

Man-loving Men and the Western

Unlike members of other minorities, people who differ from the majority in sexuality and gender usually grow up in isolation from others like themselves, without support or guidance from family members who feel the same way. Until they indicate otherwise, young people are assumed to be heterosexual. Erotically charged visual images thus may play an important role in the realization that one is attracted to people of the same sex.

For young men growing up and realizing their attraction to other men, the displays of male faces and bodies sanctioned by American culture in entertainment and sports often unintentionally assist them in understanding their sexual orientation, and allow them the opportunity to admire other men, at least clandestinely. For many young men, seeing beautiful men in Western movies or advertisements or rodeo competitions has helped them to understand that they desire men.

Undoubtedly, many man-loving men have played unacknowledged roles in creating the dominant culture's beautiful images of the heroic cowboy, and, not surprisingly, Western images also have been important in the explicitly homoerotic visual culture created by gay men.

The Cowboy in the Gay Subculture

From the emergence of explicity homoerotic commercial art just after World War II, gay artists have employed Western imagery. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, important physique photographers such as Bob Mizer of the Athletic Model Guild and Bruce of Los Angeles (Bruce Bellas) sometimes used cowboy props and themes, and Don Whitman of the Western Photography Guild in Denver focused his work on erotic images of "mountain men" in the rugged landscape of the Rockies.

In his oil paintings in this period, George Quaintance presented an extraordinary series of utopian images of the homoerotic romantic adventures of sensuously idealized young cowboys. Although Western images are not central to his work, Tom of Finland also presented some of his voluptuous muscle men encased in cowboy clothes.

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