Cowboys & Aliens, what promise you showed. Your trailers tantalized with glimpses of a fresh take on the Western genre, and you did not disappoint. It’s never easy breathing new life into a stilted, classic movie type; it requires finesse, and an instinct regarding what to change and what to leave alone.
The most notable, groundbreaking change in the genre worthy of note is your inclusion of new female identity roles, expanding the archetypes to include more realistic options. Let’s go through them:
Hooker with a Heart of Gold:
Nothing civilizes a rough-and-tumble outlaw like the touch of a woman who’s been habitually objectified and abused by other rough-and-tumble outlaws. That’s why it’s so lovely that they included this bastion of womanhood in the film, a nice convenient way to say, “Hey, the main guy’s not that bad. Look, he saved this poor wild west wench (with aching beauty and flawless skin) from a life of drudgery and whoring.”
It’s sweet that they included a love interest at all, actually, because the main protagonist is so BAMF, it’s not like he needs her or anything. Alice (ooh, a name!)exists only as a softening touch to his hardened soul, and then only when he remembers her.
|Damsel in Distress:Introducing Maria, the wife of a man who has no business being part of a rescue posse – but they needed a way to get this guy started on his character arch, so there it is. It couldn’t have been about a woman coming to grips with her situation and maybe striving to free herself. Obviously they needed to shoehorn in a weakling discovering his manhood and earning his wife back through flexing and sudden aiming skills.|
I mean, why else would a man be motivated to give a damn?
The Unattainable Ideal:
And of course, meet Ella, our main female protagonist, something else for us girls to connect to: an alien beauty, last of her kind, who came to earth to warn us about the bad aliens who came to earth to steal gold. (And in the process she either loses her own spaceship, or forgot where the baddies parked theirs, since her whole quest on earth is discovering where the ship she followed here landed. She may not be a human female, but boy is she bad with directions like one!)
Even so, Ella is the closest any of the girls gets to having a back story and driving character motive – don’t worry, though, it still all exists for and serves only to further the male-centric plot and character arcs; Cowboys & Aliens knows when to toe the line.
But that’s not all folks – Ella’s also gorgeous! So don’t worry, she may be yanking plot along simply by saying or withholding facts, but at least she’s looking good while she talks (or doesn’t) and is needlessly put in danger, only to be saved, only to die and be thrown in a fire, where all her clothes burn off and she’s resurrected, just so that this can happen:
|Cowboys & Aliens, it really wasn’t necessary for you to go to such trouble to make your female characters so real and multidimensional – after all, you had plenty of men and aliens to engage the audience. Lots of action. Lots of set pieces.And this scene.|
But the effort and attention to the characters of the women was a welcome touch and luckily did nothing to alter other aspects of the Western genre, nothing to contaminate the bleak and desolate beauty of wild canyon landscapes, nothing to diminish the efforts and struggles of man against gritty battles for survival…
In other words, no plot device gadgets…
Let’s face it, Westerns staked their claim in film culture as a genre during a time when women in film were portrayed as little more than skirts to chase and save – and even more modern Westerns like Django fall prey to this same pattern. But how to make changes to a genre that is so addicted to its own tropes? How to insert modern touches without ruining the rustic charm of a much-loved genre?
This film makes the brave new changes necessary to update the Westerns, and does it by renovating and expanding the role of women in the west, allowing them some agency beyond what is deemed acceptable by men.