Editor's Note: The canny Whoosh! reader will notice that there is no mention of Xena or Xena: Warrior Princess in Ms. King's article. This is okay. Really. What we begin here is a series which will examine the spiritual ancestors of the character of Xena. What do we mean by spiritual ancestor? We mean those characters and actors who paved the way for such a concoction as Xena to become a commercially viable popular entertainment icon. In this first installment, Ms. King explores how Barbara Stanwyck used the male archetype of the western to redefine women's roles in entertainment media. This achievement has its counterpart in how the character Xena has redefined women's roles in the male archetype of the action/fantasy genre of adventure.
Barbara Stanwyck, Warrior Woman (01-02)
The High-Ridin' Warrior Woman (03-07)
Stanwyck, the Actress (08-10)
Gender War (11-16)
Changing Status of Women (17-19)
Ritualistic Plot Device (20-23)
Failure of the Ritual (27-32)
Stanwyck's Subversive Power (33-35)
Why Was Stanwyck Popular? (36-37)
Victoria Barkley, Unpunished High-Ridin' Woman (38-43)
Barbara Stanwyck, Warrior Woman
Even in her early career, Barbara Stanwyck could handle a gun.
 Throughout her long career in films and television, Barbara Stanwyck battled on the front lines of Hollywood's on-going gender wars by portraying a diversity of "warrior women." Stanwyck's status as a popular-culture warrior is most evident in The Big Valley (1965-1969), her mid-1960s Western television series.
 As Victoria Barkley, Stanwyck regularly confronts life-threatening situations and hostile adversaries. And like some mythic figure, Victoria triumphs over all, out-shooting and out-smarting her (usually male) opponents. In the series, the petite matriarch engages in physical fights with men and frequently wins; is dragged by horses; encounters natural disasters such as collapsing mines and earthquakes; and rescues other characters from these same disasters. Victoria is so skilled in triumphing over adversity that, in one episode, she saves her daughter Audra (Linda Evans) and herself from armed assailants without the use of a gun. In such situations, Victoria's courage and physical prowess is coupled with an obvious intelligence and ability to deal competently with emergencies and threats to her life.
The High-Ridin' Warrior Woman
 Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley was a significant development in roles for women in American popular culture; she is a Western heroine who integrates masculine and feminine characteristics, the matriarchal warrior of the mythic American West. Although the character signaled a change, Victoria Barkley's appearance on the mythic Western landscape was not sudden or without precedent. Strong women characters had become more common in Western films of the postwar era. Such characters include those played by Janet Leigh in The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953), Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952), and Joan Crawford in Johnny Notorious (Nicholas Ray, 1954). The most prominent actress in these "strong woman" Westerns is, in fact, Barbara Stanwyck.
 Between 1950 and 1957, Stanwyck made seven Western films; in five of these seven, she plays a "high-ridin' woman" who shares many of the warrior-like characteristics of her Victoria Barkley [Note 1]. In addition to their battles on the mythic Western frontier, Stanwyck's characters were also engaged in the post-World War II gender war of the 1950s, in which cultural and governmental forces worked to disenfranchise American women.
 In these 1950s Westerns, Barbara Stanwyck is a six-gun wielding warrior woman in jeans and buckskin, challenging the traditional Western hero by usurping male power and excelling at "masculine" activities [Note 2].
 In The Furies (Anthony Mann, 1950), The Moonlighter (Roy Rowland, 1953), Cattle Queen of Montana (Allan Dwan, 1954), The Maverick Queen (Joe Kane, 1956), and Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957), Stanwyck is positioned as the Western hero in visual and kinetic terms. She wears the masculine clothing of the hero and she shoots and rides as well as the outfit implies. She engages in vigorous physical activity and is often filmed from low angles thus emphasizing her power and heroic placement within the film. Like the Western hero, the high-ridin' warrior woman is skilled at dealing with the land and animals, and she knows how and when to use violence to resolve conflicts.
 In The Furies and Forty Guns, Stanwyck's characters competently run ranches established by their fathers. As Sierra Nevada Jones in Cattle Queen of Montana, she fights to fulfill her murdered father's dream of building a ranch. Even when vilified, as in Forty Guns, the high-ridin' woman is portrayed as strong, intelligent, and competent. As a woman usurping the role of the Western hero while maintaining many feminine qualities, the high-ridin' woman functions as a gender renegade, a social outlaw who defies restrictive gender roles of both the Western genre and postwar American culture.
Stanwyck, The Actress
A "Big Valley" Barkley family portrait -- Nick, Victoria, and Jarrod.
 Stanwyck's cycle of high-ridin' woman films was initiated by the actress, whose motivation for making so many Westerns was twofold.
 First, she loved Westerns and she loved to make Westerns. Stanwyck told an interviewer that her love of the genre dated from her Brooklyn childhood. "When I was a kid I was so crazy about Westerns. This was the Pearl White era, and she was my idol. I always swore when I became an actress...that I was going to do that" (Smith 1) [Note 3]. Stanwyck enjoyed the physical skill and exertion involved in filming a Western and she usually insisted on doing her own stunts (DiOrio 180).
 Second, in addition to the enjoyment she experienced while making a Western, Stanwyck wanted to depict a pioneer story which she felt had been ignored. "I want to play a real frontier woman, not one of those crinoline-covered things you see in most Westerns" (DiOrio 184). Discussing the pilot for The Big Valley, she reiterated her agenda and alluded to industry resistance to her ideas. "Some producers think women did nothing in those days but keep house and have children. But, if you read your history, they did a lot more than that. They were in cattle drives. They were there." (Smith 293). By pursuing her goal of portraying a "real frontier woman," Stanwyck would unwittingly cast herself headlong into the 1950s gender war.
 Stanwyck's high-ridin' woman films were products of a cultural context in which gender roles were being vehemently contested and transgressive women were perceived as a threat to the larger system. The opening of new spaces for women in American culture during World War II was soon followed by postwar attempts to contain this disruption and stabilize a system in flux.
 While the nation was at war, American women were urged to step into men's roles in both the workplace and the home [Note 4]. After the war ended in 1945, middle-class women were expected to return to their homes and working-class women were expected to return to their "women's" jobs (Hymowitz and Weissman 311-15; Woloch 459-68; Halberstam 588-89). While the number of women working outside the home continued to increase after 1945, the wartime disturbance of traditional family structures and gender roles caused national anxiety throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. In response, cultural forces and governmental policies sought to minimize this disruption.
 In the late 1940s, the government and mass media, with the help of a plethora of "experts", began a campaign to strictly limit middle- and upper-class American women to the roles of housewife and mother only. Consequently, American society in the 1950s "had an overt agenda, the return to domesticity, and a hidden one, a massive movement [of women] into the labor market" (Woloch 493).
 While many married, middle-class women entered or remained in the work force after the war in order to maintain their accustomed lifestyle, all women were being inundated with cultural expressions which urged them to stay home, have babies, and take a subordinate and passive role toward their husbands. In The Fifties, David Halberstam summarizes this redefinition of womanhood: "To be feminine, the American woman first and foremost did not work. If she did, that made her competitive with men, which made her hard and aggressive and almost doomed to loneliness" (590).
 The postwar redefinition of womanhood was discussed explicitly in magazines and newspapers and dramatized both overtly and covertly in American popular culture (Hymowitz and Weissman 323-333; Woloch 470-73, 493-500; Halberstam 590-592). This publicity stressed that any female who did not conform to the era's rigid and narrow definition of femininity was in danger of being labeled a "masculine" woman, a feared and hated stereotype reinforced by the media (Hymowitz and Weissman 329-330).
 Writing in 1946, psychoanalyst Helen Deutsch characterized the masculine woman's ambition, independence, and intelligence as symptoms of her psychological aberration. In turn, Deutsch praised the "feminine" woman who "leaves the initiative to the man and out of her own needs, renounces originality, experiences her own self through identification". In a 1947 best seller, Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg wrote that females who behave like men lessen "their capacities for satisfaction as women" (Woloch 497).
Changing Status of Women
A 'must rent' from your local video parlour.
 Stanwyck's 1950s Westerns dramatize both the changing status of American women -- their wartime success in "men's jobs" and their emerging social and economic power -- and the repressive responses to these changes. Within this cultural context, Stanwyck's high-ridin' warrior was a "masculine woman" stealing a man's job in the post-war era, making her an obvious target for vilification and symbolic disenfranchisement.
 In four of her five films, Stanwyck's characters are punished for their gender transgressions and recuperated into femininity. Moreover, the high-ridin' woman's punishment and recuperation are particularly harsh in these films because of the traditionally masculine genre within which they are enacted. As an androgynous female usurping the role of the Western hero -- a fundamental archetype of American masculinity -- Stanwyck's character is treated as a threat to the basic tenets of the Western genre. Thus, when these films first appeared in movie theaters, Stanwyck's Western character functioned as a gender renegade at both the general cultural level and at the level of popular culture genre.
 The films' response to the threat posed by the high-ridin' woman is most evident in her association with the traditional Western hero and her relationship with each film's male lead. In these films, Stanwyck's heroic positioning is undercut by the presence of a male lead who represents the traditional Western hero. Thus, Stanwyck's character is never allowed to actually be the hero of her films. Instead, she functions in several ways to challenge the Western hero, primarily through her ability to fulfill both male and female roles within the narrative.
Ritualistic Plot Device
 In all of Stanwyck's high-ridin' woman films except Cattle Queen of Montana, the Western hero responds to this challenge by attempting to recuperate the transgressive female to femininity through heterosexual romance [Note 5]. This recuperation involves the attempted disempowerment and demasculinization of the powerful, androgynous woman, a narrative pattern which takes on ritualistic qualities through its repetition in Stanwyck's films and the other "strong women" Westerns of the 1950s.
 In this ritualistic plot device, the female character falls in love with the male lead, which leads to humiliation and, at times, physical punishment for her transgressions. Motivated by her intense attraction to the male lead, the high-ridin' woman casts off her masculine attributes (and the wardrobe that symbolizes them) and allows herself to be dominated. Once she has enacted this rehabilitation, the erstwhile warrior woman can be killed or she can live, the film having assured the audience that she is "broken". Whether she lives or dies, the cultural conflicts inherent in a woman usurping a male role in a masculine genre appear to be resolved by the end of a film which employs this rehabilitation ritual.
 The rehabilitation ritual is most prominent (and seems to be the most effective) in Stanwyck's last Western film, Forty Guns. In a role created for her by director Sam Fuller (DiOrio 182), Stanwyck revels in her depiction of Jessica Drummond, the "high-ridin' woman with a whip."
 The opening scene of Forty Guns exemplifies the masculinization of Stanwyck's characters in her five high-ridin' woman films. Wearing a black hat, blouse, and pants astride a white horse, Stanwyck gallops authoritatively at the head of a thundering and seemingly endless line of forty male riders. She is the "boss of Cochise County", with her army of "Forty Guns" supporting her mob-like control of her domain. After she has fallen in love with local lawman Griff (Barry Sullivan), Jessica gives up her pride, her power, and her wealth by turning over self-incriminating papers to the government, an act which results in the loss of everything she owns. Soon after her act of self-sacrifice, Jessica is punished further when Griff deliberately shoots her in order to kill her adored and ungrateful brother who is using her body as a shield. In the last scene, recovered from her wound and stripped of her power, Jessica is welcomed into the social order as a "woman" after she chases Griff's wagon down the main street, wearing a white dress and shouting his name. Jessica is redeemed, so therefore she can live.
Strong lines for a strong actress.
 Despite the harsh treatment of her characters, Stanwyck's popularity with the American public and well-established star persona gave her the potential to subvert the rehabilitation of the high-ridin' woman, and thus undermine the films' overt message of the disempowerment of strong women.
 By 1950, Stanwyck's tremendous popularity was, in large part, the result of an androgynous star persona and a history of film roles which explored the limitations of gender. On and off screen, in character and in interviews, Stanwyck came across as a smart, powerful woman who was in control of her life, qualities traditionally associated with men. Her androgynous image was enhanced by her angular face and slim, athletic build, which contrasted with the voluptuous ideal of the female body during the studio era.
 Although actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich also employed androgyny in their film roles and star persona, Stanwyck's "aggressive, experienced 'maleness'" (Corliss 356) was distinctly her own. Moreover, she often utilized her androgyny to create complex characters who challenged male authority and chafed under restrictive gender roles.
Failure of the Ritual
 By 1950, the actress' history of rebellious women encompassed a wide variety of character, narrative, and genre -- from the likable sharpshooter of Annie Oakley (George Stevens, 1935) to the ruthless factory owner of The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946), from the wisecracking reporter of Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941) to the archetypal femme fatale of Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). As her career progressed, her association with gender renegades gained momentum and became the major theme in her oeuvre. "As time went on, Stanwyck's more vivid roles pivoted on the struggle between the narrow confines of her female destiny, and the drive to conquer goals which the era defined as masculine, and therefore unnatural for the likes of her" (Harvey 36).
 Given the mediating influence of Stanwyck's star persona, for 1950s audiences the high-ridin' woman's punishment and recuperation may not have diminished the transgressions enacted throughout the films. The rehabilitation ritual loses much of its symbolic power because it is enacted by a strong, androgynous actress who reached the pinnacle of success by transgressing gender roles. Rather than working with the narratives to manage the cultural contradictions of gender, Stanwyck's presence in these Westerns instigates a "clash of codes"; her star persona collides with the film's punishment and attempted rehabilitation of the strong female characters, and thus exposes the contradictions and absurdities of restrictive gender roles [Note 6]. Because Stanwyck's star persona closely resembles the high-ridin' woman before her recuperation into femininity, the ideological stance of the rehabilitation ritual is severely undermined.
 The commercial appeal of Stanwyck as a strong, intelligent, autonomous woman is evident in the use of this image as a prominent marketing tool for her 1950s Westerns. Through exposure to publicity about the actress (such as a 1952 Collier's article by Frank Nugent), contemporary audiences may have known that Stanwyck was sometimes called "the Queen" or "Queen Barbara" by friends and co-workers, a nickname which expressed their respect and admiration for the actress (Madsen 293). Thus, the titles Cattle Queen of Montana and The Maverick Queen reveal the filmmakers' belief that Stanwyck's "regal" image would attract moviegoers as well as minimize the distinction between Stanwyck the star and her high-ridin' woman characters.
 The popularity of Stanwyck's androgynous persona is also obvious in posters used to market her Western films. In contrast to prevailing cultural attitudes toward "masculine" women, posters for The Furies, Cattle Queen of Montana, and The Maverick Queen depict Stanwyck as the powerful, active, and triumphant hero of each film [Note 7] Interestingly, the triumphant images of her on posters for The Furies and The Maverick Queen directly contradict the narratives' attempts at rehabilitation of the androgynous female.
 The power and dominance of Stanwyck's Western characters, and their heroic positioning within the films, are most explicit in a poster for The Maverick Queen. Visually, Stanwyck's image is that of the Western hero while the image of the male lead, Barry Sullivan, appears defeated and disempowered. Stanwyck's image is nearly as tall as the poster while Sullivan is slightly smaller. Wearing black pants, hat, boots, holster, pistol, and bullet belt, Stanwyck looks triumphant, staring defiantly into the distance with her hand on her hip. Sullivan is hatless, slightly bent, and turned away from her. His pistol is drawn but held loosely, pointing downward.
 The power of Stanwyck's character to subdue male aggression is explicitly expressed in a small scene which appears on the poster. A man violently grabs a young woman while she attempts to push him away. This small scene is directly below the large image of Stanwyck and the young woman is placed within the V formed by Stanwyck's legs while the man is outside of this visual enclosure. The combination of these images expresses that Stanwyck is not only self-sufficient in her Western hero role but is powerful enough to shelter other women from male aggression. By including this violent scene on the poster, Stanwyck's strength and dominance appear as a righteous victory for women.
Stanwyck's Subversive Power
Pre-Western, but just as powerful.
 The use of this transgressive image of the androgynous woman in The Maverick Queen poster confirms the subversive power of Stanwyck in her Western roles. The studio executives who commissioned these posters chose to employ a strong, triumphant, masculine image of the actress to attract film audiences. Obviously, this is the Barbara Stanwyck they believed Americans wanted to see in a Western film, not the rehabilitated feminine character she plays in the films' final scenes. Thus, it is not farfetched to believe that this triumphant, strong image of Stanwyck was the dominant element which shaped audience members' interpretations while watching these films and stayed with them after they left the theater.
 Indeed, during this period of backlash against strong, independent women, Stanwyck's status in Hollywood and popularity with audiences was unabated. Moreover, Stanwyck's popularity survived the death throes of the studio system, when established movie stars who wished to avoid early retirement often had to accept smaller roles and inferior films or retreat to the Broadway stage (Madsen 296-97). Although her films of the 1950s were not as consistently successful as those of the previous two decades, until 1957 Stanwyck made more films than most of her peers (DiOrio 179-80; Harvey 34).
 Her continued power at the box-office was apparent in the success of inferior films in which she starred and the awards she received, including the Motion Picture Exhibitors' Laurel Award in 1953, 1954, and 1955. The demise of the studio system and the lack of roles for older actresses (even of Stanwyck's stature and willingness to work) finally caught up with the actress in the late 1950s; after Forty Guns in 1957, she made only three more films and her cinematic career came to a close in 1964. Stanwyck's popularity transcended even this dearth of film roles, thanks in part to her many television appearances. Although she had not made a film since 1957, in 1959 the fan magazine Photoplay presented Stanwyck with its Special Gold Medal Award for lifetime achievement (Smith 353).
Why Was Stanwyck Popular?
 Given the repressive cultural context and the generic processes trying to contain and control her transgressive characters, why was Stanwyck and her work popular with postwar audiences? Throughout the first two decades of her career, Stanwyck had fulfilled a vital function with her androgynous persona and her transgressive roles; she had embodied the conflicts and contradictions of gender and enacted contemporary gender struggles. This function became even more valuable during the postwar era's heightened sensitivity over gender roles and women's changing status.
 Who better to play out the struggle between the supposed opposites of masculine and feminine than Barbara Stanwyck, an established Hollywood star with an androgynous persona and a penchant for testing the limitations of gender, on and off screen? In doing so, Stanwyck not only portrayed warrior women in her 1950s Westerns but also fought in some of the most heated battles of Hollywood's gender wars.
Victoria Barkley, Unpunished High-Ridin' Woman
 By the mid-1960s, the turbulence of U.S. society and the popularity of television Westerns produced a more hospitable environment for the type of character Stanwyck wanted to portray. Victoria Barkley is the culmination of Stanwyck's work in the Western genre, the "real frontier woman" which she had originally envisioned when she began making Westerns.
 In Victoria Barkley, Stanwyck was able to successfully integrate the traditionally masculine and feminine without mimicking the Western hero and without punishment and attempted rehabilitation. Through Victoria, Stanwyck not only usurped the authority, skill, and status of the Western hero, she created a new type of character -- a Western heroine. Moreover, audiences and the entertainment industry responded positively to this new type of Western heroine.
 For her work on The Big Valley, Stanwyck received an Emmy in 1966 as "Outstanding Actress in a Dramatic Series" as well as Emmy nominations in 1967 and 1968. In addition, the actress was voted "The Most Popular Female Star" in 1967 and 1968 by the readers of Photoplay (DiOrio 205-206). In 1973, Stanwyck's impact on the Western genre and the mythic American west was recognized when she received the Wrangler Award for "Outstanding Contribution to the West through Motion Pictures" from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center and was inducted into its "Hall of Fame of Great Western Performers" (Smith 350-51).
 Furthermore, the long-term influence of Stanwyck's 1950s Western warriors and Victoria Barkley can be seen in 1990s Westerns which focus on female characters, such as The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993), Bad Girls (Jonathan Kaplan, 1994), and The Quick And The Dead (Sam Raimi, 1995).
 During her search for a Western television series, Barbara Stanwyck voiced her desire to play a different type of character. "I want to play a real frontier woman...I'm with the boys, I want to go where the boys go" (DiOrio 184). In many of her Western films, Stanwyck was "with the boys" and went "where the boys go". And her characters were punished for doing so.
 When she played "one of those crinoline-covered things", as in The Great Man's Lady (William Wellman, 1942), she was safely within the barbed-wired pastures of patriarchal expectations. Until the advent of Victoria Barkley, Stanwyck's high-ridin' women die, literally and metaphorically, for breaking through those fences. Victoria's integration of masculine and feminine, her strength, independence, resourcefulness, ethics, and sense of humor are the realization of Stanwyck's own ideas of what a Western heroine should be. The high-ridin' woman and Victoria Barkley -- Stanwyck's gender renegades -- are the actress' contribution to expanding the range of acceptable behavior for women in American popular culture. As Richard Dyer attests, "When I see Barbara Stanwyck, I know that women are strong" (184-85).
Barbara Stanwyck, Emmy in hand.
 The phrase "high-ridin' woman" is taken from Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns (1957) in which Stanwyck's character, Jessica Drummond, is described as a "high-ridin' woman with a whip" in the film's theme song.
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 In this paper, the terms "masculine" and "feminine" refer to their socially-constructed meanings during the 1950s and 1960s.
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 During the silent era, Pearl White starred in movie serials, most notably The Perils of Pauline (Louis Gasnier & Donald MacKenzie, 1917), in which she played strong, brave, competent women.
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 The effects of World War II on the lives of American women are documented in the film The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Connie Field, 1980).
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 Cattle Queen of Montana does involve Stanwyck's character Sierra Nevada Jones in a heterosexual romance but, interestingly, Sierra does not have to change for this romance to succeed.
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 The concepts of a clash of codes and a star's persona working to manage cultural contradictions are developed in the work of Richard Dyer.
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 Film posters discussed in this paper are housed at Bowling Green State University's Popular Culture Library.
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Corliss, Richard. Barbara Stanwyck. "The National Society of Film Critics on the Movie Star." Ed. Elisabeth Weis. New York: Viking P, 1981. 355-358.
Dickens, Homer. The Films of Barbara Stanwyck. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1984.
DiOrio, Al. Barbara Stanwyck: A Biography. New York: Coward-McCann, 1983.
Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: British Film Institute, 1979.
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard, 1993.
Harvey, Stephen. "The Strange Fate of Barbara Stanwyck." Film Comment March-April 1981: 34-36.
Hymowitz, Carol, and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantam, 1978.
Madsen, Axel. Stanwyck. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Crown Publishers, 1985.
Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.
I'm a Ph.D. student in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, writing my dissertation on feminism in popular music. I also work doing Web production. A native Mainer, I currently live in the beautiful but cold city of Madison, Wisconsin. So far, the highlight of my life as a Xenite has been attending the Valley Forge con. My non-XWP obsessions include Tori Amos, the film Heavenly Creatures, and buying CDs.
Favorite episode: A DAY IN THE LIFE (#39)
Favorite line: Meg to Gabrielle: "Eat the fruit, baby!" WARRIOR... PRINCESS...TRAMP (#30)
First episode seen: THE PATH NOT TAKEN (#05)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (#40)