The United States of America
In the American Western, there seem to be only three kinds of women: schoolmarms, hookers, and cowgirls. The schoolmarm, representing the encroachment of civilization in the savage West, is atypical of her harsh surroundings; a stranger in a strange land bringing culture and knowledge to the brutal and ignorant. The hooker, on the other hand, is an extension of the frontier itself. While they may get gussied up in French perfume and fancy finery, they are nevertheless an embodiment of lawlessness and exploitation; of disease and carnal commerce. And then there is the cowgirl. Donning the etiquette, manners, and iconography of her masculine counterparts, she is frequently framed as the object of desire and fetishization for a stalwart male hero; an untamed filly that must be broken in for a role of domesticity (or at the very least lassoed into a traditional heterosexual relationship).
These three women all have established spaces with the fictionalized world of the Old West that sustain and provide for them: the schoolhouse for the schoolmarm, the saloon for the hooker, and the ranch for the cowgirl. Though very different, they all play crucial societal roles.
But the mythology of the Old West is just that: a mythology. Not every woman who braved the Western frontier had a place carved out for them by society. Many had to improvise their own role. Those that did were faced with more than just the hostility of the unknown, uncontrollable wilderness. These women had to contend with an insidious, institutionalized misogyny that was ready and more than willing to prey on those who didn’t stay “in their place.”
Josephine Monaghan was one such woman. The true story of her life seems more of fiction than fact: after being disowned by her parents for having a child out of wedlock, she moved to Idaho and became a successful rancher for 30 years, all the while masquerading so successfully as a man that her true identity was only discovered upon her death. How did she manage such an illusion for so long? How did nobody find out? And why did she feel like she needed to dress as a man?
Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo attempts to address these mysteries by charting Jo’s years of exile. The film begins with young Josephine traveling alone on a road on her way West. Immediately she is beset upon by men who view her as sexual prey. After escaping from a group of soldiers who try to rape her (after an older man that she thought was her friend attempted to sell her), she cuts her hair, scars her face, trades her skirts for pants, and becomes ‘Jo.’ Notice the scene where Josephine buys a set of men’s clothes. The shop-keeper, an old lady, scowls, “It’s against the law to dress improper to your sex.” This, of course, happens right after a muddy, terrified, and disheveled young woman bursts into her store asking if she’s seen two soldiers. She doesn’t say it out loud, but the look in the shop-keeper’s eyes reveal that she has put two and two together: this poor young woman was sexually assaulted. And yet, when she tries to buy men’s clothes to prevent future attacks, the shop-keeper chastises her. Herein we discover one of the most unsettling yet vital truths about the Old West: to act outside of one’s societal role is inexcusable. If Josephine must be raped, then so be it. Better for her to get sexually assaulted as a woman than for her to pretend to be a man.
Eventually Jo arrives at Ruby City, a crude mining camp populated by filthy workers searching for gems and gold. There are few, if any women. If there are wives, sisters, and daughters, then we do not see them. Periodically a traveling band of prostitutes come by and all of the men dutifully take their turn. Little Jo, having already been accepted as a man, is viciously mocked for refusing one of the prostitute’s advances. “Little Jo, I think you should reconsider. A man can get diseases he don’t do it regular,” one of them wisely explains. It’s not enough that Little Jo looks, acts, and talks like a man. Jo must go through the motions expected of a man to be accepted as one.
But still Jo refuses. Suddenly Jo is looked upon by the other men with a confused curiosity and a growing resentment. So after learning the basics of frontier life from Percy, an exiled Englishman who nurses a grudge against the female sex, Jo spends five years as a shepherd tending the flock of a man named Frank Badger. Periodically spending months without human contact, Badger worries that Jo might go crazy. But Jo assures Badger that the loneliness “suits me.”
After saving enough money, Jo purchases a homestead way out yonder where her only neighbor is Badger. But one day while visiting Ruby City, Jo encounters Badger and a group of men lynching a ‘Chinaman’ for trying to “take our jobs.” After saving him, Badger and the others force Jo to employ him as a housekeeper so he won’t simply wander to another town and take a job away from another honest white man. Jo refuses, but eventually relents, adopting the ‘Chinaman,’ whose name is revealed to be Tinman Wong. At first, Tinman seems to be mentally slow and stupid. But after just three days, he reveals that he knows Jo’s secret. But Tinman explains that he has a secret, too: he is only pretending to be stupid. After 15 years of inhuman treatment while working on the railroad, Tinman, whose real name is ‘Tien Ma,’ learned that the best way to survive was to keep his head down and play the part of the stupid ‘Chinaman.’
The two strike up a passionate love affair, living a kind of role-reversed life where Jo is the masculine bread-winner and Tinman the feminine home-maker and cook. Both living in a society that affords them no place, Jo and Tinman find sanctuary in both their little homestead and in each other. It is here that Greenwald’s genius as a director and a social commentator truly emerges. Take one scene where Jo longingly stares at Tinman while he bathes. The visual grammar of the scene is directly reminiscent of the traditional male gaze.
Tinman: [Regarding a picture of Jo before she got pregnant] Who is this society girl?
Jo: It’s me. Can you imagine?
Tinman: I like you much better as you are.
Tinman: This white girl would never do this with me.
Looking back over what I’ve written so far, I’ve noticed that I’ve skipped over much of the film’s plot: Jo’s tragic friendship with Percy, Jo’s relationship with a family of homesteaders, an Eastern corporation’s attempts to buy out all of the local land via terrorism and groups of men in white masks, and even Jo’s inevitable death and discovery. But the plot is secondary in importance to the character of Little Jo. The film is not necessarily concerned with what happened to Josephine Monaghan when she moved out West, but instead with why and how they happened. How did a refined, educated high society woman survive for 30 years on the Idaho frontier? Why did Josephine become Jo? How did she manage to deceive everyone for decades? Why were the men so easily duped?
I like Roger Ebert’s theory that the men of Ruby City were fooled into thinking Little Jo was a man because on some sub-conscious level they chose to believe it. As he wrote: “So ingrained was the notion that only men could do "men's work," Greenwald says, that if a woman could ride and rope and run a ranch, she was accepted as a man even in the face of other evidence.” How ironic. Could it be that the very societal forces that damned Josephine in the first place were in part responsible for the success of her transformation into Jo? Perhaps. Perhaps not. All that’s clear is that the Old West was no place for a woman who wasn’t a schoolmarm, a hooker, or a cowgirl. Make of that what you will.