Johnny Guitar is the first western I have watched with a strong female protagonist that acts in a dominating and powerful way. She is featured on more posters for the film than the character the film is named after, Johnny. However, I found myself questioning how strong the character actually is, and whether or not the film presents a feminist viewpoint or not.
On the surface, I suppose it does. Joan Crawford portrays Vienna as a headstrong, resilient, and hardworking woman—all masculine traits. Her costuming is like what a male Western hero would wear. She is often seen sporting pants and a collared shirt, and has a gun on her. Her hair is short and conservative. When we first see her, she is towering above the men in her saloon and we hear them complaining about working for a woman. She is still in charge, none the less, and doesn’t let this criticism get to her. She has two men vying for her affections, rather than two women vying for a man’s affection. This is all progressive for the Western genre.
If you look deeper, though, you begin to see the cracks in the masculine, empowered view of this character. Both her and Emma, the villain of this film, are stereotypes even though they are powerful. Vienna is punished for her dominant ways. The entire town is after her, with very little evidence of any criminal activity. Emma leads this witch hunt, representing the woman who is jealous of another woman’s power, control, and sexuality. She resents Vienna’s freedom, a result of resisting traditional feminine gender roles. The men follow her lead without question because they demonize Vienna for being an empowered female. They attempt to kill a woman in a position of authority and destroy all she has worked hard for, symbolically representing the fear of powerful, successful women. Emma, the other women with a position of authority, is shot and killed. Regardless of how the women are punished, the point is that both women in the film are treated terribly because of their positions of power. The underlying message of Johnny Guitar is that powerful women are dangerous.
The film also ends on a romantic note, regardless of the fact that Vienna has lost everything. One of her closest friends was shot, her business burned, and she was almost hung and then shot. But all that matters is that she found love again (eye roll). This movie is progressive because it places women in traditionally male roles, but it still stereotypes these women and ultimately ends with Vienna as lesser than the male characters around her.
She has lost everything and is back to fulfilling the role that women are meant to play—the lover. The film allows women to be empowered temporarily, just not too empowered to the point they surpass all the male characters in the end.