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True grit: The fiercest female characters of modern Westerns

HBO's 'Westworld' is stacked with ferocious femmes. How do they hold up against other notable female gunslingers? Here’s a ranking of twelve of our faves.

True grit: The fiercest female characters of modern Westerns

Westworld brought us all back to the strange, unsettling world of Sweetwater (and possibly some other potentially horrifying historical theme parks). We felt it crucial to celebrate some of the fiercest female characters of modern Westerns meantime. The HBO show is stacked full of ferocious femmes, but how do they hold up against some other notable female gunslingers from TV shows and movies of the past few decades? Here’s a ranking of twelve of our faves.

12. Ellen: The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Sam Raimi’s drama isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it still stands as one of the more fun efforts of the genre with a cocky, sauntering woman (Sharon Stone) for its central gunslinger.

11. Mary Bee Cuddy: The Homesman (2014)

Tommy Lee Jones’s frontier Western plays with chaos and humor amid the usual harrowing moments of violence. At the heart of the film is Mary (Hilary Swank) – a righteous independent woman tasked with transporting three maddening women on a daunting journey across the Midwest.

10. Magdalena Gilkeson: The Missing (2003)

Following a frontier woman (Cate Blanchett) who must rely on her savvy when her teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is abducted by renegade Apaches, Ron Howard’s adaptation of Thomas Edison‘s 1996 novel The Last Ride proves a woman doesn’t need a gunslinging husband to fight back.

9. Jo Monaghan: The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

Jo (Suzy Amis) – a young woman who has been kicked out of her home – opts for disguising herself as a man to survive the various perils of the Wild West. Maggie Greenwald’s underrated indie drama delves into the gender politics of a challenging era while maintaining the beats of a tense Western.

8. Samantha: Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Though Samantha’s (Lili Simmons) arc follows all the usual Western tropes for a female character – she’s a kidnapped wife whose need to be saved helps to set the events of the movie in motion – she defies many of the usual stereotypes. Even when she appears to be facing certain death she’s cool, smart, and resilient and isn’t afraid to call the local Sheriff (Kurt Russell) out for his incredible stupidity.

7. Jane Hammond: Jane Got a Gun (2015)

Offering a revisionist spin on genre conventions, Gavin O’Connor’s modern Western features a gallant hero in the form of Jane (Natalie Portman) – a woman who must team up with an ex-lover (Joel Edgerton) for a violent showdown against the men who gunned down her husband.

6. Emily Tetherow: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

In Kelly Reichardt’s slow-burn Western, Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) offers a quiet, simmering intensity that builds up into progressively explosive forms as a woman facing the traumatic realities of the American West.

5. Dolores Abernathy: Westworld (2016 – )

There’s one side of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) that’s sweet, simple, and gentle and another that is impossibly smart, unhinged, and ferocious. We loved seeing those latter characteristics overthrow the former in S2.

4. Alice Fletcher: Godless (2017)

The Netflix Originals series was one of the more pleasant surprises offered by the streaming giant last year and the brave, uninhibited exploits of Alice (Michelle Dockery) were a major part of that.

3. Maeve Millay: Westworld (2016 – )

Sweetwater’s premium brothel madame is more than just a pretty face and an accessible body. Like Dolores, Maeve (Thandie Newton) is a firecracker contained within an unassuming shell, but she habors unfathomable strength and smarts beneath her  harmless veneer.

2. Mattie Ross: True Grit (2010)

There may never be a tougher young woman than the snarling, ferocious, and vengeful Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) in the Coen Brothers’ remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 classic.

1. Calamity Jane: Deadwood (2004 – 2006)

As one of the most unruly, outspoken, unladylike female characters ever portrayed on screen (particularly in a period story), Robin Weigert’s staggering portrayal of the Western legend is unapologetically defiant. Jane is a drunken, cussing, and outspoken queer woman and we continue to adore her.

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Amy Roberts is a freelance writer who occasionally moonlights as a hapless punk musician. She’s written about pop culture for websites like Bustle, i-D, and The Mary Sue, and is the co-creator of Clarissa Explains F*ck All. She likes watching horror movies with her cat and eating too much sugar.

amy@filmdaily.co