Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

The 1953 musical western Calamity Jane follows an ostensibly heteronormative narrative trajectory in which we see two rebellious young women being tamed and made ready for heterosexual marriage. Wild tomboy and stagecoach guard, “Calam” (Doris Day), gets a makeover and learns how to be a woman, while aspiring burlesque performer, Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), gives up on her dreams of being on stage for the love of a man. But this surface narrative is in constant tension and conflict with the film’s high camp celebration of queer rebellion and non-normative desire which conveys an alternative story that, as Eric Savoy argues, questions “the possibility, or even the desirability of a coherent gender role” (151) or, for that matter, the very existence of “true”, or fixed identities.

The film came out of the 1950s post-war period during which women were under pressure to return to the home and, as such, it attempts to push the idea that no matter how much fun you might be having as a stage coach guard or a burlesque performer (all the while acknowledging that you probably are having one hell of a lot of fun), marriage is where true personal satisfaction lies. It fails to convince, not least because the promise of marriage cannot cancel out the joyous, life-affirming queer energy of the film’s opening which presents us with the spectacle of Doris Days dressed in buckskin, standing astride the Deadwood stagecoach singing ‘The Deadwood Stage‘ – “Whip-Crack, Away! Whip-Crack, Away! Whip-Crack, Away!”

The stubborn insistence of Doris Days’ queerness remains far in excess of the narrative’s heterosexist attempts at containment and “feminization”. Moreover, her queerness has a career of its own, one that interlines and pulls against the conventional romantic script” (Savoy, 165).

In his excellent essay on Doris Day and queer performativity, Eric Savoy argues that Calamity Jane interpellates a lesbian spectatorial position (153), but I think we could go further and suggest that the spectacle of Calamity Jane, especially in the early part of the film, could interpellate a range of non-normative subject positions- butch, genderqueer, transmasculine – that are not pinned down to any particular sexual identity. Throughout Calamity Jane, this interpellation of queer, or non-normative subjectivity, pulls against the ostensibly heternormative narrative.

From the outset, Calamity Jane presents gender roles as socially constructed, rather than natural, as roles that have to be taught and learned. Living out on the frontier, Calam, we are told, simply has not learned how to be a woman, but of course the implication that one has to learn how to be a woman undermines the very idea of fixed gender roles and identities.

Another interesting aspect of the film, in terms of its construction of gender, is that while the male characters accept Calam, they also try and police her gender performance through the practice of shaming (Savoy 170). Her friend/rival Bill Hickcock is particularly coercive in his attempts to shame Calam into being more feminine, telling her to get some female clothes and fixins, and disputing her claims to be as masculine as the men. It is this competition with Hickcock that causes Calam to go to Chicago to try and bring stage star Adelaide Adams back to perform in Deadwood.

But it’s not until Calam goes to Chicago and meets Katie Brown that she begins to feel that there might be something awry with her gender presentation: “I reckon I do look a mite strange to a lady like you”, she says to Katie. Yet, it is also when Calam meets Katie that the initially fluid sexual possibilities suggested by her gender presentation threaten to solidify into something that looks more decidedly like lesbian representation. As Savoy notes, Calam’s sexuality is defined by the film’s narrative as heterosexual, insofar as she has a crush on Lieutenant Danny, but this crush is also presented as extremely immature and therefore in doubt, leaving other possibilities open.

The relationship at the centre of the film is that between Calam and Katie Brown. It is, after all, Katie, not the men, who recognizes Calam as “beautiful” and expends considerable effort trying to bring Danny and Bill around to her point of view. Katie moves in which Calam and together they set about turning her shack into what Savoy calls a “little closet on the prairie”, “a site of domestic lesbian bliss”. By suggesting erotic, as well as potentially housewifely meaning, their duet “A Woman’s Touch” veers close to reconfiguring their relationship into that of a visibly butch/femme couple (Savoy 173).

When Calam’s crush, Danny, falls in love with Katie, Calam’s jealous rage can be viewed from more than one angle. Who is she really jealous of? When Katie feels that Calam won’t be mollified, she leaves town rather than upset her friend any further. It’s interesting that the emotional climax of the film is not the rather perfunctory and sudden switching of Calam’s affections from Danny to Bill Hickcock, but her racing her horse after Katie’s carriage to persuade her to return to Deadwood. And let’s not even get started on the song ‘A Secret Love‘; a song that is supposed to be about Calam’s realization of her love for Bill, but, well, I’ll just let you watch Doris Day’s performance for yourselves.

So although everything appears to be sorted out at the end, with Katie and Calam marrying the “right” men, no matter how much effort the film puts into trying to convince us that Calam and Katie will be happier as housewives than stagecoach guards or burlesque performers (or prairie lesbians for that matter), that fate never seems to offer the promise contained in their big numbers, in the energy of ‘The Deadwood Stage’, the athletic exuberance of Calam’s “The Windy City”, or the joyous naughtiness of Katie’s “Keep it under your hat”. After these performances, the marriages of Calam and Katie do seem to represent what Molly Hashell calls “the creeping paralysis of adult womanhood”.

The setting is also interesting in terms of the sex and gender possibilities it produces. This fantasy frontier space cannot be unproblematically celebrated, not least because the characters are quite upfront about the reason for their presence there, which is oppressing the inhabitants and stealing their land. The film’s excruciating casual racism prevents it from being entirely enjoyable. But as a space that is presented as being beyond “civilization”, it does suggest something interesting. Perhaps coercive gendering is required by “civilisation” because coercive gendering is about upholding civilization, but if you’re outside of civilization, you don’t need to follow the same rules. It is certainly a space in which gender identities appear to be in flux. The men of Deadwood cannot recognise that performer Francis Fryer is a man in drag, and when Bill Hickcock says “she ain’t very pretty”, it is only Calam, in a lovely “it takes one to know one moment”, who replies “that ain’t all she ain’t!” (Savoy 1778). But once the men get over their anger at the deception committed by Francis and the bar owner, they accept him readily enough as a effeminate (coded gay) man, just as they accept Katie once she stops pretending to Adelaide Adams.

There is an element of historical truth here because Calamity Jane is based on a real figure, that of Martha Jane Cannary, a frontierswoman and professional scout who at times in her life also worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a nurse, an ox team driver and a prostitute. She was a notorious “character” who was known for cross-dressing and passing as male. Whether we now interpret the historical Calamity Jane as butch lesbian, genderqueer, or transgender, it seems that the frontier allowed hir a more fluid gender and sexual identity than was possible for many women who lived in more “civilized” places.

The possibilities represented by the historical Calamity may be softened in the film, but I think they are so disruptive, they cannot be contained and persistently continues to haunt the narrative. It’s interesting that as the now supposedly happily married couples ride away at the end, they are singing Calamity’s song “The Deadwood Stage” recalling the queer thrill of the opening credits, and suggesting that this thrill has not been entirely vanquished by marriage.

Further reading, Eric Savoy, ‘That ain’t all she ain’t’: Doris Day and Queer Performativity’, in Ellis Hanson (ed), Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film (1999). I highly recommend this anthology to anyone interested in queer theory and film.

6 thoughts on “Gender Calamity/Gender Possibility: Calamity Jane (1953)

  1. Super interesting post. I am very interested in Queer portrayal in the movies, Vito Russo’s
    The Celluloid Closet was brilliant and groundbreaking. This book of essays sounds original, informative and scholarly, price is kind of hefty, university presses tend to be, I’ll check with the library.

    • Yes, I’d see if you can get it from the library before shelling out. I think I got my copy secondhand on Amazon, which is probably not something an independent bookseller wants to hear!

      The Celluloid Closet was what turned me onto to queer portrayals in the movies. It blew my mind at the time.

  2. I think the character of Francis is really interesting in that he reveals how much gender is determined by the role/behaviors that one assumes in society. I wonder if part of the reason the Deadwood citizens assume he’s a woman, even if he “ain’t very pretty”, is that in his drag performance he is taking up the same position Katie does as a burlesque dancer — that is, a member of the sex class. The Deadwood cowboys see a person displaying themselves on stage for the sexual gratification of the male audience — therefore, Francis must be a woman, because that’s what women are for. Bill’s aggression towards Calam is interesting if you consider that he percieves her as a woman who refuses to behave as a member of the sex class. Calam is (generally) accepted by the Deadwood men as “one of the boys” because she behaves like one, and they interpret Francis as a woman because he performs as one.

  3. Pingback: Top ten most-read posts of the decade | Things As They Are

Express yourself

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s