Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 267-82.
The very first vision of the female form in Deadwood is one of ultimate despair: the woman sits alone in the corner of a room, hysterically weeping, her face swollen and bruised with beating. A man sits across the room, a bullet through the temple, barely alive. He was beating her; she responded with a Derringer shot to the head. Moments later, the woman is on the ground in her pimp's office, his boot square on her neck. She writhes beneath him, nearly strangling to death before whispering through bloodied lips: "I'll be good." Meanwhile, the other prominent female character of the camp is obviously hopped up on dope, barely tolerating her dude husband as he clamors after gold. Such is our dismal introduction to the women of Deadwood: as punching bags or as bored drug addicts. As a young feminist, I found my initial attraction to Deadwood troubling-how could I continue to watch, or even find pleasure in watching, a show that so blatantly debases the female? As Julia Lesage proclaims, "as a woman I must ask how the media can so seduce me that I enjoy, either as entertainment or as art, works which victimize women as one of their essential ingredients." I understood that series creator David Milch intended to reconstruct his Deadwood with meticulous accuracy-violence, profanity, and, of course, the pervasive female subjugation that characterized the age. But .women being beaten, sworn at, debased, and humiliated-could I rationalize my pleasure in that?
As I grappled with that question, I found myself hooked. The complexity of plot, character, and language had pulled me into the world of Deadwood. Over the course of three seasons, I've begun to search for traces of feminine agency, and while I resist the problematic syllogism of "I am a feminist; I like Deadwood; Deadwood must be at least somewhat feminist," I do believe the text, perhaps in an untraditional, unexpected way, highlights and affirms the advances of women. For the history of feminism has been marked with progress and regression, gains and losses, conservativeness and radicalism-a dynamicism that equally characterizes Deadwood's treatment of the female. The series begins with the abovedescribed portrait of subjugation, but with time, the women of Deadwood consistently (and successfully) resist the strictures of patriarchy that surround them, achieving autonomy, self-expression, even, in all its complexity, happiness. Yet their advances teeter in the balance as George Hearst (and the modernity and civilization he embodies) takes root in Deadwood. While Deadwood's narrative is yet to close-a pair of mini-movies will air sometime in 2007 on HBO-I read the tenuous state of the camp as a caution. It seems the lesson is, while much has been gained, much may equally be lost.
This essay traces the trajectory of Deadwood's unlikely feminisms, evident in forms of characterization, subjectivity, and speech. By focusing on Trixie and Joanie Stubbs (both prostitutes) and Alma Garret/Ellsworth and Martha Bullock (the proper Victorian woman, the "helpmate"), I hope to illuminate both ends of the spectrum of female Deadwood experience. Cinema (the Western in particular) is commonly recognized for its ability to reflect current concerns back at the audience-as Milch emphasizes, "nothing you see in Deadwood is irrelevant to our contemporary reality." Milch is no doubt referring to the themes of encroaching civilization, greed, and the organization of the lawless into the lawful, yet the treatment of women intersects and influences each of those themes, emphasizing the "contemporary reality" of twenty-first-century women. Ultimately, conclusions concerning Deadwood feminisms form an implicit comment on contemporary feminisms-more specifically, postfeminism.