Remember Flicka? The Main Character Used to be Male!
The 2006 film Flicka is one of many interpretations of Mary O’Hara’s 1941 novel My Friend Flicka, telling the story of a girl named Katy who finds a wild mustang and trains her in the dark of night against her father’s wishes. When her father finds out, he is furious and sells the horse to a local rodeo. The story that follows is one of connectivity and identity; one of power and freedom.
But in the novel and early television and film versions of Flicka, the protagonist was a boy.
How does the message change when we swap the gender of Flicka's protagonist? Does the modern version provide space for a more meaningful narrative?
In the opening scenes of the film, Katy is narrating and she introduces us to sweeping concepts of wildness, power, and freedom.
I’m the only daughter in a long line of ranchers and when we let our horses out for the first time every spring, I love to watch them rediscover the world. I can see in them an expression of my own restless spirit. Charged with an appetite for adventure, they take to the land without hesitation. They are pure power. When I see them running wild and free, I often think of the first horses and how they were the true pioneers of America.
These words are incredible coming from a young woman. Katy’s connection to her horse Flicka and attraction to the wide Wyoming hills takes on greater significance when we consider women’s relationship with the natural world. Women have a long history of being aligned and affiliated with nature. Often we see one of two images of nature, each associated with women: the benevolent mother or the wild chaotic woman in need of taming.
It is no wonder, then, that women often identify with horses that at once represent the wild and the tamable, power and domination. Katy’s relationship to Flicka speaks to this. She is attracted to the mare for her freedom, for her ability to survive alone when many mustangs are being wiped out. But she also tames the horse, forging an undeniable connection between the two.
In one scene in particular, Katy dresses as a man (like Velvet Brown!) to compete in a rodeo competition in hopes that she will win Flicka back after her father sells her off. Amid the chaos and cruelty of the competition—an event in which terrified wild horses are released into an arena filled with cowboys who must break them with the fastest time—Katy screams out to the horse. Flicka stops and Katy leaps onto her bareback. Racing out of the arena, they escape together into the night.
Flicka is brave. She takes care of Katy through the rain and the dark, even protecting the girl from a mountain lion, sustaining a life-threatening injury in the process. When Katy’s parents finally find them they carry Katy away from the downed horse the girl has grown ill. Carrying Katy home, they leave the dying mare. Back home, Katy is feverish. She stands at the top of the stairs and says to her father, “It’s okay, daddy. You can shoot us.” In these moments the girl and horse become something almost mystical in their connection.
The final lines of the film pull all of these themes together when Katy finishes the speech framing the film:
There was once at time when Americans came West to discover their destiny. Today they seem to move around every which way, restless and unsettled. But I think they’re still looking for the same thing—a place where they can be optimistic about the future, a place that helps them to be who they really want to be, where they can feel that this life makes sense, a place where they can feel what I feel when I’m riding Flicka— because when we’re riding, all I feel is free.
With a female protagonist forging a deeply connected relationship with a horse, the film takes on a different hue—one that echoes a long, complicated history of women and nature. This becomes a story of freedom, of the untamable retaining some of its lingering wildness desptire man's best attempts to conquer it. I cannot help but think that there is something powerful in hearing a young woman tell it, of hearing a young woman speaking of wholeness and power. Of pure freedom.
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