The 2006 filmFlicka 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?
Classic film National Velvet (1944), tells the story of horse-obsessed Velvet Brown (played by a 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor) winning the Grand National on an "untamable" horse with the help of drifter Mi Taylor (played by Mickey Rooney). Based on a novel by Enid Bagnold, the film received positive reviews and earned actress Anne Revere, who played Velvet's mother, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. More recently, National Velvet was chosen for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 2003.
Beyond the accolades and awards for being a well-made film, National Velvet is often cited as a great feminist movie for its depictions of the wise and supportive mother and for young Velvet following her dream to compete in the all-male Grand National.
But is this film about a girl overcoming sexism with the help of her exceptional horse and family still relevant nearly 70 years later? Do its depictions of Velvet Brown have anything to offer today's girls and women?
Women and horses have a complicated relationship: Women both identify with horses emotionally—connecting with the freedom they represent—and gain power from their ability to control them. One compelling example of this paradoxical relationship in women's involvement in Wild West shows and the American rodeo.
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, founded in 1883, featured pragmatic cowboy skill paired with romanticized and largely inaccurate depictions of life in the American West. Cody was a showman through and through, offering a certain amount of flamboyance and flair to the decidedly unglamorous, and often harsh, history of the cowboy and the frontier. Cody's show included American Indians, however they were exoticized and portrayed as violent and aggressive, reinforcing problematic ideas held by many white Americans.
There was some truth to Cody's Wild West show, though. Skilled performers, including women like sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (at right) and real-life cowboys exhibited their undisputable talents, making way for our modern rodeo competitions.
Cowgirl narratives—films, shows, and books featuring women and horses—often show women who are at home in their bodies, connected with nature, and many times, disrupting traditional gender roles. As cowgirls, women are shown in acts of blissful physicality. They follow their dreams. They are independent and strong-willed. But the horse seems to be essential in these experiences, and the contemporary relationship between woman and horse, particularly in our cowgirl narratives, is undeniably gendered. What is it about girls and horses? What do cowgirl narratives tell us about young girls and women?
As both a life-long horse owner and a gender-women's-studies teacher, I think about this a lot. Obsessively, even. I've always personally connected to cowgirl stories, but the tales of daring women and horses have not often been considering within the larger media landscape.
In this two-month long blog series, I'll be examining representations of women and horses in film, TV, and songs. Looking at films like, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, Secretariat, National Velvet, and Dreamer(among others), television shows like Heartland, and books like Princess Smartypants (I will argue later why this falls in with our cowgirl narratives) I will be asking the question: What do these representations tell us about our ideas of gender?