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True Grit: Dirt, Subjectivity and the Female Body in Contemporary Westerns

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This article considers the significance of dirt to three Western texts: Lonesome Land, Mudbound, and Brokeback Mountain. The overall argument is that the more complicated and ambiguous dirt is permitted to be, the more imaginative and critical potential it has for the iconography of the contemporary Western. Taking B.M. Bower’s 1912 Western Romance as a model, it is argued that the dirt aesthetic is crucial to how Westerns construct the myth of the American character. This is further complicated by intersections between representations of the White rural poor, women (as for both Lonesome Land and Mudbound, there are connotations of sexual impurity in the dirty White female body), and representations of queerness. In the two versions of Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx’s short story and Ang Lee’s film, we see the ambiguity of dirt: it can be read as an essential part of the American land, or as polluting waste matter. The critical framework draws on feminist history and criticism via Kathleen Healey and Phyllis Palmer; sociological theories of imagining poverty in North America via Kate Cairns and Winfried Fluck; and queer theory via Christopher Schmidt.

Corresponding author: Dr. Jordan Savage, Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, UK,

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Published Online: 2020-04-02
Published in Print: 2020-03-26

©2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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