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

Jordan Savage 1
  • 1 Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, UK
Jordan Savage
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, UK
  • Email
  • Search for other articles:
  • degruyter.comGoogle Scholar


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.

  • Bower, B.M. (2015 [c. 1911–1912]). Lonesome Land. Irvine, CA: XIst Publishing.

  • Brokeback Mountain (2005). Dir. Ang Lee. River Road Entertainment.

  • Cairns, Kate (2013). “Youth, Dirt, and the Spatialization of Subjectivity: An Intersectional Approach to White Rural Imaginaries.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie 38.4, 623–646.

  • Cather, Willa (2008 [1918]). My Ántonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Cox, Christopher (2009). “The Art of Fiction no. 199.” The Paris Review 188. <> (April 20, 2019).

  • Fluck, Winfried (2010). “Poor Like Us: Poverty and Recognition in American Photography.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 55.1, 63–93.

  • Handley, William R., ed. (2011). The Brokeback Book: From Story to Cultural Phenomenon. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press.

  • Healey, Kathleen (2019). “‘The Mighty Meaning of the Scene’: Feminine Landscapes and the Future of America in Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, in 1843.Humanities 8.1. <> (May 5, 2019).

  • Helm, Levon (2007). “Poor Old Dirt Farmer.” Dirt Farmer. Compact Disk. Vanguard Records.

  • How The West Was Won (1962). Dir. John Ford, John, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall. Cinerama Releasing Corporation.

  • Jordan, Hillary (2008). Mudbound. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Company.

  • Mudbound (2017). Dir. Dee Rees. Elevated Films and Joule Films.

  • Palmer, Phyllis (1989). Domesticity and Dirt: Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

  • Piacento, ed. (2014). “Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound and the Neo-Segregation Narrative.” The Mississippi Quarterly 67.2, 267–290.

  • Portis, Charles (1968). True Grit. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

  • Proulx, Annie (1999). Close Range: Wyoming Stories. London: Fourth Estate.

  • Proulx, Annie (2004). Bad Dirt: More Wyoming Stories. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

  • Schmidt, Christopher (2009). “‘Baby, I am the garbage’: James Schuyler’s Taste for Waste.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 10.1, 57–73.

  • Shane (1953). Dir. George Stevens. Paramount Pictures.

  • Springsteen, Bruce (1992). “Souls of the Departed.” Lucky Town. Compact Disk. Columbia Records.

  • Stacy, Jim, ed. (2007). Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the Story and Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

  • Turner, Frederick Jackson (1920 [1893]). The Frontier in American History. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.

Log in with your institution

Journal + Issues