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My Secret Love: Calamity Jane

2011 June 9

Team BadRep were sent a writing prompt this month: What is your favourite film or TV series, and why? If it’s what you’d call ‘feminist-friendly’, what about it appealed? If it isn’t, how does that work for you, and are there nonetheless scenes, characters and so on that have stayed with you and continue to occupy a soft spot for you as a feminist pop culture adventurer?

Calamity Jane (played by Doris Day) starts off the 1953 musical film of the same name as a tomboy, gets humiliated and learns to be a girl, then gets married. In a dress and everything.

Despite this, it’s one of my very favourite films.

Proud and tomboyish ‘Calam’ is a popular and respected figure in the town of Deadwood. Not just one of the boys, but determined to outshoot, outdrink, outswagger them all. But she’s met her match in Wild Bill Hickok whom she admires and who grudgingly admires her, although they get into one of those “ooh I hate you and don’t fancy you at all, nope” oneupmanship songs. Calam and Bill are comrades, but Calam’s in love with the local Lieutenant Danny, and saves his life, but he’s not interested in her. Because he’s a dick, basically.

Film still showing Calamity Jane (Doris Day) talking to Bill Hickok (Howard Keel)

Doris Day as Calamity and Howard Keel as Bill Hickock

Anyway, a Proper Lady (Katie) comes to town and becomes friends with Calam, helping her discover her feminine side (I know, I know, just bear with me) and Bill falls unconvincingly in love with her. But when Danny and Katie are discovered KISSING, Calam loses it and threatens to run Katie out of town. She makes a right fool of herself, and Danny is mean about her, but Bill Hickok defends her and goes to console/talk some sense into a bereft Calam. On a still summer night, in a wood, under a silvery moon, etc… they kiss, and conveniently enough it turns out they’ve been in love all along! Everyone makes friends again, Calam marries Bill and Katie marries Danny, even though he’s a knob.

Okay. So there are some tough bits, most notably the repeated references to “female thinking”, and the godawful A Woman’s Touch song. I get through this by donning slash goggles, through which it all becomes rather charming and ironic.

There’s even a symbolic castration of Calam at the end when she and Bill get married – they’re just getting on the stagecoach and he finds she has her gun tucked into her wedding dress. They all laugh and he hands it to some random in the crowd. Then they ride off singing etc.

BUT. There is a lot that is loveable about this film, and it’s not as bad as the details above might suggest.

Firstly, Doris Day’s Calam is a wonderful character. Brave, kind, funny and bursting with energy, she leaps about all over the place, and has a habit of firing at the ceiling to get people’s attention. She’s a tomboy but she’s no freak – everyone in the town is fond of her, respects her and humours her habit of exaggerating her own exploits. She’s accepted, not just tolerated. Her flaw is her pride, and the real point of the story is that it’s her pride which is ‘corrected’ and not her masculine habits.

Secondly, although she is engirlied, she doesn’t become a 50s fembot. She wears a few dresses, but mostly she’s out of her buckskins yet still in trousers. There’s no sign at all she’s going to give up riding the stage (or violently oppressing the indigenous population). I think my favourite bit in the whole film is near the end when she’s racing after Katie’s coach to bring her back to Deadwood, and she passes Bill and his mate on her horse. She thunders past, then stops, turns, rides back, kisses him, and rides off again without a word.

His friend says “I don’t know what kind of life you’ll have living with that catamount… but it ain’t gonna be dull.”

Bill replies: “That’s for dang sure.” He looks delighted.

Thirdly, although it arrives at a supremely convenient time in that way that musicals have, the relationship between Calam and Bill is a convincing one. Throughout the film there are references to their friendship and campaigns together, and they are clearly fond of each other. He sticks up for her when Danny is being disparaging, and tells her early on he thinks she’d be pretty (if she was a Proper Lady, natch). So when Calamity ‘takes off her glasses’ at the Ball (in fact she’s been covered up in a coat she claims was given to her by General Custer) it isn’t as if he’s only just noticed her. And crucially, rather than trying to put her down or get her to act in a more feminine way, his efforts are about bringing her down to earth from her flights of fancy and towering pride.

It’s not a feminist film. It’s not even close. But Calamity is wonderful, and I think better a film with her in it than not at all.

PS. The title is a reference to the most famous song in the film, Secret Love, which has become a bit of a gay anthem. My favourite is The Black Hills Of Dakota, although it has a lot less subtext.

PPS. Don’t come to this film looking for historical accuracy. Here’s some info on the actual Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. June 9, 2011

    I absolutely hands down love this movie, I can’t help it, Doris Day is amazing in it, and I’m a sucker for the kind of ‘equals in love’ relationship that Bill and Calam have.

    I’ve also never ever been able to see it without my slash goggles.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      June 10, 2011

      Absolutely – I think their relationship is actually quite romantic, which I can’t say about most musical pairings!

  2. June 9, 2011

    I haven’t seen Calamity Jane for years! I always think of Love and Other Catastrophes when I hear the name, in which the main character is writing her thesis on Doris Day.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      June 10, 2011

      I’ve never seen it or even heard of it but it looks sweet, I might seek it out next time I’m on a 90s nostalgia bender

  3. kirsty permalink
    June 21, 2011

    I rewatched this recently, because it used to be a childhood fave of mine. I have to say, I found the flagrant racism rather more disturbing than the sexism. Kinda ruined it on a revisit, alas.

    • Sarah Jackson permalink*
      August 10, 2014

      Ugh, I know. Makes all westerns difficult to watch.

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