Women and the film “Unforgiven”


The 1992 film Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, has been widely acclaimed for challenging cliché themes of violence in the Western film genre. The main goal of the film is to uncouple the concept of violence from that of justice. Westerns, in the tradition of the Frontier Myth, use violence to establish justice and create a proper modern society out of the raw materials of the harsh wilderness. In Unforgiven, the male characters have more nuance and it is less clear whether they deserve the violence that they endure. The roles of women, however, are much more like those in standard Westerns. The women as not just inferior to men, but their value can only be understood in relation to men. The women in Unforgiven are simply a tool used to help illustrate Eastwood’s central thesis about the destructive and irrational nature of violence.

The film opens with a broad view of a flat Western expanse with a solitary tree devoid of foliage and a darkly overcast sky at sunset. A single ramshackle dwelling stands apart as the silhouette of a man beneath the tree steadily swings a pickaxe then shovels dirt while a plaintive tune plays on guitar accompanied by a low whistling wind. Here we are given a standard Western staple of the outdoors and hard living. It is an image of carving a home out of the wilderness. Words begin to scroll up the screen, directly providing us with the narrative that will define the protagonist of the film, Will Munny, played by Clint Eastwood. The very first words we read are, “She was a comely young woman and not without prospects.” Thus, at the outset we are introduced to a woman as a key element of the plot. As the words scroll, we learn that the young woman mentioned had married the “vicious” and “intemperate” Munny, breaking the heart of her own mother, now the second woman to be mentioned so readily in the introduction. We then learn that Munny’s wife died of small pox in 1878, and not at the hands of her husband as her mother might have thought.

This introduction is striking in several ways. For one, the domesticity implied by the dwelling and the narrative about Munny’s wife are an odd starting point. As noted by Joseph Kupfer, “the civilizing force of women usually occurs in the middle of the Western story” [1]. The activities of the male heroes generally result in a triumph of civilization and the defense of domestic values, whereas here we are confronted with an established domestic setting that has been compromised.  It is also striking because the woman is introduced as having the agency at the outset. In the scrolling narrative, it is Munny’s wife who held the power of civilizing transformation. It is she who was possessed of good looks and could choose from among many suitors, but chose to marry Munny for his as-yet unknown virtues. This does not tell us so much about the woman as it does about her husband, Will Munny. All we know about her is that she was good looking, an attribute that is not about her character but her desirability to men. Her decision to wed Munny is a testament to his character and defies his reputation as being merely violent and murderous. In a sense, he is the wilderness and she is the civilizing force. This stands in contrast to the usual role of violence in the Frontier Myth as how domesticity is established and protected. Even so, death is her reward for her caring and love for Munny, for bearing him children, and for her exerting her agency in carving a domestic life with him out of the wilderness. We are not even provided with her name, which we later learn is Claudia. She is only understood in relation to the man she chose to marry, and the men she passed over to choose him. Her sole purpose is to provide context for Munny’s actions to follow.

The next scene establishes the principal motive for the action of the film, and this also involves women being uncharacteristically placed at the center of the activity. The scene opens in the town of Big Whisky, Montana, in the year 1880—2 years from the death of Claudia Munny. It is a stormy night, a device foreboding something bad is about to happen. As the scene unfolds, a prostitute who giggled at a cowboy’s “teensy pecker” is slashed across her face repeatedly with a large knife. From the next room, a cowboy and the prostitute Strawberry Alice (played by Frances Fisher) cease their activity and intervene, with the cowboy aiding Alice in trying to stop the attack.  We momentarily see the attack from the victim’s perspective. It takes another man entering, Skinny the saloon owner (played by Anthony James), to stop the attack by putting a pistol to the attacking cowboy’s head. The pistol fulfills the classic Western role as establishing the virility and supremacy of the man who wields it, who alone is able to accomplish what the two women and weaker man could not.

Little Bill Daggett, the town sheriff (played by Gene Hackman), is summoned to determine justice. “Little Bill” is an ironic misnomer, in that he is actually a large man. Alice tells Little Bill that the woman will survive, but that she expects the man to be punished by hanging. The room full of women look up at Little Bill and say nothing. When Little Bill asks a deputy to fetch the bullwhip, Alice objects to this as not sufficient punishment. Her complaints are quieted by Skinny, who also asserts that justice will not be fulfilled by corporal punishment. He brandishes a contract between himself and the cut prostitute, Delilah Fitzgerald (played by Anna Levine), and insists that she is damaged property for which he is due compensation. “Nobody’s gonna pay good money for a cut up whore,” he proclaims. Little Bill determines that the cowboys will provide horses to Skinny in restitution, and that a trial or a whipping are not necessary. Alice raises objections as other prostitutes come in and stand mute, witnessing the scene. Little Bill chastises Alice for wanting more violence, and says that the cowboys were basically good men and not “given over to wickedness in a regular way.” Alice asks, “You mean, like whores?” Skinny again rebukes Alice, and she is sent away to care for Delilah.

This scene is important not only for establishing the reasons for the action to follow, but in many other ways. Firstly, there is a sense of historicity that has been imbued into the film at this point. In classic Western style, the sense of authenticity is informed less by actual historical facts and more by the expectations of the audience. Although the characters are not historical figures, we have been given specific place names and dates that lend a sense of reality to the setting and characters. While it is accurate that a town in Montana would likely have had prostitutes, in most cases they would have been located at a ranch outside of town [2]. Most prostitutes were independent contractors who worked for themselves, but pimps like Skinny and arrangements as depicted in the film are credible for that period. The famous Earp Brothers were known as “The Fighting Pimps” in the Kansas cowtowns before the settled in Arizona, and Wyatt Earp’s second wife, Mattie Blaylock, was known to be a prostitute [3]. In Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery, Anne Butler writes, “The usual image of the prostitute depicted a single woman, far from home and family…. An unending stream of violence and grief” punctuated their lives[4]. The physical assault endured by the prostitute is realistic, and seeing the violence from the perspective of the victim is a device used to allow the audience to more easily empathize with her. Since prostitutes operated outside the law, the experience they have with justice in the film is not too hard to accept. While not yet explicit, the services of the prostitutes are referred to as “billiards” throughout the film, which helps establish that their trade is not licit. The characterization of the women as property by both Skinny and Little Bill, however, is not historically accurate, and so can be understood as a device for limiting the agency of the women within the context of the film.

This opening sequence also establishes women as something other than simply members of the cult of domesticity as is usually the case within the Frontier Myth. All the dialogue for women in the film is spoken by prostitutes. Generally, prostitutes are considered a marginalized and negligible class of people within the Western genre[5]. In John Ford’s classic film Stagecoach, the prostitute Dallas does not drive the plot as the prostitutes do in Unforgiven, but she too is mistreated by the townsfolk. She also finds justice by appealing to a man—through her emerging relationship with the Ringo Kid, who refuses to see her as less deserving of the respect due to a woman just because of her trade. The prostitutes in Unforgiven play two distinct roles: they are morally inferior because of their trade and immorally wronged by indiscriminate violence. Within the values of the community of Big Whisky as interpreted by Little Bill, prostitutes do not deserve the same considerations as other human beings. Perhaps they are to be understood as a corrupting force, luring men from their proper role as the provider to a family. The name “Delilah” stands out in this regard. Delilah was the Philistine seductress in the Bible who elicits from Samson the secret of his strength and provides this information to allow his enemies to sap him of his virility. The prostitute Delilah “emasculates” the cowboy by ridiculing the size of his genitalia, but in a broader sense is contributing to the degradation of a strong society and therefore undermining the end goal of masculinity. This is like how Little Bill “emasculates” visitors to Big Whiskey by taking away their firearms.  By not recognizing the femininity (or even humanity) of the prostitutes and by undermining the masculinity of others, Little Bill acts in a way contrary to the Frontier Myth and helps establish himself as the chief antagonist, although his bullying and cruelty in using violence is what ultimately defines him.

The prostitutes do share something with the sainted memory of Claudia Munny, however. The value of the women can only be understood in terms of the desires and needs of the men. Little Bill doesn’t consider there to be a crime against Delilah, because she does not have true personhood. Her desirability to men translates into an ability to earn money for the male pimp. Apparently, she had enough standing to enter into a contract with Skinny, but not enough to demand justice for her assault. When Alice tries to speak up and assert her right for justice, she is overruled and chastened by the men, and told to go off and nurture Delilah. Violence, and therefore justice, is the province of the men, while comfort is the province of the women. Little Bill scolds Alice for suggesting that violence be used against the cowboys, who are “just hardworking boys who was foolish.” Somehow the men are not complicit in the wickedness implicit in prostitution. The other women stand mute, demonstrating their voiceless standing in the community. The prostitutes reinforce their own sense of themselves as merely chattel even as they reject it. Prodded by Alice, the prostitutes gather afterward and hatch a plan to offer a bounty for the killing of the two cowboys. Alice says, “They may ride us like horses but we ain’t horses.” When one of the prostitutes reveals that she has a larger amount of money than the others, money that they have withheld from Skinny, Alice suggests she has so much because she “gave Skinny something special.” It could not have been because she was clever or thrifty, but only because she provided extraordinary services to the male superior.

We return to Will Munny at his homestead where he is approached by the Schofield Kid, a young, near-sighted man who propositions Munny to join him to seek the prostitutes’ bounty. In describing the attack on Delilah, he refers to her as a “lady,” framing the violence that will be required as providing justice to a woman who was wronged. The Schofield Kid’s myopia is both literal and figurative. He has invented a myth around himself and taken a name based on the make of his pistol, which has phallic implications. He glorifies the violence that he imagines instills masculinity in a man, but cannot see ahead to what liabilities there may be in his cockiness. Ultimately, the women who have offered the bounty are not ladies, and they will not be redeemed through the violence that is to follow. Munny and his posse will not be killing for the honor of the women, they will be killing for their money. Munny is having difficulty supporting his two young children and maintaining the domestic legacy of his dead wife, and the bounty would allow him to improve their situation.

The women in the film are the reason given for the beginning of violence, but then are soon left behind as violence seeks its own course. This is reminiscent of a much older form of myth that helped shape the identities of its contemporaries broadly in terms of masculine virtue through violent deeds. In Mary Whitlock Blundell’s essay, Western Values, or the Peoples Homer: “Unforgiven” as a Reading of the “Iliad”, the many uncanny parallels between the two works are pointed out. Both are rooted in distant past events and borrow from history to define the values of the society. In both cases, the sexual rebuke of a woman is taken as an insult to a man’s honor and requires a violent response. This same theme emerges as the reason behind English Bob’s violence in a separate incident, as well. The climax of the violence in both cases is undertaken to exact vengeance for a fallen comrade. After killing both cowboys and receiving the reward, Munny learns that his friend, Ned, was tortured and killed by Little Bill in Big Whisky for being an assassin, although it was Munny and the Schofield Kid who actually did the killing. This drives Munny to drink whisky before killing Little Bill and 4 others, just as Achilles sought out the nectar of the gods before battle. When it’s all over, the violence has not redeemed the women, but left them complicit in mass destruction. As Blundell writes, “attempts to exercise female subjectivity, whether erotic or economic, lead only to disaster, in the first place for men, but ultimately for the whole community of which the women are a part.” [6]

There is no ignoring the self-awareness of the film Unforgiven as a reinvention of the Western myth to make a statement about violence. The ultimate reward for all those who would use violence to seek justice is either death or the destruction of their way of life. English Bob gets off easy when he merely gets a beating, some time in jail, and a bent pistol as punishment for his earlier murder. Even Munny, who is able to use violence to preserve his family and punish the men who killed his friend, suffers from a sort of post-traumatic stress and sees visions of the men he killed. The film is merely employing women in their standard roles not only as accepted within the Western genre, but also within society at large. Such limited roles for women are typical for just about any genre of film. The audience would not have accepted the story if Munny’s riding partner was Nadine instead of Ned, or if the sheriff of Big Money were Little Wilhelmina. Myths do the work of entrenching certain expectations, and we expect to see large men in the major roles of Western films with women as supporting characters, just as the soldiers in The Iliad are all men, and women are only relevant to concepts of honor and protecting the home. We can understand the bad things that happen to the women within the framework of the Western and the overarching intention to detach the idea of justice from violence. Munny rebuffs Delilah’s advance not because she is irredeemable, but because he is chaste in dedication to his wife. The prostitutes have their lives turned upside down not because they are women who have rejected their role as homemakers, but because they resorted to violence to pursue justice. Even when the cowboy offers Delilah a pony as a gesture of compensation for her ordeal, the prostitutes reject this attempt at justice and muster what violence they can by throwing mud at him. We may see the original knife attack from Delilah’s point of view, but we also see Little Bill’s last moments from his point of view. The intention is less about sympathy for the specific person and more about the portraying violence itself as unjust.

The Frontier Myth from which the Western film genre claims its roots certainly promoted masculinity, but there was still a strong role for women to play. Women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were moving into the public sphere as never before. Temperance and women’s suffrage were prominent political issues that were led by women. Theodore Roosevelt must have realized the political implications of increased participation by women and promoted them as co-equal partners with men in the taming of the continent. The feminine traits of piety, obedience, and submission did not serve the mythical frontier woman well[7]. As Leroy Dorsey writes, “Roosevelt’s placement of women in the Frontier Myth countered the typical depiction of women as frail, secondary characters”[8].  Women could have the “same iron temper” as men and could face “every danger the men did[9]. Women not only possessed the necessary physical strength when required, but also the moral strength to safeguard the community. Part of a woman’s role for Roosevelt was to have children, a duty that he likened to that of soldiers. Women who did not embrace that responsibility to her family and the nation were akin to traitors. A prostitute as seen through this lens was not just a lower-class wage earner struggling to survive in a society that required her to work and a frontier in need of comfort, but a morally deficient usurper of American greatness.

Male superiority has been asserted in society for many centuries, as is evident from a study of the Greeks. When Plato suggested that women were capable contributors to society, it was a radical concept for a culture that valued heroic virtues [10]. Even the word “virtue” come from the Latin vir for “man.” Plato’s student, Aristotle, would revert to the more common notion of his day—that women were worthy of household duties and should be ruled by their husbands[11]. As we have come into modernity, we have increasingly dispelled the notion that women are secondary to men. Still, antiquated ideas about the proper role of women linger. We do well to remember that women only were extended the right to vote through the 19th Amendment in 1920—not yet 100 years ago. Around the turn of the century it was still considered appropriate to beat one’s wife, and around the year 1992, when Unforgiven was released, wife-beating occurred in as many as 40 percent of American households[12]. As L. L. Lindsey writes, “Many courts have been reluctant to use evidence of battered wife syndrome as justification for a retaliatory attack on their husbands…. When the police are called, arrest of the husband is rare, and then only when obvious physical injury has occurred”[13]. As women have pursued equal rights, this has often been construed as pitting women against men[14].

The year 1992 was known in the media as “The Year of the Woman,” as women like Diane Feinstein became Senator and Hillary Clinton became a First Lady active in public policy. Clinton notably championed a heath care bill and worked to enact the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). All of this headway made by women just drives men who are steeped in traditional gender roles bonkers. In 1991, the year before Unforgiven was released, Thelma and Louise pushed the envelope with a story of women asserting their agency over horrible men, then in 1992 Basic Instinct depicted a financially and sexually confident Sharon Stone as a suspect in a series of murders. Even successful, wealthy Hollywood actors feel threatened by the power of women. Clint Eastwood was having an affair with Frances Fisher, the actress who played Strawberry Alice, and she was pregnant with his child as the Academy Awards ceremony approached. Eastwood put pressure on her to keep the pregnancy silent to not overshadow his Oscar win. It seems that life imitates art to some degree—his leading lady’s value was secondary to the needs of the dominant man to get his acclaim.

In the final analysis, Unforgiven cannot be blamed for not standing up for the value and dignity of women. Each film has its own set of issues to confront, and the agency and equality of women was not its focus. While the Frontier Myth as promoted at the beginning of Roosevelt’s Progressive Era showed promise in presenting women as not a competing force against but a complementary force with men in forging the modern era, competing religious sensibilities and deeply entrenched gender expectations have contributed to maintaining the patriarchal status quo. We should expect something better from our mythmakers and be wary of the casual acceptance of depictions of violence towards women that normalize unhealthy behaviors and continue to cast women in the role of second class citizens.

Matthew Ebert

HIST 417 – 1001

Dr. Le Zotte

10 April 2017



Blundell, Mary Whitlock and Kirk Ormand. “Western Values, Or the Peoples Homer: “Unforgiven” as a Reading of the “Iliad”.” Poetics Today 18, no. 4 (1997).

Butler, Anne M., 1938. Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Dorsey, Leroy G. “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16, no. 3 (2013).

Kupfer, Joseph. “The Seductive and Subversive Meta-Narrative of Unforgiven.” Journal of Film and Video LX, no. 3-4 (2008).

Lindsey, Linda L. and Sandra Christy. Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective. Second ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1994.


[1] Kupfer, Joseph. “The Seductive and Subversive Meta-Narrative of Unforgiven.” Journal of Film and Video LX, no. 3-4 (2008): 103.

[2] Butler, Anne M., 1938. Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-90. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Page 7.

[3] Butler, Page 93.

[4] Butler, Page 26.

[5] Kupfer, Page 106.

[6] Blundell, Mary Whitlock and Kirk Ormand. “Western Values, Or the Peoples Homer: “Unforgiven” as a Reading of the “Iliad”.” Poetics Today 18, no. 4 (1997): Page 542.

[7] Dorsey, Leroy G. “Managing Women’s Equality: Theodore Roosevelt, the Frontier Myth, and the Modern Woman.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 16, no. 3 (2013): Page 429.

[8] Dorsey, Page 437.

[9] Dorsey, Page 438.

[10] Lindsey, Linda L. and Sandra Christy. Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective. Second ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall, 1994. Page 85.

[11] Lindsey, Page 85.

[12] Lindsey, Page 228.

[13] Lindsey, Page 228.

[14] Dorsey, Page 447.