Homesman is an excellent film with a great interpretation by Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy. It is not a feminist western! It does not put forward a feminist idea and should not be judged accordingly. It is a lesson in humanity. Mary Bee is a single independent woman living in a society with clear and strict gender parameters. She does not fit because she is not married, but above all because she is a strong woman who does not abide by the feminine standards set by society. She is, in some way, an outcast. She volunteers herself to take a group of mentally ill women across a large stretch of the country to be cared for by a church. She engages Mr Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to be safer in her journey. Here are some issues worth considering from a sociological/anthropological angle:
Gender: Mary Bee does not fit a society where women’s identity is in relation to a man (a wife, a mother, a daughter). A single woman could still fit as long as she performs her gender roles, such as looking after elderly parents, someone else’s children etc. May Bee does not; she has her own personhood. She works hard, manages her estate and is outspoken. This is something that is incredibly difficult for women in contemporary Western society, never mind in the ‘wild west’ of the 1850s. The other female characters contribute to portray the tension between their own identity as human beings and being a woman. The women transported across the country have gone mad as a result of the harsh living conditions, including the death of their children. Madness in women often rests on the misogynistic image of fragile and emotional femininity. These women are in no way fragile; they simply cannot function according to societal expectations. They can no longer perform their roles as mothers and wives and are therefore sent away.
Mary Bee strives to fit, but fails. She does not primarily look for a man, but for a husband. She needs a husband to fit in society. This does not mean that she has no need for kind words and intimacy, but her marriage proposals are to heal her status rather than her loneliness. Mark Kermode in The Guardian complains that the film does not keep up the feminist slant when Mary Bee asks Briggs to have sex with her. There are two problems with that view. Firstly, we are accustomed to male westerns where solitary men fight evil and are (mostly) self-sufficient. The male solitary adventurer is accepted and has a place in society. This is not open to female characters, such as Mary Bee, who are instead shunned by society and isolated. Secondly, the solitary adventurer is a very gendered image that is false for men just as for women. The strength of Mary Bee’s character lies precisely in being human. She is not an artificial construct pursuing a rather trite idea of freedom as self-sufficiency (by the way, nobody is self-sufficient). She is complex and fully human.
Humanity: Mary Bee is accused of being plain and hard; yet she has a profound and elegant humanity. She is a Stoic (and Kantian) character. She responds to moral duty rather than societal expectations. She doesn’t just survive; she seeks to live up to what humanity is meant to be. The most beautiful scene is when she insists on burying a child. Throughout the film, she maintains that faithfulness to her moral calling shown in her compassion towards others and her love for music. There is no place for her in society because that moral attitude clashes against societal norms. Like Antigone, she goes against human laws to uphold sacred duty. For this, she is a lesson in humanity.