HM 272 C - Topics in Humanities: Race and Gender in Images of the American West   



Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show traveled the country around the turn of the twentieth-century, performing iconic imaged of the West—from Annie Oakley’s gun tricks to reenactments of Custer’s “last stand” to displays of Native American “warriors.”  In many ways, this show typified the central role that the American West has played in the formation of American cultural identity—frequently through images more mythic than real.  This course explores the ways that popular culture, including fiction and particularly film, has constructed the West as a place where cultural ideologies of race, gender, and the natural world are played out.  In examining a range of texts that depict popular images of the American West, we will analyze what different visions of race, gender, and nature suggest about identity and power in American culture.

Winter Intensive           

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Images of Race, Gender, and Nature in the American West

Spring 2012

Goals & Objectives

  • to analyze images of the American West in American culture and to consider their meaning
  • in particular to examine how gender, race, and the landscape are constructed in popular images of the West
  • to learn about film analysis and become sophisticated and sensitive viewers of film
  • to gain broad exposure to major scholarly writing about images of the American West
  • to further our analytical and critical thinking skills broadly
  • to strengthen our writing skills (both analytical and creative), through regular writing and revision
  • to strengthen our speaking and self-expression skills
  • to gain confidence in our written and spoken voices


Films & Readings


John Ford, Stagecoach (1939)

                    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)

                    The Searchers (1956)

Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven (1992)

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

Chris Eyre & Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals (1996)

John Sayles, Lone Star (1996)

Episodes of Gunsmoke (1955-1975) and Bonanza (1959-1973)


Selections from

Jim Kitses & Gregg Rickman, eds., The Western Reader

Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America

Jane Tompkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns

Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her

Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest



  • Daily, active participation in class discussions.
  • Daily mini-essays in response to reading or viewing or both (2 pages, printed and double-spaced).  Due every morning, unless otherwise indicated.
  • Final Project (see below).  Due at the beginning of our last class.

Final Project

  • Students will create a final project that explores some aspect of popular imagery of the American West.  Possibilities include a research project, a painting, an original screenplay, or a work of fiction.  Projects may be creative or analytical in nature—ideally both.  All projects will contain a significant writing component (5-10 pages).  Some possibilities.
  • Develop one or more of your mini-essays into an essay that discusses images of race gender, or the natural world in multiple films (comparing and contrasting).
  • Read a conventional western (Louis L’Amour, for example) and write about how it addresses key western themes in similar and different ways from the films.
  • Read a western comic book and write a western graphic novel.
  • Read a children's book set in the West and write a western story for children.
  • Write a screenplay for (and possibly produce) a short western or a scene from a western.
  • Write a western short story.
  • Read a contemporary novel of the American West and consider how it relates to key themes in films we have viewed.  (For example: Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove; Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony; Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or All the Pretty HorsesSherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven; etc.)
  • Write an in-depth analysis of one of the films, discussing the image of the West it creates.Choose one or two scholarly articles about a film and write an essay that discusses the authors’ interpretation of the film and compares their analysis to your own reading of the film.
  • Focus on one of the films in more depth and respond creatively to the image of the West it.  You might, for example, write “beyond the ending” (creating a later scene involving characters from the movie).
  • Watch an additional western film and write a movie review.
  • Read the work of a “cowboy poet,”  and write a series of cowboy poems.
  • Research cowboy ballads and write a series of cowboy ballads. 


Your grade for the class will be based on the quality, thoroughness, and thoughtfulness of your written and spoken work combined with the extent and quality of your participation in class discussion.  Revision—your willingness, literally, to “re-see” your work—is a key component, as is participation in draft workshops.  (It goes without saying that unexcused absences, habitual lateness, or late work will affect your grade.)

Class participation -33%

Daily mini-essays -33%

Final project (including process) -33%


Academic Honesty

You are expected to be familiar with the Sterling College Academic Honesty Policy, found on pages 37-38 of your student handbook.  It reads, in part, “all students are expected to exhibit honesty in completing classroom and laboratory work.”  In addition, “plagiarism will not be tolerated.”  If the concept or words you are using are “borrowed or copied from any source, whether electronic, print, recorded, or spoken word, the original source must be acknowledged.”  If you are unsure about when and how to cite another’s ideas or words, ask me. 

A Note on Learning Styles

Students bring a variety of learning styles to class.  We do our best to support different learning modes by mixing lecture, discussion, hands-on work, and visual information.  Please feel free to let us know what mode works best for you—we will do our best to accommodate your learning style.   If you have a learning challenge or documented disability, please check in with Leland Peterson, Learning Support Coordinator.  Leland can help you determine accommodations that can be helpful in this course.  (From the Sterling College Student Handbook)