The role of women in Westerns typically includes the frowned-upon use of language as a means to exert power, being concerned with a world focused on religion, culture, class distinctions, fancy words, and pretty actions that sharply contrast the world of the alpha male cowboy, and weakness in the face of adversity. However, the films Johnny Guitar and Two Mules for Sister Sarah revise the image of women.
In Johnny Guitar, two women, Vienna and Emma, are the main characters that drive the plot. Johnny Guitar, the alpha male cowboy in this film, also displays feminine qualities such as musical talent and the encouragement of dancing. The Vienna and Emma appear to be modeled after the classical alpha male cowboy by wearing pants, having guns and knowing how to use them, running and owning businesses, and are eventually engaged in a duel between the two of them. Both women use action over words and are constantly in the limelight of the film, a role typically reserved for males.
In Two Mules for Sister Sarah, the main character is a woman named Sarah who consistently outsmarts the males throughout the film. She first poses as a prostitute dressed as a nun, a symbol of the two escapes from the control of men for women. Neither prostitutes or nuns have to answer to the will of men. The alpha male cowboy in this film, Hogan, relies on Sarah to save his life more than once. However, Hogan also saves Sarah's life which may symbolize that they are equals in this film.
Despite of their differences to stereotypical western women, the women of Johnny Guitar and Two Mules for Sister Sarah represent "otherness" to the alpha male cowboy. The alpha male cowboy is an individual surrounded by a world that they can't relate to. He must have a strong moral center because in the West, a man makes his own law. In both films, the alpha male cowboy needs to overcome obstacles including the changing role of women. Also, the alpha male cowboy becomes a more prominent player when the women face adversity.
In Johnny Guitar, the women still show flashes of the typical western woman despite their differences. Vienna needs protection and let's her emotions take hold of her in the end. Emma is completely driven by emotion. The film shows the value of the alpha male in several ways. The title of the film is the name of the alpha male cowboy, Johnny is the one who has to react and adapt to situations/adversity, and in the end, the film wouldn't have function properly without the alpha male cowboy. From a cultural studies perspective, the world of the 1950's still relied on masculinity despite the changing role of women.
The 1970s, when Two Mules for Sister Sarah was released, was a decade filled with civil rights movements. The American public was calling for revolution through Anti-war protests, the black power movement, and the women's rights movement. The men of the 1970s were also becoming liberated from their masculine constraints of the past. They began to express their emotions while women were fighting for equality. However, American society still relied on masculine attributes and men to be successful, which is represented well in Two Mules for Sister Sarah.