I was unfamiliar with the 1994 western Bad Girls until very recently when it came up as a suggested viewing. Immediately, the poster caught my eye. There stood Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell and Mary Stuart Masterson in full cowgirl getup, donning their weapons expertly, and poised with confidence. Westerns have never really been my forte, but I was invested from this cover alone.
Then came the premise: four prostitutes find themselves on the run following a justified homicide and must evade Pinkertons, a vengeful mob and a dangerous gang of outlaws. It does not sound like much, but when the friends lead the charge in a good old-fashioned shootout, you are rooting for their victory.
At the time of its release, female-led stories were still uncommon but also on the rise, and for some, I am sure the idea of women tackling a western seemed a little outlandish. Bad Girls flopped at the box office and received a fairly negative response from critics; accused of parodying the likes of Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994)… But perhaps the decade was not quite ready for strong feminine leadership on-screen.
The camaraderie between the characters is heart-warming to watch. Feminism holds a prominent presence in the movie, and it is portrayed so well that plenty of the themes can still be incorporated into today’s culture. The film targets conformities that repress women; it deals with heavy topics such as rape and moreover, female empowerment. It was unlike the industry to detail a story that delved into misogyny as much as Bad Girls did, and this was not a welcome change to the beloved classic western trope.
Obviously, the four main characters are working harlots and the men in the movie cannot look past this – except for McCoy (Dermot Mulroney) and Tucker (James LeGros). They are expected to behave as such; to be objectified and obey. However, they defy expectations in a bid for liberation. One scene has Masterson’s character attempt to claim land rejected and why? It is only worthy in the hands of her (deceased) husband, reiterating the invalidation of women.
The 90s introduced the world to a handful of feminist features and figures: The Silence of the Lambs, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Thelma & Louise to name a few, and they each went on to become cult sensations so why didn’t Bad Girls? It could be that this decade also housed a barrage of successful Westerns around the same time (Young Guns II, Desperado, Dances With Wolves) – which were notably all male-led, shared uniquely creative narratives and female representation was secondary.
By the time Bad Girls came around, audiences likely grew tired of the genre but had the roles been gender-swapped, would it still have received the same negative response? The plot really isn’t that much different to its counterparts; only we observe the story unfold from a female perspective. The score is sharp, there are stellar performances all round (and from a star-studded cast), and it is filled with exciting twists and turns.
I could definitely see Bad Girls being a hit had the western hype not peaked at the beginning of the decade; especially as it came riding on the coattails of Tombstone and the release correlated with Wyatt Earp. It was an intruder to its own genre and audiences did not seem prepared for this. However, now that we have seen the success of the 90s (particularly with strong female leads), why not pay this one a visit – or even revisit?