Week 4 – Peterson’s View of ‘Johnny Guitar’

In Jennifer Peterson’s “The Competing Tunes of Johnny Guitar” she aims to examine the contradictory aspects of Nicholas Ray’s film Johnny Guitar and the motives of his usage of gender and power, specifically with the female characters Vienna and Emma. When examining queer films, we’ve already discussed how context is crucial and the historical timing of the film is essential to our analysis of its queerness, so after knowing that Johnny Guitar was made in 1954 its choice of hero and villain make sense. It’s the era of the Red Scare in the USA, and communist sympathizers and being prosecuted and blacklisted left and right. Peterson acknowledges that the film presents itself is liberal in its dynamics of female empowerment and agency, but its more subversive denotations of the character Emma as part of the Other (puritanical, hysterical) are simply traditional stereotypes of female ideals and the latent disgust towards (and fear of) homosexuals at the time. She furthers this argument by directing our attention to the general structure of the film itself: its title underscores masculine dominance (“Johnny” Guitar) and Vienna’s characterization is based upon her interaction with men. She is viewed as a threat to the male ego and eventually serves as the film’s heroine, yet she is still credited as second best to Johnny. This obsession with masculinization is present throughout the film with Vienna’s frequent changes of clothing, from feminine to masculine attire – whichever the situation calls for. This femininity is denatured and merely serves as a mask for which Vienna to remove when she is asserting power, Johnny to avoid at the sake of appearing emasculated, and Emma to be victimized by for not seeming to fit into correctly.

Source: Jennifer Peterson, “The Competing Tunes of Johnny Guitar”, Cinema Journal, Vol. 35, University of Texas Press. 1996.

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