In my view, last week’s film, Johnny Guitar, was not only an example of camp, but also of passing. As Amy Robinson describes in “It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest,” passing is a piece of performance, theatre even, a “spectatorial transaction” (726) that requires “collaborative silence” (725) from the party that does not pass. In the context of race that Robinson explores, a dark-skinned African American must acknowledge and aid in the passing of a light-skinned, white-looking African American in order for the pass to be successful. This collaboration is somewhat turned on its head in Johnny Guitar. I read the film’s only female characters, Vienna and Emma, as queer women (whether they like their queerness or not) living under the radar in Wild West Arizona. Both women pass as heterosexual (even though Vienna dresses in men’s clothing) because they perform straightness, and both women seem to know there is something suspect about the other—as Robinson says, the adage “it takes one to know one” is applicable to the concept of passing. Emma passes more than Vienna because she more willingly performs heterosexuality in conjunction with her performance of femininity (skirts, dresses, etc.), but she does not wish to supply the collaborative silence necessary for Vienna’s attempt to pass. Rather, she persecutes Vienna and urges the men of the town to expel her because there is something not right with her. Fuel for Emma’s betrayal and anger, I believe, stems from either (1) an unwanted attraction she feels towards Vienna, (2) a fear of being found out, or (3) a combination of these two. Of course, Hays Code Hollywood was obliged to hide the queerness within the film, so it is implied that Emma actually love-hates The Dancing Kid (who loves Vienna), but that implication does not hold water when the events of the film show she has a particular vendetta against Vienna that goes far beyond jealousy over a man. Johnny Guitar demonstrates a competition of passing between these two women and ultimately affirms sexual and gender norms, as expected of a major Hollywood film of the time.
- Robinson, Amy. “It Takes One to Know One: Passing and Communities of Common Interest.” Critical Inquiry. Volume 20, Number 4 (Summer 1994): p. 715 – p. 736.
Johnny Guitar (USA: Nicholas Ray, 1954 – 110 min.)