If She Wears Pants, She Must Kiss Girls
HBO's Deadwood is one of the finest shows you'll find on TV right now--possibly one of the finest shows ever made. But in the case of Calamity Jane, the writers appear to be taking the easy way out. In a manner of speaking.
Calamity Jane is, without a doubt, one of my favorite characters on the show. She's almost always drunk and dirty, and her mouth is among the foulest. She cares about Wild Bill Hickok, nurses the cocksuckers who suffer from small pox in Season 1, and generally does things of good fucking will. When she's not on a bender, of course.
Margot Mifflin, in a Salon.com review of a 2005 biography about Calamity Jane, writes, "Like so many pop culture icons, [Calamity Jane] lived fast, died young and was quickly canonized, yet her fictional self so quickly preempted the real one that it's almost impossible to say her legend is anything but fiction." Any internet search of Calamity Jane will give you a mishmash of facts about her life; few of those facts seem to be certain. And so her character is a gold mine for the writers of Deadwood.
Many of Deadwood's characters are based upon real people--if not upon an actual person who once lived in Deadwood, then upon an actual type of person would have lived in Deadwood. And a few of the characters based on real people get a bum rap. The rascally E.B. Farnum, for example, who no one in the HBO town seems to take seriously? In real life, Farnum was a husband, the father of three children (all of whom lived in Deadwood with him), and a much better businessman and councilman than the HBO show would have us believe. But because Farnum makes such an excellent foil for Swearingen, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief.
But I'm not willing to suspend my disbelief with the turn Calamity Jane's character took in the recent episode "Unauthorized Cinnamon." In this episode, Jane finally kisses Joanie Stubbs. I write finally because when this happened, I let out a sigh of disgust, prompting B to say, "Like you didn't see that coming?"
That I saw it coming was precisely the problem. Here's the deal: in all of the bios I've read online about Calamity Jane, none have asserted that she was a lesbian. They've mentioned her claims to an affair with Wild Bill Hickok, her possible crush on Charlie Utter, that she was (at times) a prostitute, that she had, later in life, a daughter. All of these are, more or less, hetero-normative activities, correct? Right.
But Jane, you see, doesn't (and in real life, didn't always) act lady-like. She wears pants, sleeps in the street and drinks so much that she pisses herself (although the book review on Salon.com claims that Jane mostly wore dresses). She lives on the frontier and she likes guns. She talks nothing like a lady--even the prostitutes of Deadwood speak in a (relatively) more refined language than Jane. So what do we do with the woman who does hetero-normative things but who doesn't outwardly present as hetero-normative? If we're the writers of Deadwood, we take the easy way out with her character. We make her the lesbian, because our idea (or the idea that a broader audience would have) of the way a lesbian performs her sexuality is as follows: she acts like a man.
The choice of portraying Jane as a lesbian is not surprising, and the reason I've fallen in love with Deadwood is that, more often than not, the show surprises. Which is why I'm wondering why the writers didn't pair Jane up with Charlie Utter, or some other male character. Why not really play around with the options history presents? Sure, a little girl-on-girl action can be good times, but why not a little man-and-woman-taking-the-pants-and-cowboy-hats-off-one-another action? Why not challenge the audience's desire to pigeonhole the pant-wearin woman? Even better--why not let Jane have it all--give her a love scene with Charlie Utter, and then give her one with Joanie. If you're going to make fiction out of history, why not just go full fucking tilt and make of these cocksuckers complicated characters?
Making Jane a lesbian is too easy, and I think it speaks to our struggle as a society to accept sexuality (and also, in many ways, gender roles) as anything other than a black-or-white, either-or concept. Jane can't have any kind of combination plate in HBO's Deadwood, because at this point in history, neither can we.