A woman clad in Old West clothing topped by a cowboy hat exudes self-assuredness and swagger as she stares out onto a deserted plain. She sits leaning back, her vibrant red boots propped up from the back seat of a dusty car as it carries her past a ranch house. It’s a shot right out of a typical western film with one big difference — the hero’s gender.
The cowgirl, dubbed “Julia Dean,” is an oil painting that reimagines the poster for “Giant,” the iconic cowboy movie starring James Dean.
It’s just one in a series of large-scale paintings created by Felice House, a figurative painter and Texas A&M associate professor of visualization, recasting women into western movie roles exclusively played by male actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
Using environments like the western genre that are so familiar and established around the globe, House recasts the lead roles with strong, contemporary female heroes, subverting outdated and offensive gender power dynamics in culture.
“I actually love the genre,” she said of western flicks. “The music, the boots, even the movies and soundtracks, the idea of the hero and the villain.”
But House said the roles in westerns are totally inaccessible to her and that watching them is frustrating. In these films, with few exceptions, women are featured only as non-autonomous barkeeps and prostitutes: props for the male character’s pleasure, a weaker person needing to be saved, or a prize to be won.
She wanted to appropriate and reinterpret the setting, showing powerful women as the lead protagonists and challenge the cultural norm that masculinity is intrinsically linked with heroism.
“Cowgirls” and Modern Culture
Simply Googling the term “cowgirl” made it clear how much women in westerns needed a rebrand, said House. The top search results are for sexual positions, and the image tab shows scenes that are less than empowering to women.
“I was totally alarmed at the oversexualized images of cowgirls,” she said. “These heroes for women have been completely usurped by male fantasy and pornography.”
Struggling to change this perception, her cowgirl series went through many stages as House attempted to create powerful images of cowgirls to counter oversexualized portrayals of women in culture.
“All I could get were these saccharine images that weren’t very powerful, and I couldn’t figure out why that was happening,” she said of the first stages of the series.
House found the solution to her problem through a lot of trial and error. In a moment of amusement, House jokingly photoshopped a woman’s face onto an iconic picture of John Wayne. And somehow it just ... worked.
“It was so hysterical, but also powerful,” she said. “We understand this character of John Wayne as a power icon in culture, and this piece somehow referenced him but allowed that power to be transferred to a woman and put her in that position of power.”
Recasting the Hero
And thus “Re-Western” was born. Because those images are already imbued with power and strength, simply by changing the gender of the subject the power of the image was transferred in a compelling way.
The women in House’s paintings, who are live models, also aren’t portraying men. They’re portraying cinematic heroes, situating themselves as the rightful players in the story if they had been originally cast.
It was a collaboration between artist and model as they discovered how to invoke the poses, facial expressions and vibe of the hero in each scene. The process required experimentation and negotiation to create an end product that feels familiar, iconic and powerful.
“I would argue that in today’s culture portraying women without objectifying them is an intentional and political act,” said House. “The art historical and current cultural norm is to portray women to extol their sexual beauty and to encourage possessiveness. For centuries men have painted images of women for men. Now that women have access to education and training, women are painting women as we see ourselves.”
Beyond the Western
In addition to creating new paintings for “Re-Western,” House created “Face West,” a spinoff series painted in the same style but focused on the subject’s expressions and emotions.
House’s work has exhibited in museums and galleries across the country, as well as internationally. It can be found in public and private collections, including The Booth Museum of Western Art, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Prentice Women’s Hospital, and American Campus Communities. She has been featured in multiple publications, including Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine, Vice Magazine’s The Creators Project, the BBC News, Upworthy, Hypertext, Refinery29, El Diario in Spain and Tabi Labo in Japan.
With her many traveling shows and multitudes of media coverage, House continues to receive numerous acclamations and personal messages praising her art and what it stands for.
Currently, House is continuing to show her “Face West” series across the U.S., with a recent exhibit in Lockhart, Texas.