HBO’s “Deadwood” Makes Room for Lesbians

The real-life Jane, one of Wild Bill Hickok's traveling companions, was known to be a hard-drinking frontier woman who could stand up to any man but who also had a softer side, even helping to nurse the citizens of the town during a small pox plague. It's worth noting that Deadwood's Calamity Jane follows this historical description and stands in stark contrast to the wholesome, blonde perkiness of the Doris Day version in the 1953 movie musical Calamity Jane.

Toward the end of Season 2, Jane (played with gusto by Robin Weigert) starts to spend a great deal of time in the company of Joanie Stubbs. At first their relationship is forged because Jane feels the need to look out for the former madam following her run-in with a killer. By Season 3, their friendship has developed, and both women are looking out for each other. Jane keeps an eye on Joanie, whose attitude about living is wavering, and Joanie keeps an eye on Jane, especially where Jane's drinking is concerned.

As awkward moments between the two increase, it becomes apparent that what is being said isn't as important as what is not said, thus setting up a developing subtextual lesbian relationship. The tension between Joanie and Jane finally comes to a head in the middle of the third season.

At the end of “A Rich Find,” Joanie finds a very drunk Jane in the streets and helps her return to the room she has rented. In the next episode, “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” Joanie tries to give the inebriated Jane a sponge bath while Jane, who is uncomfortable about stripping in front of Joanie, blusters about how she shouldn't care. “I never had a sister,” Jane offers as an explanation for her discomfort.

Joanie replies: “I had two. And I slept with both of 'em.” Although the suggestion that Joanie has engaged in incestuous relations with her sisters is one of the most disturbing aspects of her character, longtime viewers will recall the first season revelation that Joanie was sexually abused by her father. Joanie continues, “ I don't know why God let me or … if he forgives me when I pray, but — but I'd never hurt you, Jane, or touch you if you didn't want.”

Jane responds by inviting Joanie to kiss her, and after their kiss, the typically masculine Jane reveals a previously unseen vulnerability.

In the next episode, “Leviathan Smiles,” it is the next morning, and we see Joanie, fully dressed in her finery, staring out onto the streets of Deadwood. She walks to a pile on the floor who is revealed to be the sleeping body of Jane, whom Joanie wakens. Telling her she is leaving, Joanie offers up her bed to her friend. In an awkward moment, Jane leaps up and puts on her jacket and hat, never once making eye contact with Joanie.

As they both depart the lodging house, they come upon proprietor, standing in front of his door with what could be described as a protest sign. He quotes scripture about the sins he assumes are going on in the room upstairs. Although only moments before Jane was embarrassed about kissing Joanie, she nonetheless stands up to the man who is judging them.

But just as quickly she marches off, leaving Joanie behind. Joanie calls after her, saying she plans on finding another place to stay and that Jane is welcome to join her.

Deadwood concludes its third season on Aug. 27, and though the series has been canceled, two new two-hour movies will be filmed to wrap things up next year. Whether or not Jane and Joanie's relationship develops further during these last few episodes is not known, but Deadwood has made a unique contribution toward representing lesbian and bisexual women on television and, in particular, within the Western genre.

Some viewers may question whether the show included lesbianism merely to titillate viewers, but the depth of the series as well as the complex nature in which the characters have evolved is evidence to the contrary. In addition, the character of Calamity Jane differs from the majority of lesbians on television in that she does not conform to traditional feminine norms. In fact, Jane is much closer to a butch character than is typically seen on television.

Even if Joanie and Jane's story ends in tragedy or the relationship does not develop beyond friendship, Deadwood has done a wonderful job of showing a growing attraction between two women in a way that no other historical Western has dared.

Deadwood airs Sundays at 9 pm ET on HBO.

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