A gutsy heroine aspires to join the dangerous horse diving profession in this true life Disney tale, but are we looking at a winner for women or just a ‘mare?
In the early years of the Depression orphaned teenager Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar) is determined to see the world, or at least Atlantic City. When her aunt surrenders Sonora to the mercy of the state, she runs off to join Doc Carver’s (Cliff Robertson) diving horse act, headed by aspiring actress Marie (Kathleen York) and assisted by Doc’s handsome son Al (Michael Schoeffling). While Doc initially rejects Sonora as too young, her stubborn refusal to take no for an answer sees him hire her as a stable hand. As the act travels round the country, Al helps Sonora train a difficult horse in the hope of impressing Doc and earning her the chance to be a diving girl.
Passes: Marie and Sonora have a brief discussion about the importance of make-up, and Sonora’s aunt tells her she is nothing but trouble.
Gabrielle Anwar is bright and bold Sonora Webster, and Kathleen York is haughty wannabe starlet Marie. Lisa Norman also appears briefly as Sonora’s Aunt Helen.
How are women represented?
Sonora is the Disney heroine we have all been waiting for. She is resilient, driven, and defiant of those who would stop her from reaching her dream. She resolutely refuses to accept limitations inflicted on her by general life happenings or narrow-minded people, and she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. I’m not saying that punching a classroom bully in the face is big or clever, but it’s pretty satisfying to see a girl let her fists do the talking in the same way a male character would. Warm and caring with those she likes, particularly horses, not only does Sonora have self-belief in bucket loads, and a no nonsense approach to haters, but she doesn’t blink at taking on slightly bizarre, death-defying stunts.
Teenager Sonora’s slightly disturbing romance with the obviously much older Al thankfully doesn’t dampen her spirit, since she continues to defy him in order to achieve her dream. Although the film is based on real events (yes, horse diving was apparently a thing), it would have been nice if they had veered off course in order to avoid marrying off a sixteen year old, and particularly one with such an independent spirit. The only redeeming point to note is that this information is tactlessly given out by an extremely curt ‘and they lived happily ever after’ type announcement right at the end, which at least goes to show that the totally unnecessary marriage plot was an afterthought rather than the main message.
Critics have pointed out that Sonora’s big dream apparently consists of living a glamorous life as defined by an advert for the Atlantic City pier, and that this superficial goal is what leads her to cut her hair, in an effort to live up to this image of femininity. However, this haircut is less about adhering to cultural expectations of women, and more about taking control of her life, refusing to give in to the limitations inflicted by the Depression, and defying people’s expectations of her. The bobbed hairstyle was all about rejecting traditional notions of how women should look, and marks her as a modern woman in charge of her own destiny. Sonora’s priorities, prizing her character over her appearance, are emphasised throughout the film, in which she remains almost entirely make-up free, particularly when compared with the eternally dolled up Marie.
However, although there’s a lot to love about Sonora, the film offers mixed messages about women. While Sonora benefits from instruction offered by male characters like Al and Doc, the women in the film are either stressed out, unfeeling nags, in the case of her aunt and her teacher, or superficial and vain, as with Marie, the other main female character. This seems to imply that Sonora is the exception that proves the rule, hence her affiliation with men rather than women. In this way, the film praises an extraordinary heroine by identifying her positive traits with men, thereby rejecting the notion that women can be feminine and also courageous, defiant and determined. This message is made particularly clear when you compare the characterisation of Marie and Sonora: bare-faced Sonora is lauded for her bold character, while heavily made-up Marie, who prides herself on her appearance, is a shallow, fickle airhead. On the one hand, you have to admire Disney for refusing to cover their leading lady in more than a dash of lipstick, and for celebrating her admirable personality instead. However, on another level, this implies that femininity is incompatible with the grit displayed by Sonora, and that in order to be respected, women must sacrifice typically ‘feminine’ traits.
This film grapples with social and cultural expectations of men and women, sometimes supporting them and sometimes undermining them. Sonora is one of those rare heroines who makes you want to throw your popcorn/film food of choice into the air and shout ‘YES!’ She goes to extreme lengths to take on a wildly dangerous job, refuses to give up when the going gets tough, and is unswerving in pursuit of her dream. However, the unflattering portrayals of Marie and the other women, and the fact that Sonora’s positive relationships are with men, implies that Sonora is an exceptional woman, and that most women are insensitive and unfeeling, while particularly ‘feminised’ women, who wear make-up and skirts, must also be shallow. Overall, this is a brilliant portrayal of a feisty female that nevertheless neglects to examine the place of femininity within empowerment.
Did you find Sonora’s refusal to adhere to traditional expectations of femininity refreshing or frustrating? Is she a role model? How do you perceive the women in the film? Spill your heart and go wild in the comments.