The Ballad of Little Jo

Director: Maggie Greenwald

Based on true events, Maggie Greenwald’s feminist western stars Suzy Amis as society woman, Josephine Monaghan who, after bearing an illegitimate son is forced from her home on the east coast. Quickly realizing that, at the time, the only two available options for women were wife or whore, Monaghan shortens her name to Jo, cuts her hair and poses as a man. Preparing for her new life isn’t nearly as simple as cross-dressing—as a way of hiding her feminine appearance or to illustrate the way the times have scarred her as a woman, Jo takes a knife and gives herself a long, noticeable scar on her cheek to complete the transformation. As Little Jo, she works hard as a miner and sheepherder, always keeping the barbaric men at a distance in case they learn her true identity, although becoming friends with misogynistic loner Ian McKellen until a brutal act separates them. Later, Jo takes to a kind Chinese man, a fellow outsider among the world run by narrow-minded white men and takes him into her home and bed. Greenwald’s film is powerful and manages to educate viewers not only about the ways that women were treated but also homosexuals and ethnic minorities without once becoming preachy. The film harkens to its title—for it is a ballad, sparse and beautiful—sometimes you wish for more details in places but it tells you just what it wants and lets your mind fill in the rest. You’re entranced by the musicality of it, by the film’s photography and the way the wide-open spaces help add to the characterization. Sometimes you think you may be reading too much into it—that it’s really much more simple but perhaps that is just what Greenwald wants you to think. It’s fascinating that in gender bender films directed by women, women go in drag to better their situation in ways that would be denied to them as women, whereas in male directed films featuring men in drag, the primary goal is usually cheap laughs about feminine issues of beauty (high heels, panty-hose, bras and makeup) or homophobia.