HBO’s “Deadwood” Makes Room for Lesbians

Kim Dickens as Joanie StubbsRobin Weigert as Calamity Jane

HBO’s Deadwood, with its landscape filled with foul-mouthed male characters, is one of the last places one might expect to find a fascinating, three-dimensional female character, let alone a queer one. But once viewers are roped into this multi-layered series from David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue), they have the pleasure of meeting a handful of women who hold their own in an environment that is at its best, dangerous, and at its worst, deadly. One such woman, Joanie Stubbs (played by Kim Dickens), is not only well-drawn, but by Season 3 is firmly established as preferring the company of women.

Deadwood isn’t for everyone. The show’s language and violence are both very graphic, and many critics have labeled the show misogynist. But because the series is modeled on the historic town of Deadwood, S.D., and takes place in the early 1870s when the women’s suffrage movement was just beginning to take shape, the portrayal of female characters as disempowered is all too accurate.

Formed as a mining community, the real Deadwood was a dangerous place, full of harsh conditions. On the Deadwood Season 2 DVD, historians comment that because of this atmosphere, women in the camp were typically prostitutes who worked at the camp saloons. It is within the walls of one such “entertainment emporium” that one of Deadwood‘s unique and noteworthy female characters, madam Joanie Stubbs emerges.

Joanie is introduced during the first season in connection with the Bella Union Saloon, a high-class brothel owned by Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe). It is quickly apparent that Joanie, who uses both her street smarts and her grace to win people over, is a woman who understands society’s rules but who also resists them.

As season one progresses, we learn that Joanie’s father sexually abused her and then sold her to Cy Tolliver, an experience that will later be revealed to have had significant consequences.

Joanie’s possible lesbianism is hinted at in the first season. In Episode 5, “The Trial of Jack McCall,” Joanie has a conflict of conscience which puts her at odds with Cy. Afterward, he walks in on her bathing some of the women who work at the Bella Union, and asks her if she has resolved her issue from earlier. Without blinking, Joanie kisses the woman she is washing, as if to tell Cy that she’s back to her old self, but after he leaves it becomes clear that Joanie is full of sadness.

In Episode 7, the arrival of a new prostitute at the Bella Union, Flora (played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars), once again revisits the question of Joanie’s sexuality. In one of their first scenes together, Joanie gives Flora tips on working in the world’s oldest profession, advising her that she needs to act happier if she wants to attract clients. Flora replies, “I thought I only had to act it with them that want to stick it in me.”

Joanie answers, “You never know who that might be, Flora.” From Kim Dickens’ delivery, it’s clear that Joanie is implying that Flora’s potential clients might not be the typical men she expects — they might be female; they might be Joanie herself.

In Episode 8, Flora shows up at Joanie’s door after being upset by witnessing a murder. Flora asks if she can stay with her for the rest of the night, and after Joanie agrees, Flora tries to seduce Joanie, who doesn’t take the bait. The next morning Cy sees Flora sneaking out, and he teases Joanie, commenting that it’s good to see her adding more notches to her belt.

From this point on and for most of the second season, Joanie’s sexuality is put on the back burner. She leaves the Bella Union and opens her own brothel with the help of a friend from back East, only to have the brothel’s working girls fall victim to a serial killer. Following the downfall of this endeavor, Joanie is at the end of her rope until she begins to form a friendship with Calamity Jane, one of the many historical figures sprinkled throughout the series.