Before Xena, before Buffy, even before Emma Peel, there was Annie Oakley, TV's first female action hero.
Long before Xena, long before Buffy, there was Annie Oakley. In 81 episodes made between 1954 to 1957, the TV series starring Gail Davis stood in stark contrast both all other contemporary Westerns, all of which starred men, while all other shows with female leads had none who were especially heroic. The show's Annie Oakley was based only very loosely on the real life Annie Oakley, an Easterner who grew up outside of Cincinnati whose prowess with a rifle gained her a spot as the star performer with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
The show was actually fairly pedestrian, with stories that never rose above standard Western fare, though in fairness they were no worse than the vast majority of B Westerns. Set in the town of Diablo, the only major recurring characters were Annie, her little brother Tagg, and deputy Sheriff Lofty Craig. Tagg's main purpose was comic relief and as a catalyst for advancing the plot of most episodes, his mischievousness creating situations where Annie had to save him (think of the famous line from Buffy: "Dawn's in trouble, it must be Tuesday). The plots invariably consisted of some problem that Annie had to resolve, either a mystery to resolve, or a villain to apprehend, or an innocent to absolve of guilt. The show was targeted at kids so the good guys always won and there was no such thing as moral ambiguity. The series is memorable exclusively for Annie. Without her there would simply be no reason to remember or watch the show.
One of the reasons that Annie was so believable as a hero was star Gail Davis. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Davis grew up in nearby but rural McGhee, where she learned to ride horses while also honing her skills as a singer and dancer. Her riding skills were so exceptional that she became a trick rider in Gene Autry's Western show. After her Annie Oakley days she made numerous appearances as a trick rider and marksman across the country (as a very small child I saw her at the Arkansas State Fair, where she rode and recreated much of the shooting act of the original Annie Oakley). She is seen frequently on the Annie Oakley riding standing up on her horse at a full gallop or riding atop two horses.
At a time when there were no stunt doubles (women's stunts were typically done by men in wigs and dresses), Davis did all of her own stunts, which frequently involved her jumping off her horse onto a speeding train or a team of horses in order to stop an out-of-control stagecoach. Most of the appeal of Annie Oakley lies, in fact, in Gail Davis's physical prowess. Although she was former beauty pageant winner who was about five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds and always sported golden pigtails, she nonetheless was completely convincing as an action hero, and without any question performed the most dangerous stunts ever performed by a lead actress not only in television but film.
Annie defied the stereotypes of the 1950s. She not only excelled at things that were manly arts, like shooting and riding (though to leaven things she was portrayed as a very good cook and displayed a fear of mice). Her values were classic liberal values of fairness, justice, nonmaterialism, and tolerance, which were in contrast with the xenophobic paranoia of the decade (Richard Hofstadter's classic essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" was written in response to the political movements in the decade). Annie was constantly fighting for anyone who was treated unfairly or persecuted because of their race or ethnicity (though "race" means Hispanics and Indians, not African-Americans).
Although she is an expert shot, she avoids causing damage to others. Although in a couple of episodes she shoots an opponent, once the formula of the show was established she would never kill or even wound even the vilest villain. Her shooting abilities were so extreme that she would defeat opponents through inventive but nonlethal marksmanship. In one episode she shoots a bucket onto an opponent in a gun battle, in another she first shoots a gun out of her opponent's hand and then ricochets a bullet off a cave wall, temporarily blinding him with the dust from the rock fragments. In "Sharpshooting Annie" she unmasks a villain in disguise by shooting off his toupee and false nose.
In a decade in which the Western dominated television -- the genre's stars of the 1950s included Cheyenne, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Yancy Derringer, Steve McQueen's Josh Randall, Clint Eastwood's Rowdy Yates, Gene Barry's Bat Masterson's, John Russell's Dan Troop, Richard Boone's Palladin, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Chuck Conners's Lucac McCain aka the Rifleman, and Gunsmoke's Matt Dillon, not to mention shows like Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, and Bonanza, all of which were dominated by men -- Annie Oakley was the lone female hero. And she was remarkably the best rider and best shot of them all, not only on TV but in real life.
But here is what is most amazing about Annie Oakley. With Annie's example, one would have thought that other female Western heroes would have risen in her wake, that others would have imitated her success. But it didn't happen. The closest thing to another female Western hero in any decade was Barbara Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley. The situation for heroic women was in reality much worse. Annie was not merely the only female Western hero of the 1950s, she was the only female hero of any genre. And things didn't improve much in the '60s, '70s, or '80s.
Lists of great female heroes on TV always include Emma Peel from The Avengers in the '60s, but after that the selections get tough. Yes, there was Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, but she spent far too much of her time obsessing over her love interest Maj. Steve Trevor to serve as a truly inspiring hero. There was Jaime Sommers aka the Bionic Woman, but she seemed very much the second team female equivalent of Steve Austin's Six Million Dollar man. Angie Dickinson's Pepper Anderson (Police Woman) is promoted by some as a feminist hero, but it is hard to view someone as especially heroic who in a host of episodes dressed up as a hooker, stripper, or tramp for undercover assignments.
The number of convincing female heroes prior to Buffy and Xena is so small that some lists, to keep them from being too short, even include Lady Penelope, the blonde puppet from Thunderbirds. Thanks to Dana Scully, Xena, and Buffy, TV has been made permanently safe for female heroes. Why there weren't more Annie Oakleys or Emma Peels isn't entirely clear. Obviously there was a deep bias in Hollywood against women that accounts for most of it (Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Uhuru as the Number One of the Enterprise but was rebuffed by the network). But the success of Annie Oakley in the '50s and Emma Peel in the '60s should have inspired some imitators. Instead, what female heroes were to be found in those decades were largely to be found not on television or even in film, but in comic books. Still, Annie Oakley deserves to be remembered as the first female hero on television and as its greatest female Western star.
Annie Oakley has not been released in its entirety on DVD, although if you take all of the individual discs that have been released to date about half of the shows have been made available. Alpha Video has been releasing individual discs that collect four episodes on each disc, the eighth disc being released shortly. Hopefully they will continue their series until all available episodes have been released. Although the show did not inspire the creations of other shows with powerful female protagonists, it is least stands as a subversive counter narrative about the role of women in social life. For that reason alone Gail Davis's Annie Oakley deserves our attention and our gratitude.
The intro to Annie's show:
Here Annie exposes a villain by shooting off his disguise: