News & Politics

Femininity and Toughness: What Rodeo Queens Tell us About America

The complicated ways in which the myth of the (white) Wild West lives on.

I got to spend part of my weekend at the Miss Rodeo Utah contest.

 

The day offered fascinating insights into the performance of gender, gender roles, patriotism and American identity. Claiming direct descent from the the Old West, rodeo asserts that it is a genuine, unbroken tradition from the Old West. Cowboys and cowgirls role play specific gender roles within the subculture, roles built around a shared set of values - passion for horses, the myth of the open prairie and wide open spaces, hard work, and a particular form of patriotism.

Rodeo is a constructed subculture, self-aware that it is a creation while asserting its identity as the carrier of an American tradition, proclaiming that it embodies and represents a form of American-ness that is unique to rodeo, uniquely American and essential to our national history. Rodeo's stylized dress and language is intended to evoke the past. Every aspect of rodeo is a deliberate creation of the people involved. Like the suburb in John Dorst's The Written Suburb, it is the creation of people who are self aware and self-consciously creating their subculture. Rodeo - starting with acceptable clothing all the way through its choice of words to describe itself - is an intentional creation of the people involved. Rodeo is reminiscent of Disney in that aspect - it is not authentic in the sense that it doesn't occur naturally and yet it is authentic in the sense that it is the authentic expression of the ideals and values of the people involved. A psychologist might see it as a form of projection in which participants project their personal, idealized values and morals onto the canvas of rodeo.

Throughout the contest - which is similar to any other beauty pageant - we were told about the girls' hard work - rising early to buck bales of hay, shovel out stalls, lug water, train and groom horses, then turning to their day job - for most contestants that is school. Tough work as a theme recurs repeatedly in rodeo's public awareness as does the notion of toughness itself.

The queens embody a stylized femininity - long lustrous perfect hair, perfect smiles that never slip, elaborate brightly colored leather dresses covered with glittering rhinestones, boots equally brightly colored, and perfectly shaped hats - that portrays female beauty in a very specific way but which is discussed as only one aspect of their identity. Rodeo queens are tough; these are big strapping American girls who get thrown off horses, who buck bales of hay and rope cows, who are physically tough. In some events, the queen contestants are expected to actually feed and care for their horses to demonstrate the can do it.

In contrast, rodeo cowboys masculinity is equally stylized but rigorously spare, even spartan in its simplicity. Standard attire is a long sleeved shirt, jeans, wide leather belt with prominent belt buckle (a standard prize for winning events) boots and hat. The long sleeved shirt is regarded as a practical piece of clothing for back country riding - the long sleeves protect against thorns, brambles and other environmental hazards. This standard attire is worn by both males and females. For the boys and men, it emphasizes the broad shoulders and narrow hips of the idealized masculine body shape - very different than the padded, helmeted body created for football (I see parallels between rodeo and rugby in many ways). Girls and women in rodeo - aside from the queens - seem to downplay or minimize displays of femininity preferring to present themselves as highly capable horsewomen who, like the boys, get shit on their boots, dirt on their face and hands and sweat on their brow. The queens though equally capable on horseback stand out in the crowd - their sequins and rhinestones on boots, jeans and hats gleam in the arena in contrast to the simpler attire of other competitors. Yet, there are constant reminders of the differences between the genders.

The world of rodeo keeps strict and separate gender roles - men don't do women's events and women aren't welcomed in men's events. Rodeo is rigidly heterosexual. These two aspects are mutually reinforcing. Yet, I saw more than a few gay cowboys. Like most Americans, rodeo people are casually accepting of gay men (one of the key people involved in Miss Rodeo Utah is an openly gay man with a partner and adopted child), but that acceptance doesn't fully extend to the contest or event. Cowboys are straight (gay rodeo is unmentioned). Heterosexuality is enacted in many places - starting with little boys in oversized cowboy hats escorting the queen contestants - after which the audience was reminded that these little boys would now know there is a Santa Claus (one can hear Adrienne Rich archly intoning "compulsory heterosexuality"). Toughness is generally a masculine quality - and certainly the men's events require it - bronc and bull riding are physically hard. At multi-day events, it's not uncommon to see the contestants walking gingerly the day after their rides.

I grew up around horses I've been bucked off, stepped on, kicked - I've trained a horse that wanted to buck and rear to read my body language and do what I wanted. I've also put a bridle on my horse and taken off for an afternoon of riding bareback in the hills, returning covered in sweat and dirt. Hard work in the world of rodeo is literal physical work - caring for and training a horse is physically demanding. The hard work that rodeo announcers cite for audiences is sweaty and dirty. Rodeo queens are expected to be able to do that work; they may be gorgeous, beautiful women but their beauty isn't all they are. These aren't the pampered hissy fit throwing beauty queens of the pageant circuit.

The usual rodeo outfit is boots, jeans, a long sleeved, collared shirt and hat are strictly functional clothing for people who are doing a job. The rodeo queens contestants are a tiny minority of the number of people who participate in rodeo. They are not exempt from the standards of rodeo - the matter of fact we're here to do a job attitude that matter of factly celebrates shit on your boots, dirt on your fact and sweat on your brow. More than a few people at yesterday's events were former queens and contestants.

Toughness that stands out as a quality of rodeo. The cowboy is tough - he gets bucked off a horse or a bull, lands in the dirt in the arena, jumps up, brushes himself off and heads for the exit. Or, if he's even tougher, he stays on the bronc or the bull, tougher still and he wins the event. The animals are dangerous simply because they're so big. They land even one hoof on you while you're on the ground and you'll have shattered ribs and a crescent shaped bruise that lasts days. Break something, dislocate it, you wait till it heals and you head back to the arena. The toughness required for rodeo is real but it is also a projection, a deliberate creation and invocation of the cowboy myth of the lone, tough cowboy out in the back country herding the cattle, roping the runaways and so on.

Tough men need tough women. Rodeo queens must be tough. They are judged are horse riding - they have demonstrate they can control a horse and make it do what they want. Horses are beautiful creatures but not the smartest of domesticated animals. Despite their size, they scare easily and a frightened horse can move with lightning speed away from whatever is scaring it. It's not uncommon around horses to watch as a horse suddenly heads right while their rider seems cartoonishly to linger in the air where just a moment ago, the horse was standing. Training a horse takes patience and determination and no small skill. A rodeo queen showing her horse will do what she wants it to is demonstrating far more than what you see - if your horse runs the pattern correctly, it means you've ridden it enough that you've been bucked off, stepped on, kicked.

As an example of American womanhood, rodeo women are not Marilyn Monroe with her soft face and voice and voluptuous curves, nor are they Britney Spears with her naughty school girl vulnerability and emotional imbalances. Rodeo queens are more like Rosie the Riveter or Pink - determined, smart, capable, their femininity married to a physical and emotional toughness that shrugs off pain and defeat. During the fashion show portion of the event, the rodeo queens showed themselves as beautiful young women - but they weren't erotically beautiful. Everything in the fashion show demonstrated physicality - these are women who can walk, stride, keep their balance. It may sound absurd, but what was on display was their athleticism not their fashion sense.

Very few people are actual cowboys any more. Most herding is done with four wheel ATVs or pickup trucks and semis and trains carry livestock across the country. You don't need a squad of cowboys to drive the herd to the stockyards in Kansas City . The world of the cowboy lasted a few short decades and has long since vanished into history. Much of country music celebrates what it means to be a cowboy in a set of memes and metaphors that are readily familiar to most Americans - trucks, horses, suffering, dogs, and women doing men wrong or been done wrong by bad men. One of the songs blaring from the speakers yesterday proclaimed cowboys love smoky bar rooms and the open range and beautiful women. Cowgirls, we were told repeatedly yesterday, are living a fairy tale dream come true of being a rodeo queen and a cowgirl riding her horse in the clean country air. But rodeo cowboy or cowgirl is a persona that the contestants put and take off. It's a mask - perhaps masque is a better term. Elaborately theatrical, rodeo creates and invents an image of the old west, of the working cowboy/girl rather than being a realization of the working cowboy/girl world.

Country singer Chris Ledoux wrote and recorded extensively about the rodeo lifestyle based on his own experiences as a professional on the rodeo circuit. His career followed an odd trajectory - he was essentially the subculture artist of rodeo, nearly disappeared from the scene entirely, had his career revived in the late 90s and had a series of hits. Ledoux's songs capture the experience of being a rodeo cowboy - of working the circuit, the physical abuse rodeo visits upon contestants, the loneliness and isolation, the long hours of travel. Rodeo has recreated the experience of the Old West. Physical hardship, loneliness, travel. These are all hallmarks of the cattle drive.

There are no cattle drives anymore. Rodeo is performance, it is a form of professional theatre. Frequent proclamations by rodeo announcers of "working cowboy" and cowboy/girl toughness are ritualistic invocations of value rather than statements of fact. Those invocations betray the awareness among rodeo contestants and organizers the awareness that this is a constructed subculture, that for all their straight-faced seriousness, they aren't real working cowboys and cowgirls. A few might actually live on working ranches or farms, but most do not. Rodeo rhetoric romanticizes the Old West while ritually re-enacting its tropes. Like other American subcultures, it looks backwards, yearning for an earlier time while its members live comfortably in the diverse, urban world that most Americans inhabit.

Rodeo is inseparable from a very particular form of patriotism. The flag, the pledge are part of rodeo life. It is perhaps unfair but rodeo's patriotic displays and proclamations strike me as comforting myths, as attempts to create something not naturally experienced. If we must constantly tell ourselves how patriotic we are, perhaps we aren't so very patriotic after all.

Invoking the myth of the old west, rodeo self-consciously holds itself out as a reminder to the rest of us - that we should recapture lost values and behaviors of the Old West. Myths of self-reliance , individualism, rugged manliness, a matter of fact get to it get it done attitude. Most of all, it invokes a myth of America - as a frontier nation testing itself against nature. The rodeo queen in her stylized glory, invoking her toughness, is a reminder that the frontier has vanished and that the rancher long ago lost out to the farmer. It's complex and complicated and a reflection of deep anxiety about the loss of something that is uniquely American. The rodeo queen encapsulates the often paradoxical place rodeo plays in contemporary society - she serves no literal purpose but she serves a profound psychological purpose, symbolizing the transformations of our culture and offering a role model for tough femininity.

 

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