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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.