The sun always sets in the West. This is both literally and metaphorically true — watch any Western and you’ll find a vanished landscape, a rugged, tumbleweed-laden terrain where loyalties mean little and the law means even less. Here, the cowboy presides as sole authority, wandering alone with pistol in hand. He is America incarnate, “manifest destiny” in a pair of steel-toed boots.
But lately the sun has been setting on the cowboy, too. While the Western as a film genre appears alive and well — see True Grit, Westworld, last year’s Hostiles and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — the cowboy’s place in American iconography is uncertain. He feels outdated, almost quaint; a relic from a bygone era where men could walk into town and wreck shit with impunity, all while being lauded as the hero. (Maybe not so bygone as it seems.)
Two recent projects have grappled with the cowboy mythos in particularly fascinating ways. The first, singer-songwriter Mitski’s fifth album Be the Cowboy, recasts its namesake as a sort of aspirational figure, bearing little resemblance to any working cowboy of today. The second, director Chloé Zhao’s second feature-length film The Rider, which premiered at Cannes in 2017, follows the life of a former rodeo star, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), in the wake of a traumatic riding accident. Each has something to tell us about the cowboy, his place in the current pop-cultural landscape, and what role he may have to play in shaping and ultimately deconstructing our notions of white American masculinity.
Picture this: a wild mustang gallops in the sun. The camera zooms out to reveal more horses, a panoramic view of the plains. It is Wyoming, perhaps, or else South Dakota, Montana, Texas. The actual location makes little difference. Functionally the action takes place nowhere, in a frontier of the American popular imagination. A disembodied voice intones: “You don’t see many wild stallions anymore. And even if he did run off three of your best mares, he’s one of the last of a wild and very singular breed.” Cut to a John Wayne-type figure on horseback, a solemn-faced white man with a Stetson on his head and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro country.”
There is no explicit mention of cowboys on Be the Cowboy. (The closest reference I can hear is the shimmering, country-inflected two-step of “Lonesome Love,” or else the rueful dirge “A Horse Named Cold Air.”) Instead, Mitski populates the album with characters that want to embody, in her words, the “idea of freedom and arrogance and not having to apologize” the cowboy represents. She cites the Marlboro cowboy in particular as a touchstone — and for good reason. When the British Doctors’ Study found statistical proof linking the effects of smoking to lung cancer in 1956, Marlboro invented the character in order to masculinize filtered cigarettes, which had previously been marketed towards women — their debut slogan in 1924 was “Mild as May” — and were considered, at the time, to be a healthier alternative to normal cigarettes. He was always a fiction, a marketing ploy invented to cater to male consumers’ fantasies of white Americana. (Never mind that cowgirls had existed since at least the late 19th century, or that one in four cowboys was black.)
A figure so closely associated with antiquated (and false) notions of American-ness might seem a strange subject for artists whom it has historically excluded. But identification — for the marginalized person, especially — requires a certain leap of faith, and cowboys hold symbolic resonance for both Mitski and Chloé Zhao. Mitski was born to a Japanese mother and a white American father; growing up, she moved around constantly, rarely staying in one place for more than a year. Zhao similarly spent her childhood in a variety of different environments, attending school in Beijing, London, and Los Angeles before earning degrees in political science and film production from Mount Holyoke College and NYU, respectively. From a profile in Interview Magazine: “I had this tsunami of influences from Western pop culture. I never formed a strong sense of national or cultural identity. My English has issues, my Chinese has issues. It’s a quite liquid form of identity.” The cowboy answers this question of “liquid identity.” He remains steadfastly tethered to the land, in spite of his peripatetic lifestyle. He transforms isolation into a source of strength. These are familiar turns for any immigrant, or anyone who has ever been marked as an “other.”
Why, then, do we tend to conceptualize the cowboy as white? And not just white, but emblematically so — literal exhibitions have been put together to prove otherwise. Whiteness, as Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write in the forward to the essay collection The Racial Imaginary, is “the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power, that wishes to inhabit whomever it chooses.” They are referring to the white artist’s desire to imagine without repercussions, to depict (and sometimes co-opt) stories involving people of color without interrogating the engine that drives said desire in the first place. But they may as well also be writing about cowboys. After all, domination — the ability to take without consequences or asking permission — comes part and parcel with the myth.
The Rider and Be the Cowboy present a reversal of this frontier mentality. Both projects inhabit and subvert a quintessentially white trope, playing with fiction, narrative, and representation to expose its artifice and open it up for re-interpretation. Sometimes the gambit is more direct: Brady Jandreau, who is of Lakota Sioux descent, portrays a lightly fictionalized version of himself, as do his sister, father, and many of his friends. He really did suffer a rodeo accident that left him unable to ride; he really did live in that trailer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Zhao chalks this storytelling decision up to convenience and a desire for authenticity, but the element of truth complicates the fiction in a crucial way. It forces us to pay as much attention to the scenes of hardship, poverty, and mundaneness as to those of profound beauty, allowing the rougher edges of the actors’ “truth” to brush up against the “poetry” we more easily recognize as emblematic of the cowboy way of life.
For Mitski, the fictional elements of Be the Cowboy are much more intentional, and less concerned with authenticity. In an interview with Vinyl Me Please, she speaks in depth about her inspiration for the album’s protagonists: “I was just really interested in that time [the 1950’s] and Hitchcock blondes, and how they’re always portrayed as really icy and unknowable and mysterious, but I felt like that was such a man’s view on these women and I was like, ‘What are they thinking?’ Like, what do they go home and do when Hitchcock is not watching them?” This idea turns out to be cinematic in its own right — see the single covers for Be the Cowboy, which feature variations on the phrase “Mitski stars in…” — even as it constitutes yet another reversal on the basis of gender. According to film theorist Laura Mulvey, women in Hollywood films like Hitchcock’s were traditionally depicted as objects of desire for both the male characters and the audience, a projection she calls a woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Mitski’s characters invite a certain “to-be-looked-at-ness,” but on altogether different terms. They perform gender in the most Vaudeville-sense of the word, whether singing of romantic disaffection (“Spend an hour on my makeup to prove something,” “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick/I thought maybe we would kiss tonight”) or vamping like Stepford wives and Busby Berkeley choirgirls. It is like they are dressing up in front of a mirror, rehearsing for the roles they have been forced to inhabit by the world. The mantra of “be the cowboy” acts as both empowerment and a balm. These women still have to go out and be seen, after all; they still have to “lose.” In this context, the cowboy ceases to reference any real-life counterpart, but is instead revealed to be what he always was: pure symbol. Fiction. A smoking gun.
The icons on Be the Cowboy are squarely, almost stereotypically, American — cowboys, Hitchcock, desperate housewives. (And Edward Hopper — I am thinking of this tweet by the actress Brie Larson, which compared the song “Old Friend” to the famous Hopper painting “Nighthawks.”) But the Americanisms run deeper than mere iconography. They are present in the fabric of the music itself, in the insistent focus on solitariness — none of the tracks on Be the Cowboy feature backing harmonies, Mitski having wanted to evoke the feeling of “a person alone on stage pouring their heart out” — and mastery over one’s craft.
This extends even to the album’s imagery. Take the music video for “Geyser,” for instance. In it, we find Mitski alone, windswept, on a beach. As the music begins, we hear the lyrics, “You’re my number one/You’re the one I want/And I’ve turned down every hand that has beckoned me to come.” At “hand,” Mitski raises her hand and gazes upon it as if it were a lover. (She employs a similar gesture in the video for “Your Best American Girl.”) According to Mitski, the “you” in the song is not meant to represent a person, but music, or her career in music. Her hand therefore becomes a symbol of self-sufficiency, the tool through which she is able to achieve fulfillment, however painful. “And hear the harmony only when it’s harming me/It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real enough.” Cymbals crash, horn-like synths erupt out of the ether, Fantasia-style. “But I will be the one you need/The way I can’t be without you.” A cowboy relies on no one but himself.
Hands figure prominently in The Rider as well. Over the course of the film, Brady experiences frequent partial-complex seizures in his right hand, an effect of the brain injury he suffered from the riding accident that derailed his rodeo career. If Mitski’s hand represents control, Brady’s represents a loss of it. Zhao has spoken of The Rider as a film that “celebrates those who stay on the reservation, who make the tough choices in life, who keep going.” Tasked with a future in which riding might be an impossibility, Brady must reckon with what it means to “be the cowboy” outside of traditional definitions.
But what do these definitions mean in practical terms? For Brady and many of the young men on reservations such as Pine Ridge, the cowboy ideal exists side by side with the more dire reality of their socio-economic circumstances. Rodeo is their one path to glory and financial success, even as it poses incredible physical risks. Here is Zhao again, talking with The Guardian about The Rider in relation to the traditional Western:
The cattle industry is now completely monopolized by the big meat industry, which is horrible, and so the small ranches are disappearing. If you raise your cattle in a factory lot, why would you need cowboys? These young guys, they’re on Facebook, they have YouTube channels, they’re listening to hip-hop — they’re trying to figure out what it means to be a modern-day cowboy. So there’s a new identity emerging, and I think by capturing that, in a weird way The Rider is reinventing the western — and it’s not because of me.
Of course, when Zhao speaks of a “modern-day cowboy,” she is referring to those young men, not any sort of Marlboro-like fabrication. But the fabrication still exists: we can feel its presence in the interactions between Brady and his friends, sometimes explicitly. In one key scene, they are sat around a bonfire, drinking booze and recounting the various injuries they have sustained as a result of riding. “I’m not drawing out or anything,” Brady says, in defense of his hesitancy to return to the rodeo. “I’m just taking some time off.” His friend replies: “Yeah, I know, but it’s all the same to a cowboy. Ride through the pain.”
A while later, Brady and two of his friends watch videos of old tournaments in Brady’s living room. Inspired, perhaps, by the action on the TV, he asks his friend James to wrestle, and after a brief struggle where Brady seems to be reeling from his injury, manages to pin James down, holding him for a few seconds too long. These scenes could be read merely as depictions of “men being men”; but it is difficult in this context to parse what “being a man” consists of divorced from the cowboy myth, both of which demand equal parts stoicism and domination.
For his part, Brady simultaneously embodies and subverts these expectations. (“I’m not going to end up like you,” he says to his father at one point, in a rare moment of narrative over-explaining.) He evinces a sensitivity and a tenderness that belie our rough-and-tumble image of what a cowboy ought to be, as when he takes care of his sister or visits his friend, Lane (Lane Scott), another former rodeo star who is recovering from a car crash that left him with debilitating injuries. During a crucial riding scene at the end of the film, Zhao trains her camera as much on the tenderness with which Brady strokes a horse — hands again! — as on the riding itself, suggesting a parallel between his nurturing, almost maternal impulse towards these animals and the freedom riding them affords.
The feminizing, or softening, of the cowboy image in The Rider is a useful comparison with Be the Cowboy, where the opposite phenomenon occurs. But neither project offers any neat resolution: Brady will not, in all likelihood, be able to return to riding, at least not to the same extent; and the protagonists of Be the Cowboy are similarly hamstrung by their desires, as these lines from “Two Slow Dancers” demonstrate: “It would be a hundred times easier/If we were young again/But as it is, and it is/We’re just two slow dancers, last ones out.” Futility goes hand in hand with persistence. No one could ever truly “be the cowboy,” because he never existed in the first place. But also, perhaps, because he was never meant to.
Maybe that’s the problem with the very notion of “white American masculinity” the cowboy represents: all three components — race, nationality, gender — are a fiction, a set of standards that everyone fails, to varying extents, to live up to. It’s hard to say where the myth goes from here. But any cowboy worth his salt knows that dying ain’t much of a living.