Cowboy masculinities: Relationality and rural identity



Publication Details

Gibson, C. (2014). Cowboy masculinities: Relationality and rural identity. In A. Gorman-Murray & P. Hopkins (Eds.), Masculinities and Place (pp. 125-139). Farnham, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.


One of the more dominant, formulaic and enduring compositions of masculinity is the cowboy. In this chapter I discuss cowboy masculinities through a historical geographical lens. I contrast a hegemonic masculinity associated with the cowboy, with a more complex, relational perspective. The former requires critique of the commercializing and socially conservative forces at work in producing normative masculinity, while the latter is dependent on interpreting the cowboy figure not as a singular stereotype, but as a palette of discourses, representations, commodi:fications and material cultural interactions - from which diverse, unfolding and often contradictory subject positions emerge. Necessary for this kind of interpolation of masculinity is sensitivity to an 'array of vectors ofrelationality' (Hopkins and Noble 2009: 815) that operate at any given time, and in any given place. As I hope to illustrate below, even a cursory unpicking of the historical and geographical variability of cowboy masculinities demonstrates their contingent assembly: coming together in diverse times and places as outcomes of relations between men and women but also the relations between men and other men, between popular cultural depictions and the lived experiences of cattle workers, between bodies, boots and clothes, and between men and the rural landscape (see also Childs 2014: this volume). Against a dominant and simplistic stereotype of what constitutes a cowboy, I discuss the historical emergence and proliferation of cowboy masculinities as dependent on complex intersections and assemblages.

Cowboy masculinities vividly combine the visual and the material: the travelling cowboy body on the colonial frontier or on the international rodeo circuit, the star of western films, the clothes, hats and boots. But material embodiments of cowboy masculinities are also embodied, performed and interpreted in specific geographic contexts (Gorman-Murray, Waitt and Gibson 2008) where they variously reinforce or trouble contingent norms. In the case of the cowboy this includes embodied performances of masculinity in rural work, in film, on stage or in the rodeo ring, at nightclubs and at festivals, in America and beyond - where an assortment of clothes, boots, holsters, horses, saddles and spurs visualise and hyperbolise identities. The story of cowboy masculinities is also one of the specificities of the cowboy body in mythical and material space: the western film set, the ranch, but also deep in the city, in bars and busy city streets. Cowboy masculinities depend on material fabrications such as clothes and boots for an element of hyperreality, self-referential visual cues that reproduce cowboy myth. But these reproductions necessarily resonate in and through specific times, places and translations -where their meanings and affordances vary considerably.

In what follows, I hope to bring some of this variability to light, albeit in truncated form, in the process demonstrating that the processes that bolster hegemonic masculinities are always countered by more complex intersectionalities, subversions and counter-narratives. Diversity and contradiction are leitmotifs. And as cultural geographers have shown, such intersections are complex, spatial and material as well as discursive: located 'within and between embodiment, desires, practices and feelings' (Waitt and Warren 2008: 356, see also van Hoven and Horschelmann 2005, Berg and Longhurst 2003). Masculinity is thus coconstituted through intersections of identification, practice, style and discourse, in material spaces (Gorman-Murray 2008, Hopkins and Noble 2009). Throughout this chapter I thus seek to 'place' analysis of cowboy masculinities - on the American frontier, in contemporary subcultures, in remote Aboriginal communities in the Australian outback. Cowboy masculinities are co-constituted through practices, styles and discourses in a distinct set of material spaces. Through such groundings a more pluralist sense of cowboy masculinities emerges. What makes this analysis most pertinent is that, in the case of the cowboy, a form of masculine identity has persisted throughout over a century and half's worth of popular culture, and travelled enormously widely as a motif of rural manhood. The cowboy is a pervasive figure that needs to be cast in critical geographical light.

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