The myth of the cowboy
August 3, 2019 5:51 PM   Subscribe

There is thus no shortage of potential cowboy myths in the western world. And, in fact, practically all the groups I have mentioned have generated macho and heroic semi-barbarian myths of one kind or another in their own countries and sometimes even beyond. But none of them has generated a myth with serious international popularity, let alone one that can compare, even faintly, with the fortunes of the North American cowboy. Why? [previously]
posted by Evilspork (8 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
White males (especially in America) desperately need heroes because the only thing their society creates and builds up are assholes. So they either try to build up heroic mythology around assholes (see: captains of industry) or create totally artificial heroes. Most cowboy heroes are the latter because they're easier to make.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:19 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Workers in the general area were called hired hands, specialized they would be a sheep hand or a cow hand. In that great period in the late 1800s they were not isolated, the pejorative of calling someone 'boy' would likely have implied some degree of slavery, so I expect anyone that called one of the cattle workers "cow boy" would have received a broken nose at the very least.
posted by sammyo at 4:22 AM on August 4, 2019

I’ve always thought of the cowboy as a more modern trope that occupies the same space as a knight in earlier times. Not to discount this piece’s focus on anti-immigrant shading or the ties to Reagan—but at its broadest (where it has international appeal), the idea of the cowboy is a lone man willing to pay the price to maintain a code of honor, no matter the cost to himself (imagine Brienne of Tarth the cowgirl). The best works use this idea and twist it - like Larry McMurty’s books or one of my favorite cowboys, Tsutomu Yamazaki as Gorō in Tampopo. I love Joan Didion’s ”John Wayne: A Love Song”, which has little to do with Wayne himself but is really about being a little girl who dreams of cowboys.
posted by sallybrown at 4:38 AM on August 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

Seems very much about Wayne himself to me, but YMMV, it’s a nice piece.
posted by Segundus at 8:27 AM on August 4, 2019

Live by the sword, die by the gun: where Westerns and samurai movies divergeMedium, Wally Brennan, April 27, 2018:
Much has been said of the similarities between Westerns and samurai movies. Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Seven Samurai being adapted by Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven displays many of the genres’ commonly shared attributes: wanderers take their skills to lawless places and fight for good against evil. A few sufficiently skilled swordsmen (or gunslingers) can stop a warlord or bandit chief from oppressing peaceful villagers.

Cowboys and samurai are rugged individualists. However, the two appear in their respective nations’ culture industries amid very different social contexts. Because of this difference in context, samurai movies are more likely to be tales that warn against a reckless embrace of violence, while Westerns are inclined to be propaganda that glorifies violence serving particular ends.
In a nation of nearly 330 million people on a planet with over 7.5 billion inhabitants, there’s no room left for squinty-eyed gunslingers (at any level) or super heroes riding to the rescue. The new frontier we’re facing is how to get along without swords, guns, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, and most dangerous of all, myths of racial and national exceptionalism.
posted by cenoxo at 10:30 AM on August 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

In that context it might be fun to read Noel Perrin's Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543 to 1879, because it nicely lays out the idea of honour and what it meant to the fighters of that era. It's short and very well-written, and might have some bearing on today's gun culture.
posted by sneebler at 3:27 PM on August 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Anybody watching "Yellowstone" on Paramount? I'm a sucker for a good western and this is a great, modern western.
posted by prepmonkey at 8:02 AM on August 5, 2019

sneebler - Thanks for the Giving Up The Gun referral, found a used copy.
posted by cenoxo at 8:23 PM on August 5, 2019

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