Mythologies5 March 2019
- The man in the broad-brimmed hat
2018 has been a good year for cowboys. They are no longer confined to your grandfather’s favourite Clint Eastwood films and the bitter dust of myth and history. The cowboy can be found on the catwalks of Milan and the bike paths of Brunswick. Where did all these cowboys come from? Where are these lonesome souls going?
I don’t mean that my local barista has started rounding up cattle, or riding a horse to work, or killing the owners of the cafe next door and calling it manifest destiny. I only note an ironic revival of the lonesome genre hero. The Cut offers “24 ways to embrace the rise of Western Wear”. Cult favourite indie rock musician Mitski Miyawaki instructed her listener to “Be the Cowboy” with the title of her fifth studio album. Solange Knowles appeared in a studded cowboy hat. It is uniquely American, and so it feels universal, because Americans believe that they are the world, and self-conscious Australians tend to believe them.
The myth of the cowboy is one soaked in blood. It would not be new to tell you that the iconic image both romanticises the stealing of native land and a kind of Randian individualism, a hopeless dedication to braving the wilderness on your own. I am interested in the tender instances of cowboy subversion. The cowboy is doomed to be part of a system while remaining perilously alone.
Most contemporary cowboys are women. They are not cowgirls — which carries another connotation entirely (sexual freedom, blonde hair, a lone woman in an unswept Texan sports bar). Cowboys are distinctly less sexual (though not without their charms). They perform a lack of performance. They are stoic. I can see why this is appealing. It is hard to be a woman. Masculinity keeps the self-trapped within the body, but the body wanders free.
2. This town ain’t big enough for the two of us
There is something wonderfully camp about the cowboy. Susan Sontag writes: “camp sees everything in quotation marks. It is not a lamp but a ‘lamp’”. Not a cowboy but a “cowboy”. It is a matter of tropes, repeated self-consciously, a reference to a reference. In 2018, to “be the cowboy” is to have what Sontag calls “good taste in bad taste”.
Not a cowboy but a “cowboy”: Dick Hebdige as portrayed in I Love Dick, Django in Django Unchained, the star-crossed lovers of Brokeback Mountain, the Walmart yodelling kid, the sheriff emoji, Westworld.
There’s nothing modern, cool nor new about the cowboy. It is not an aesthetic that can be reproduced without irony yet, there is a sense that on some level one takes the image seriously. Is this not the tension from which camp emerges? From the awareness that something is “too much” stems a tender and protective embrace of its “too much-ness”.
3. Lonesome love
I loved a cowboy once. Not a real cattle rustler, or even a “cowboy” but I can’t help but remember him as such. This is the way memory works. The truth itself cannot hold, so stories are put in his place. I cannot quite remember his face but I remember his strange freedom, how lost he always seemed. I remember the gentle and indifferent isolation of someone who feels above the routine of the day utterly at the mercy of the world.
First love is another camp experience. You recognise it is in poor taste but that doesn’t stop you from feeling it anyway. To quote Sontag again, it “finds the success in certain passionate failures”.
The cowboy lives on because he is a relic of an irretrievable and irredeemable past. He is saved by camp, which rescues his form from his content. He is now a matter of appearance.
You may find a local cowboy on a frameless mattress, still eating beans from the can. She poses on Instagram in a big red hat. She gets out of bed in the morning, and try to find beauty and meaning in their solitude. 2018 was the year of the cowboy. This means they will be forgotten again, and his image will be demoted from a good taste in bad taste to just plain bad taste. I’ll miss the cowboy when he goes. The trend will stroll out into the desert, utterly alone again.