Stuff White People Do: Pose In Cowboy Drag

By guest contributor Macon D., originally published at Stuff White People Do

Most of the time, I’m like just about everyone else in at least one way — I don’t much care who occupies the position of “Alabama Agricultural Commissioner.” In fact, I didn’t even know such a position exists. But then I saw a couple of ads for Dale Peterson, a current GOP candidate for Alabama Ag Commish. Peterson’s ads immediately register as very, very “white” to me, and now I’m trying to count the ways.

Among the most obvious appeals to conservative white voters here is the nostalgic evocation of the Independent (White) Cowboy Myth. If you say “cowboy” to most white Americans, they’ll immediately think of a hat-wearing, horse-riding white man. And yet, as Mel at BroadSnark explains (in a post on “White America’s Existential Identity Crisis”), real cowboys weren’t actually all that white, nor all that independent:

There is a certain segment of the American population that really believes in the American foundational myths. They identify with them. They believe that America was built by a handful of white, Christian, men with exceptional morals. Their America is the country that showed the world democracy, saved the Jews in World War II, and tore down the Berlin wall.

These people have always fought changes to their mythology. They have always resented those of us who pushed to complicate those myths with the realities of slavery, Native American genocide, imperial war in the Philippines, invasions of Latin American countries, and secret arms deals.

And we have been so busy fighting them to have our stories and histories included in the American story that we sometimes forget why the myths were invented in the first place.

No myth illustrates the slight of hand behind our national mythology quite like the myth of the cowboy. In this mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.

Peterson’s follow-up ad is even, um . . . better?

As Mel goes on to explain,

Read Richard Slatta’s Cowboys of the Americas and you will get a very different picture. In reality, the first American cowboys were indigenous people trained by the Spanish missionaries. In reality, more than 30% of the cowboys on Texas trail drives were African American, Mexican, or Mexican-American.

And cowboys were not so free.

Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs. Many did not even own the horse they rode. Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la “Bonanza”). The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.

I think Dale Peterson (or rather, his handlers) may also be consciously echoing Ronald Reagan’s cowboy persona. In turn, Reagan may have been consciously echoing another rough-and-tumble political poser, Teddy Roosevelt. In all three cases, a white male politician evokes a myth that seems even more “white male” than the man himself. And a crucial part of that white myth is the direct exclusion and erasure of non-white people.

In her book-length study of Roosevelt’s self-fashionings (Rough Rider in the White House), Sarah Watts explains the political reasons for periodically dusting off and deploying this hoary white-male myth — it’s a recognition of, and pandering to, ordinary white-male American anxieties, anxieties that still exist today:

Roosevelt emerged as a central purveyor of the cowboy-soldier hero model because he more than any man of his age harnessed the tantalizing freedom of cowboys to address the social and psychological needs that arose from deep personal sources of frustration, anxiety, and fear. More than any other he sensed that ordinary men needed a clearly recognizable and easily appropriated hero who enacted themes about the body; the need for extremity, pain, and sacrifice; and the desire to exclude some men and bond with others. In one seamless cowboy-soldier-statesman-hero life, Roosevelt crafted the cowboy ethos consciously and lived it zealously, providing men an image and a fantasy enlisted in service to the race-nation.

In keeping with changing models of masculinity . . . mass-circulation magazines began to feature a Napoleonic “idol of power,” a man of action who used iron will and “animal magnetism” to crush his rivals and dominate nature. Biographers of plutocrats and robber barons encouraged readers to envision themselves in a social Darwinist world of ruthless competition where character alone appeared effeminate and sentimentalism dangerous. Earlier notions of manliness had counseled reason over passion; now the hero must unleash his “forcefulness.”

Enter a new type of charismatic male personality after 1870, a cowboy-soldier operating in the new venue of the American West on sheer strength of will and physicality. Eastern readers instantly recognized him as more masculine precisely because he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.

Writers pitched the cowboy ethos against Christian values of mercy, empathy, love, and forgiveness, against domestic responsibility and the job demands that complicated men’s lives and dissolved their masculine will. The cowboy was not interested in saving souls or finding spiritual purity or assigning meaning to death. His code of conduct arose as he struggled against the overwhelming wildness of men and beasts and carved out a prairie existence with guns, ropes, and barbed wire. Readers suspended ordinary morality as they fantasized about life at the margins of civilization and sampled forbidden pleasures of taming, busting, subduing, shooting, hanging, and killing.

In addition, and more to the (“swpd”) point, the falsified racial identity of this ideal cowboy-soldier effectively erased the fact that demographically disproportionate numbers of “cowboys” were not white.

natford1

“Many real cowboys were black ex-slaves, whereas the Hollywood heroes were always white.”
Nat Love, African American cowboy, 1876

At the same time, the cowboy myth was imagined in opposition to darker, dehumanized Others. Whitened cowboys of yesteryear were lauded in Roosevelt’s time for having helped to vanquish Indians, of course. However, as Watts explains, a growing nostalgia for antebellum Southern plantation life, including the racial control it represented, also helped fuel the collective desire for such a virile, specifically white ideal:

Northerners adopted a more sympathetic view of Southern white manhood, one in which Southern elites came to be admired for their racial acumen. Northerners abandoned critical views of slavery for nostalgic reminiscences of plantation life in which white Southern men had effectively managed a racial society, keeping blacks where they belonged and protecting white women’s virtue. In the theaters, novels, and traveling shows of the 1890s, popular themes of happy plantation slaves reflected Northern acceptance of the Southern white view of race and the Jim Crow limitations on suffrage, mobility, education, and economic life.

Even if many, though not all, Northerners drew the line at excusing lynching, Silber observes, they nevertheless accepted the idea that Southern white men lynched black “rapists” in the attempt to prove themselves men. Concerns about protecting Southern womanhood reflected Northern men’s anxieties about promiscuous sexual behavior and the preservation of women’s proper sphere. Finding a common ground of white manliness among former enemies . . . helped Northern whites to “cast African-Americans outside the boundaries of their Anglo-Saxon nation,” to romanticize Southern notions of chivalry, and to justify turning Southern race relations over to Southern whites entirely.

Born into a wealthy Eastern family, Teddy Roosevelt was a physically weak and asthmatic child. When he joined the New York state assembly at the age of twenty-three, Roosevelt struck others as “unmanly.” As Watts also writes, “newspapers and his fellow assemblymen ridiculed his ‘squeaky’ voice and dandified clothing, referring to him as ‘Jane-Dandy,’ ‘Punkin-Lily,’ and ‘our own Oscar Wilde.’ . . . Duly insulted, he began to construct a new physical image around appropriately virile Western decorations and settings, foregrounding the bodily attributes of a robust outdoorsman that were becoming new features in the nation’s political iconography.”

In a move reminsicent of George W. Bush’s brush-clearing photo-ops on his own “ranch,” the young Roosevelt moved to the Western frontier, in order to “harden” his body, but also to wear a series of conspicuous, meticulously detailed frontier costumes. Like the younger Bush, Roosevelt also bought a ranch, apparently for similar self-staging purposes (it’s worth noting that the retired George W. Bush now spends most of his time in a suburban home outside of Dallas; he rarely visits his ranch anymore, and if the New York Times is right, when he does, he spends most of his time there riding a mountain bike instead of a horse).

Teddy Roosevelt posing as a cowboy (at the age of 27)

Teddy Roosevelt posing as a cowboy (at the age of 27)

As Watts writes of this photo,

In 1885, returning East after a bighorn hunting trip to Montana, Roosevelt had another studio photo made. This time he appeared as a self-consciously overdressed yet recognizable Western cowboy posed as bold and determined, armed and ready for action. “You would be amused to see me,” he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge in 1884, in my “broad sombrero hat, fringed and beaded buckskin shirt, horse hide chaparajos or riding trousers, and cowhide boots, with braided bridle and silver spurs.” To his sister Bamie, he boasted, “I now look like a regular cowboy dandy, with all my equipments finished in the most expensive style.” Only the fringed buckskin shirt remained from his Leatherstocking outfit.

Buckskin, he said, represented America’s “most picturesque and distinctively national dress,” attire worn by Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and by the “reckless, dauntless Indian fighters” who led the “white advance throughout all our Western lands.” Buckskin and whiteness notwithstanding, this 1885 image still seems forced, and his attention focused on the costs, accoutrements, and style of cowboy life. He does not even wear his glasses, without which he could see only poorly.

All of which makes me wonder just what kind of man Alabama’s Dale Peterson really is, behind the pose of that everlasting, gunslinging, and white cowboy myth. The pose he’s striking in cowboy drag just seems so obviously that — a pose, and a mighty forced one at that.

Nevertheless, claims are now being made that Peterson actually is that cowboy. As Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., the writer/director of Peterson’s ads, explains,

“I decided to stick him on a horse, give him a gun, and make it a John Wayne movie. . . . Some jerks are saying, ‘Oh, it makes us look like rednecks!’ Well, maybe in New York you wouldn’t make an ad like that, but this is Alabama, and here, people ride horses and shoot guns.”

When Peterson saw the ad, he “loved it,” Ehlinger says.

“Because I was basically doing a portrait of him,” he explains. “Not a campaign ad, but a portrait.”

To which I can only say . . . O RLY?