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Cowboy Culture

by Anna Harberger

[originally published Sep. 2019]


It’s a Friday evening, and the 10-foot LED lights you gave Jeff Bezos $28.99 for dance between muted magenta, green, and blue hues. It’s only 11 PM, and the night has already turned into a sad impression of a Petra Collins photo set posted on Rookie in 2012. And just as the PBR-fueled pregame in your sweltering Barrows single is coming to a close, your pal catches sight of the hot pink, fringed cowboy hat resting dormant on the upper closet shelf.

They place it atop your box-dyed bob in the name of both Self-Awareness and Camp. When intoxicated by feelings of Dolly Parton level hotness, it becomes easy to disregard, or at least not think about, the violent history of the romanticized Western Cowboy.

From Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” becoming the longest-running No.1 single in Billboard’s history to Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour (2019) winning Best Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, cowboy culture has permeated the artistic and aesthetic mainstream over the last year. As bootcut jeans fly off of Urban Outfitters shelves and Smiling Cowboy emojis flood the captions of Instagram influencers worldwide, one begins to wonder: What is calling Gen Z (and millenials, alike) toward the Old West? Why right now?

In embarking upon my journey to unpack this curious state of affairs, I started where my therapist would tell me to begin: looking inward.

First things first, my Instagram username during 10th and 11th grade was @rode0.c1own. hitting not one, but two bases of performative ironic buffoonery. This, combined with the red cowboy boots I received for my 16th birthday and my Spotify playlist entitled “dust...EVERYWHERE!” chock-full of old country western singers (think Patsy Cline, Roy Rogers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn) makes me a prime culprit of cowboy co-opting.

Much of my unresolved feelings for my (seemingly) cultivated “Western” aesthetic stem from my hometown: Chatsworth. Located in the northwestern corner of San Fernando Valley, the infamous Los Angeles suburb, Chatsworth is a small desert town that feels perpetually stuck on the set of one of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns.

The gold-painted swinging doors of the local line-dancing bar (notably called the Cowboy Palace Saloon), the rustic horse stables on every block, and the Manson Caves tucked in the Santa Susana Mountains all live within a five mile radius of my house. This summer I found minimum wage work as a hostess at the Country Deli, a Turkish and Israeli owned delicatessen. Murals of Hassidic Jewish cowfolk lined the walls while I sat parties of men wearing wide-brimmed cowboy hats and embroidered button-ups tucked into the flashiest belts one could imagine. Chatsworth exists as some kind of warped anomaly, or is, at the very least, eccentric.

While taking myself on long, solitary scooter rides to the local haunts, it felt like John and June Carter-Cash were singing only to me through my earbuds. In those moments, my town felt like an idyllic, beautiful dreamland. For hours at a time, I forgot that I was surrounded by hushed conservatism and Confederate flags hidden in kitchen windows. The Trump signs of 2016 were tucked away on kitchen window sills where I couldn’t see them, but that doesn’t mean that those bigoted, violent ideologies don’t permeate just beneath the bridle path.

My comfortable admiration of Chatsworth as ironic, imaginary Western bliss is privileged, in the same way Cowboy Culture has been adopted in fashion and culture by other upper-middle-class kids from coastal cities. So, where do we go from here? In the words of Mitski Miyawaki, who can or should “be the cowboy?”

In answering those questions, let us turn our attention to the ignored narratives of history by asking a simple question: who actually were the cowboys? In her article published in The Atlantic, journalist Leah Williams explains.

“Cowboy culture refers to a style of ranching introduced in North America by Spanish colonists in the 16th century—a time when most ranch owners were Spanish and many ranch hands were Native. None of the first cowboys were (non-Hispanic) white. And while historians don’t know exact figures, by the late 19th century roughly one in three cowboys (known as vaqueros) was Mexican. The recognizable cowboy fashions, technologies, and lexicon...are all Latino inventions,” Williams wrote.

Williams went on to explain the role cowfolk of color played in the physical labor that built the American West. While that labor was often born from coercive enslavement, scholar of African-American history and author of The Black West William Loren Katz describes some of the effects of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation on the issue of of cowhands of color.

“Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations,” Katz said.

Williams bolsters this notion by adding that black cowboys became the “primary architects” of the West through social and legal coercion. Though they were instrumental in completion of “hard labor,” tasks that white Americans avoided themselves, black cowboys continue to fight for recognition today.

The ugliness perpetuated by idealized visions of the west has manifested in countless ways within American media of the past and present. Stories of young chivalrous men (who also happen to be straight and white) venturing West in hopes of adventure and love, and life have capitalized on racist, imperialistic notions of American Exceptionalism.

The fallacious concept of an “all-white West” has been memorialized in countless Western films, especially in the 1950s. Williams explores the responsibility of Hollywood in the erasure of non-white identities within Western films. She highlights the works of directors like John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille who were unabashedly racist in depictions of non-white characters. Continually presenting non-white individuals as villains with names like “Mexican Henchman” in The Virginian (1914) and “Facetious Redskin” in By Indian Post (1919), or not including them at all as Ford does when telling the story of the first transcontinental railroad without Chinese actors in The Iron Horse (1924.) These are only three isolated incidents.

What happens when we consider objectification of womxn, implications of ethnic genocide, environmental damage, toxic masculinity, and the lack of queer representation in traditonal, idealized versions of the West? We find that these new narratives, while historically untold, are exploding into the cultural landscape of 2019.

Increasingly, there seems to be a shift toward a celebration of all kinds of identities within the once-limited scope of Cowboy Culture. Featuring photos of RuPaul, Lil’ Kim, and Beyonce in Western gear, Instagram accounts like the Yeehaw Agenda (@theyeehawagenda) are bringing these changes. Founded by Bri Malandro, the Yeehaw Agenda looks to highlight Black identities as part of the “cowboy culture” aesthetic.

“Black cowboys have literally always been here regardless of the image most people get when they hear the word ‘cowboy.’ I think the main thing I’ve learned is that a lot of people had no idea that was the case. I’m happy I could be a part of bringing it to the light in some way,” Malandro commented in a Dazed Magazine interview. Additionally, musicians and performers like Orville Peck, Trixie Mattel, and Lil Nas X have brought queerness and cowboy-ism together in a wonderfully Western union of expression.

Now that Halloween is just around the corner, it is time to decide whether you’ll join the masses of VSCO girls dressing up as Sexy Cowgirl. Now, while I fully advocate for assless chaps and hot pink fringed cowboy hats, we should take this season as an opportunity to engage with the deeper implications of cowboy culture, in terms of human rights, agency, and representation.

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