With the return of summer has come my return to the world of rodeo. I find the whole experience fascinating.
Ideological, economic, and social functions permeate contemporary American rodeo. The symbolic content of rodeo is embedded in an agrarian ideology rooted deeply in American culture. The dissemination and mobilization of the agrarian value system in America is credited to the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's articulation of the agrarian creed nourished a belief system advocating that there is a morally virtuous quality attached to agriculture, and that the rural life is the natural and good life (see Dalecki and Coughenour 1992). Although the United States has become increasingly urbanized throughout the twentieth century, the American public continues to identify with and endorse fundamental agrarian principles. Several studies (e.g., Butte1 and Flinn 1975; Dalecki and Coughenour 1992; Flinn and Johnson 1974; Molnar and Wu 1989) have found that an agrarian ideology continues to be widespread among the American public.Find the whole article here.
Rodeo is fasinating. Without a doubt, it is a subculture which plays enormous part in the American psyche. My niece is a successful rodeo queen as a result I've had the opportunity to watch Rodeo from the edge, from the side but also to have at least a glimpse of its inner workings.
I grew up hearing stories (which I tend to dismiss as apocryphal) of wild-eyed animal rights activists freeing all the rodeo stock and doing radical things to "stop" rodeo. Some groups (see one here) protest against the mistreatment of animals at the rodeo. What's the line by Molly Ivins? "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta sing, hearts gotta bleed"? Watching rodeo I always worry about the animals. I just think its gotta hurt. Watching one of the rodeo queens barrel down the arena toward a tethered and madly bleating goat, I said something like, "I think this goat knows this is gonna hurt."
The woman sitting in front of me spun around and indignantly said, "It doesn't hurt them a bit! Hmph." (I swear to god she actually said "hmph" - it was a brilliant moment.) Within the rodeo subculture, worrying about the well being of the animals is treated as socially inappropriate; the high quality of care and feeding of the animals is much touted by rodeo enthusiasts but the actual care and feeding is displaced - the stock contractor, as for example, is tasked with these jobs for many of the animals and takes care to keep the work invisible - it happens off stage, on the sidelines where it is not seen. Yet, a key part of rodeo includes regular assertions that the animals involved are well cared for and do not suffer. To an outsider, however, watching the animals it is readily apparent that the animals are treated very roughly.
A key principle of agrarian ideology as embraced rodeo is the idea that animals' suffering is less than human suffering - the idea that something that would hurt a human being is brushed off as unimportant by an animal. Thus, steer wrestling or team roping or regular roping doesn't hurt the animal. This is an obviously self-serving way of thinking. If you believe that being roped is harmful, then you would only do it if absolutely necessary; doing it for sport is wrong. OTOH, arguing that "it doesn't hurt" the animals, allows rodeo participants to treat their activities as purely sport without addressing potential moral questions.
Rodeo subculture is resolutely sexist. Males and females do not compete directly against one another in almost any event (I believe team roping has both male and female contestants and often has teams of both males and females). Bull and bronc riding are open to males only. There is an inherent tension in the rodeo experience. Most of the women who participate in rodeo are not tiny little delicate examples of American womanhood. No, these are big strapping American women who can throw bales of hay and who can spend the whole day on horseback and the whole night whooping it up with the boys, who get bucked off their horses, brush the dirt off and climb right back on. These are tough women who can ride, rope drink, swear and screw with the best of the boys. They know it, the men know it, but somehow once they arrive at the event, the women simply head off their events, the men to theirs. There's no grumbling that any woman can ride a bull or bucking bronc and should be allowed to do so or that the men should compete in barrel and pole racing. In an interesting twist, in 4-H equestrian events, boys do compete in barrel and pole racing and other speed events. The divide between male and female is enforced both formally and informally.
A key component of the world of rodeo is a profound sense of legacy - the legacy of the "Old West" and cowboy culture which must be preserved. Rodeo embodies post-modernism in ways which defy easy comprehension. The legacy preserved is constructed from myth rather than fact, constructed in such a way that contemporary preconceptions are confirmed rather than challenged. The inhabitants of the rodeo world consciously and deliberately employ their self-produced mythology as a means of creating and sustaining identity; to use the language of post-modern scholarship, the have written their own meaning into the texts and then used those texts as a way of defining themselves and their subculture. To put it much more simply, they believe their own stories.
The result is a self-conscious and self-consciously created culture in which participants symbolically re-enact a constructed understanding of the past in an attempt to revivify the past. Central to rodeo is the actual and metaphorical act of "breaking" the animal as an act of taming it. I hve heard the term "rough stock" used for the bulls and bucking broncs - those are the men's events; the meaning is unavoidable. The men must "break" the animal, symbolically tame it by riding it. To make the animals buck, a strap is placed around its flank placing pressure on a number of very sensitive regions. Watch closely at almost any rodeo and you'll see that the supposedly "wild" animals are in many ways quite well trained; the minute the cowboy is thrown many animals stop bucking, which allows the support riders to remove the strap on its flanks. Watch carefully and as the cowboys mount the animals in the chutes, the animals are obviously preparing themselves - they know what's coming and you can see them tense their muscles and prepare themselves. The gate opens and they leap sideways into the arena and begin bucking. Of course, of course, these are not "wild" animals. They have to be handled by the stock companies, meaning loaded into vehicles, transported from place to place, receive regular exams by vets and treatment by handlers. Yet the active mythology of rodeo asks us for the sake of the performance to accept these animals are "wild".
Even a well-trained horse is still an animal and if frightened or suddenly injured, can behave in untamed ways. A horse that gets stung by a bee or bitten by a horsefly (which hurts!) might suddenly start bucking. Even a spavined nag can get a wild hair once in a while and start bucking. You see the same thing at the rodeo - every now and then one of the animals exceeds normal parameters and somebody gets hurt and hurt badly. Such cases are the exception. The mythos of the wild animal is central to the rodeo subculture. The experience of the truly wild animal is not.
The cowgirl of the rodeo is as far from the real women of the old west, a great many of whom were "soiled doves" (a euphemism for prostitute), as the cowboy of the rodeo is the from real cowboys of the 19th century. A select group of girls and women compete in the queen contests; that these contestants consider themselves the top of the social hierarchy in rodeo is communicated in ways both subtle and obvious. The queen contest typically involves a variety of events which would not be out of place in any other beauty pageant - modeling, appearance, speech, impromptu question - with the addition of a horsemanship (and it is called horsemanship) and a written test of rodeo rules. The queen contest rewards a rigidly stylized femininity; the level of necessary artifice to win is as high as in any other beauty pageant. The speech portion is intended to evoke the "western" lifestyle - and usually deals with questions of horses and the natural beauty of the west. Utah is considered a powerhouse in high school rodeo and particularly in high school rodeo queen contests; Utah has produced national champion queens at high schools events for a number of years running. Utah's queen contestants are accomplished at the artifice necessary to win. (The last queen contest I attended I found myself cheering for a contestant who was clearly a fag hag in training - how can you not love a teenage fag hag?)
The queen and her attendants perform a number of highly visible symbolic duties, including leading grand entry for the performance.
Grand entry opens the performance. Everyone who can, mounts a horse and they make a wild, high speed ride around the arena behind an American flag (carried in most performances I've seen by the queen). The contestants then line up with the queen and her attendants in the center of the arena facing the audience. The audience rises, the national athem is sung and then the performance begins. It's easy to see this ritual in the same light as the national anthem at any sporting event. My observation tells me that that would be a mistake. The mythos of rodeo emphasizes the centrality of rodeo to the American experience. Invocation of a patriotic identity is crucial to this symbolic relationship to the world. Patriotic expression within rodeo speaks to a core component of the identity participants are trying to create. When I speak here about participants, I'm not just referring to those who compete but also to their support networks of family and friends, the various people who work for and within the world of rodeo. A panoply of flag-themed images abound within the confines of the rodeo world; red white and blue are popular color themes.
I talked about the idea that rodeo employes a self-consciously created myth. Like many sub-cultures, rodeo has a sharp sense of self-awareness. The self-awareness is on display as rodeo enacts its symbolic recreation of the west. That self-awareness extends in many areas and directions.
Although it has been the subject of a great deal of humor in the broader culture, the gay rodeo is absent from the majority of rodeo experiences; to bring it up at the rodeo is regarded as an example of extreme bad taste; so uncomfortable is the "mainstream" rodeo world with glbt persons that the very existence of the gay rodeo is aggressively ignored. In high school rodeo it's impossible to miss the compulsory heterosexuality. Within the world of rodeo, heterosexuality is assumed and the glbt existence both actively and passively edited. The gay rodeo - if mentioned at all - is treated as an extremely bad joke. The gay rodeo exists because there was no place within the world of rodeo for glbt persons to be honestly themselves. Rodeo's casual, resolute sexism makes accepting the notion of successful gay rodeo performers almost impossible.
A troubling aspect of rodeo which I which to mention is the reflexive anti-liberalism. Rodeo invokes and re-enacts an agrarian ideology and mythology, one which is embodied in the perception of the rural as "real" America. As it self-consciously writes and identifies with its mythology, the world of rodeo also rejects the symbols of liberalism - urban America in general and the East Coast in particular. Rodeo's hostility to liberals and liberalism is every bit as symbolic as its embrace of the Old West. A rodeo queen saying she admired Nancy Pelosi would be regarded as downright odd and subversive, someone who could not be trusted. Yet when pushed, most of the people could tell you little about her beyond her place of residence is San Francisco and she's a liberal. Liberalism is regarded as little more than an extension of urbanism, which is seen as a threat to the world of wide open wilderness of the American west. As an interesting aside, I don't recall hearing folksy, stylized language at rodeo that characterizes Sarah Palin speeches.
The general sense within the rodeo world is that you don't upset things, you don't make demands or ask for changes. Such actions would represent betrayal at mutliple levels - betrayal of the past as imagined by rodeo. In the Old West, men were men, women were women, they had separate spheres and roles. If men were to start competing in a rodeo king contests or goat tying, it would strike at the core mythology of the rodeo world; in the same way if women were to demand to ride bulls or broncs it would threaten to unravel the mythology of the rodeo world. Again and again, the rodeo world invokes the life of the Old West - but an image of the west closer to Bonanza than reality. The hardships of life in the Old West are glamorized - the cowboys sitting around the fire singing songs, telling tales replace the reality of physical exhaustion, emotional isolation and very real danger; the realities the lives of women in the cowtowns of the west are equally glamorized - rather than hardbitten whores selling their favors they become the elegant and stylized queens in their custom-fitted, brightly colored leather dresses, perfect makeup and ritualized speeches. The West in the mythology of the rodeo is a place of beautiful sunsets, wide open spaces and contented cowboys, beautiful cowgirls. It is a world in which nature is being actively tamed by men, decorated and accessorized by women, and smiled upon nature. It is a powerful myth, but at the end of the day no matter how powerful it is a myth created to serve the purposes and needs of today and bears only passing resemblance to the reality of history.