Saturday, June 19, 2010

pose in cowboy drag

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.

"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)

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?


  1. Am I the only one that finds this kind of ad hysterically funny? See also this ad for Senator John Cornyn when he was running for reelection in 2008. This shit is solid comedy gold.

  2. No, I do too, Krass, guess I forgot to mention that. This vandal-shootin' cowpoke ranks right up there with Demon Sheep. Thanks for Big John, I somehow missed that -- another strong contender!

  3. Macon,

    Oddly enough, you're posts are becoming more human to me (and I don't mean that as a slam). This is factual based, entertaining, and good knowledge.

    Even though I don't like the new colors, I like the new atmosphere. Good on ya.

  4. "your" not "you're"


  5. Interesting analysis of the cowboy myth and imagery. This is a good educational post.

  6. H/T American Indians in Children's Literature:

    U.S. World Cup fans, posing as Cowboys & Indians--and Captain America.


    It's interesting that those "Olde Tymee Photoe" places usually specialize in Old West stuff...
    Also: "to romanticize Southern notions of chivalry":
    We *so* still do that today. 'Gone With the Wind' much? Isn't that a staple of 'women's favorite books' and 'women's favorite movies' lists?

    Tricia Martineau Wagner's African-American Women of the Old West, on the other hand, is an *actual* good read.

  7. Good post. This can be tied in with Leowen's Sundown Towns which, as I mentioned, I'm reading now. He shows that Black former slaves were dispersing into virtually all parts of the US until about 1890, when Whites in the North and West began driving them out and keeping them out of many cities, towns and rural areas, a process which continued well into the 1950s and still continues in many areas. Measures of residential segregation went up almost everywhere between 1890 and 1970. Erasing Black cowboys from history was probably linked to expelling Black people from the rural West.

  8. If only this unhealthy obsession with uniforms was limited to just cowboys. White men always seem to have the time - not to mention the inclination - to dress up in Roman, Confederate, or Nazi clothes, drive to some campground in the middle of the woods, and pretend to kill each other with antiquated weapons. It is usually combined with some sort of annihilation fantasy too. They want to "re-enact" the bloodiest massacres.

    I find these activities really, well, creepy.

  9. Those two videos are the whitest political ads I've ever seen. I'm surprised that the guy trying to take the sign away wasn't a person of color, but I guess the producers aren't as obvious as we thought.

    The blog helped me to learn more about the white male, cowboy myth. Unfortunately, the myth will live on thanks in large part to Hollywood.

  10. Bart Mancuso, captain of a Los Angeles-class attack submarine in the film, “Hunt for Red October” was nicknamed Buckaroo (cowboy) by the renegade Ramius. “Oh, Vasily, Moscow is not the worry, nor the whole Soviet Navy. I know their tactics; I have the advantage. No… the worry is the Americans. If we meet the right sort, this will work. We get some buckaroo...”

    Translated in my mind to mean a reckless- headstrong, self-assured white male who operates outside the system. In the Cold War film “The Bedford Incident,” Captain Finlander was such a man. In commercials targeted towards the white mainstream (Like a Rock) the cowboy is a recurring motif. I’ve always wondered what the fascination was with white males and trucks; but it occurs to me (and this is just my opinion) that like guns, trucks represent power. They’re not just vehicles used for hauling things around. The selling point of most truck commercials is the power and towing capacity; like a motorized draft horse. White males seem to be attracted to powerful things; explosives- guns and monster trucks just to name a few.

    George Bush embodied this in his cowboy persona and his “bring it on” attitude. Often seen wearing his cowboy hat clearing brush on his ranch- to some whites you couldn't get more American than that. I grew up with the Marlboro man, The Virginian- Rawhide, the Rifleman and The Big Valley. Each TV series had a rugged white protagonist set opposite some blonde cast as the fragile damsel. Iconic figures like John Wayne and Randolph Scott dominated the box-office, while Audie Murphy and Gene Autry dominated the airwaves on Saturday afternoons. To many white males the ultimate expression of masculinity wasn’t the British secret agent (Bond) or the street tough cop (Kojak) but rather, the lonesome cowboy.

    Macon said…
    “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.”

    This is bothersome, for the way most white males of this terrible era proved their manhood was by severing the manhood of their black prey; either before they lynched him or shortly thereafter. For those whites, the black penis was the real threat to white purity.

  11. Great post! Educational. Your site is getting better and better.

  12. P:S.: I find the rifle rather frightening. What's with the threatening to shoot someone for stealing a yard sign? Is a life worth a yard sign? I don't get the fascination with guns. I don't get it, try as I may. Perhaps you could do (or maybe you already have? If so, please provide link) another post on the fixation with firearms.

  13. o rly? hahaha nice link, great article

  14. @ olderwoman

    >> "Black former slaves were dispersing into virtually all parts of the US until about 1890, when Whites in the North and West began driving them out and keeping them out of many cities, towns and rural areas"

    Interesting. The escalating of white oppression of Black people begins around the same time as the massacre at Wounded Knee--the last battle of the Indian Wars and usually considered the end of the U.S. frontier. Perhaps WP needed to ramp up the stealing of Black property because they had run out of Native American land to steal?

    (P.S. Have you noticed that Loewen has a deep, enduring love for the phrase "nadir of race relations"? I think he uses it in about half the entries in Lies Across America.)

  15. @Willow,

    Have you noticed that Loewen has a deep, enduring love for the phrase "nadir of race relations"?

    I suspect that's because it's a standard term or label for a particular era in American history.

  16. Thanks for illuminating how politicians use this white male myth! Very good and useful reading.

    Btw, I guess this is a way that Tony Soprano basically identified as white, despite identifying so strongly as Italian -- the thing he had for Gary Cooper.

  17. @ Macon,

    Thanks! I did sort of gather that, and I agree it's more descriptive than "post-Reconstruction" and flows better than "the Mariana Trench of relations." But it seemed like he was using it ALL the TIME. Via Wikipedia:

    "It continues to be used, most notably in the books of James Loewen, but also by other scholars."

    We are both right. :o)

    /derail; sorry, peoples

  18. Willow & Macon re "nadir" and Loewen: Sundown Towns gets pretty repetitive in many places, not just in the use of this word. He could have used a strong editor. On the other hand, he got the book done, no mean accomplishment, I say as having worked on one for years that is nowhere near done. The book has significant weaknesses, but is still very important for calling attention to the issue.

  19. Somehow, I couldn't help but think of Walker, Texas Ranger as I was reading this post. The white cowboy myth now (drumroll)...has a black friend! He's so in tune with the "mystical" ways of American Indians, he must have learned his martial arts skills from an Asian sensei, and he's a savior to Texas's poor Latino/as. So now, I and other white males have an idol that shows us we can still be cowboys AND be celebrated by people of color. Ick. It's an even bigger joke of white power...just not so entertaining.

    But we buy into that all the time--me especially. Seriously, how many times has the word "heroic" popped up by white folks praising white folks for minimum levels of decency? I'm saying this because I'm pretty freaked out lately by how much and how easily that way of thinking seeps into and out of me. Perhaps I need a good Chuck Norris roundhouse-to-the-face from time to time.

  20. Thanks for this, this was a super informative post and very timely for me as I've been reading The Black West and In Search of the Racial Frontier and in general have been studying up on my local Oregon history.

    It's pretty terrifying when you realize just how much of what you learned, both in school and via cultural osmosis, was straight up bullshit.

    The cowboy myth in particular really gets to me, probably because as someone who does seasonal farm work, picking up ranch work is currently how I get by between seasons. I've baled hay, wrangled cattle, roped calves, worked in dairies. You name a domesticated animal and I've worked with it at one time or another. The cowboy myth not only distorts the true history of USian westward expansion, but it also erases the very real people who continue to do this kind of work today. Cattle handlers and ranch hands may no longer be doing long distance cattle drives over the open plains, but the work is still extremely labor intensive, can carry high risk for injury, and doesn't pay much. It also continues to be done by people who are often disenfranchised either by class, race or immigration status (or all of the above.)

    It's just another in the long line of invisible faces, like the fruit and vegi pickers and slaughter house workers, that make up our food distribution system, and it seriously pisses me off to see it distorted and used by joes like this for their own dubious (and racist) political posturing. So Peterson, seriously dude, take your guns and your jingoism and GTFO >:(

  21. Thank you Macon for another great post.

    I thought you and others may be interested in the autobiography of Nat Love whose photo you include above. It begins with his childhood as a slave and the hardships his family faced immediately after emancipation. It includes his days as the cowboy known as "Deadwood Dick".

    It is available free on line at and also at other sites.

    I've yet to finish it and appreciate the reminder about Nat Love from your post.

  22. Motocat
    All I could think of at the end of ad one was horse's ass. Thanks for the great info--did not know most of that.

  23. Bill Richardson, who is of Hispanic descent, is also an offender of the cowboy commercial. I think the bigger conundrum of the Peterson ad compared with Cornyn's and Richardson's ad is that Alabama isn't even a Western state. Were there cowboy's in Alabama?

  24. As a someone who knows what an Agriculture Commissioner does, this commercial was hilarious because hardly anything that he brought up falls under the authority of that position. Who cares if the Ag Commissioner is a cowboy - all they do is enforce regulations.

  25. About 50 seconds into the first video he springs that rifle on us. Did anybody else notice that he swung it around with his finger on the trigger? This is an egregious weapon handling procedure, one I would not have expected to see from someone with military experience. Also, in the second video he fires into the air, also a dangerous act unless you are very sure of your downrange, which he gave no disclaimer that he was.

  26. Macon Wow! that was a hell of an Article extremely informative on the so called heroic figures that WMs highly admire,i am wondering however if this is an extract from a book i would really like to read it.

  27. Not all women who love GWTW love the myth of the Old South - for me it's Scarlett O'Hara. She is a strong heroine who is punished for not acting like a woman by the very people she rescues with her 'un-womanly' character. Ironically, the only person who truly appreciates her is Ashly Wilkes because he does NOT have the will to survive.

  28. @Justin

    Peterson is definitely a jerk and these ads are certainly egregious, not because Alabama was cowboyless but because I think he's co-opting a tradition that's his in myth only. Most of the ranches that moved west started in the south east. Slave owning ranches from the Carolinas and Georgia. There were two early movements, one west which headed out into Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and the other South into Florida.

    The slaves of the westward moving ranchers would often runaway into the northern parts of Mexico and what is today Texas. These former slaves would then trade roping and riding knowledge with the Mexican vaqueros and this would go on to inform what we now refer to as the Texas tradition of cattle herding.

    The Florida cattle driving was mostly the province of the Spanish and later the Seminole as it was not yet a state in the Union. And the movement south was more to do with (again) runaway slaves trying to find asylum and ending up working for the Seminole tribes. This would go on to inform the Florida tradition which uses dogs instead of lassos and generally works with a much smaller breed of cattle.


    His gun handling pissed me off too. I hate when people keep their finger on the trigger, even when it's unloaded. Generally speaking you should always treat a gun like there's a possibility it could go off, loaded or not.

  29. What a fantastic article. Interesting, educational and entertaining - Peterson, that is. All this guy needs is a white sheet. Nothing he says has anything to do with an ag commissioner's responsibilities. Is he trying to be Busser of Walking Tall fame?

    I am so impressed with this piece that I'm bookmarking it. And I'm thrilled with finding two good reads - always looking. Another good bio on TR is Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough.

  30. @RTQ,

    That's something most people would not catch unless they had experience with it. I wonder what people in the military would think of it.

  31. Well, the difference between TR and Dubya is that TR was an honest to god badass, and Dubya went to business school.

    They absolutely both managed their public images, but the feeling I get is that TR was a lot more authentically an outdoorsman. Didn't he also make a habit of swimming naked in Rock Creek while President?

  32. So I was wondering...the modern conception of 'cowboy' is pretty much shaped by Westerns [movies], right? (I know this doesn't apply to TR, but given that the ad director quoted at the end makes a "John Wayne movie" statement, I think it's reasonable). Given how Native Americans are typically portrayed in Westerns--savages who attack and kill innocent white people--I wonder if the politicians ever stop to consider the effect their cowboy drag might be having on them?

    Do you ever see a congressperson from, say, Oklahoma or South Dakota or wherever do this? (genuine question)

    P.S. @ dersk
    >> "Didn't he also make a habit of swimming naked in Rock Creek while President? "

    If this is true, it is quite possibly the awesomest thing I have ever learned. Ever.

  33. thank you for this, Macon. black and brown cowboys (and other marginalized folks of the old west) have been an obsession of mine for years. i think i own the majority of the books written on the subject. knowing more about the real history of these types of pervasive American symbols, and the fact that so many of them have been whitewashed, is really important for dealing with present day racism/white privilege, IMHO.

    if anyone is interested in this subject and lives near (or plans to visit) San Antonio, this is a fantastic place to visit that focuses on the ethnic/cultural history of early TX:


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