Saturday, 11 February 2012

Cowgirl Blues

Donna Howell Sickles

I wrote last week about my passion for the American Old West, and explored a little how this may have come about. Strangely, it wasn’t until I started gathering my thoughts for that blog entry that I even realised it was a passion. Rather like I can’t remember when I made the transitions from trying out to liking and then to loving crime fiction. And chocolate.

However, I must admit the images of the Old West which attract me are sanitised, prettified even. Life on the range was probably less sitting round a campfire eating beans and more this:

Charles M Russell
And apart from gorgeous frocks like the ones twirled to great effect in Oklahoma! (and hats for Sunday best), I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed the hard life of frontier women either. Interestingly, although American women as a whole weren’t given the vote until 1920, those in most Western states had the right to vote before 1915. But this early emancipation doesn’t make women as prominent in Western culture as their men folk.

Consider the Western film. I watched a lot of these last year as part of my Open University ‘History of Cinema and Television’ course. You can count the number of named female characters (not unspeaking, simpering showgirls) in most of them on the fingers of one hand. Which is not entirely explained by a scarcity of women in the Old West, although a line from Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) suggests this may have been a source of discontent among the cowboy population:

“There are only two things more beautiful than a gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere.”
Pictured below are my two favourite female characters in Westerns. You'll be familiar with one of them but probably not the other. They are Doris Day in the title role of Calamity Jane. 

Doris Day

Barbara Stanwyck
And Barbara Stanwyck as tough rancher Jessica Drummond in Forty Guns.  
Day and the character she played were wimps by Stanwyck's standards. While Calamity Jane sang and cracked whips, Jessica Drummond ruled part of Arizona with her posse of hired guns. When the plot called for Jessica to be dragged along a street by a horse, Stanwyck's stunt double refused, saying the stunt was too dangerous. So Stanwyck did it herself. She was 49 at the time. 

I also mentioned in last week’s post my visit to Denver’s Museum of Western Art, which introduced me to the work of Charles M Russell, Frederic Remington and many others. Unfortunately it’s now closed to the public, although I believe the collection, privately owned by a millionaire, is still in the building. Thank goodness that, courtesy of eBay, I've been able to obtain a catalogue of the collection. It’s a sumptuously illustrated book, but out of 129 colour plates only two are by women artists. (Then again, how many female Impressionists can you name?) However, it's one of those two works which sticks in my memory. This is it.

Cow's Skull on Red, Georgia O'Keeffe
O’Keeffe is probably best known for her paintings of animal skulls she found while exploring New Mexico. According to the Dept of American Studies at the University of Virginia these:

“ . . . can be seen to represent the death and destruction of the American landscape or they can be viewed as celebratory works that pay tribute to the animals that first inhabited the Western landscape.”
She used flowers (often artificial) to adorn some of these works, giving them literal titles such as Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses and Ram’s Skull with Hollyhock. It’s hard to imagine a Western artist more removed from Charlie Russell’s depiction of cowboys and native American life (although the Denver collection also includes a Jackson Pollock). And O'Keeffe's work is also worlds away from that of Donna Howell Sickles, an example of whose cheerful modern cowgirl paintings adorns the top of this blog post.

I’ve visited Denver, Montana and Arizona, but there’s one experience I’ve yet to enjoy: going to a rodeo (only to watch, silly!). We’ve all seen footage of a man riding a bucking horse (or sometimes a bull), one arm held in the air, trying to stay on. According to Wikipedia, rodeo is actually banned in the UK. I didn’t know that, nor did I realise that women also take part, until our Montana trip when we got chatting to a waitress whose best friend was a rodeo champion.

Thanks to Jacquie Rogers’ Romancing the West blog, I now know a lot more about women in rodeos. Back in the 1920s, cowgirls took part as much as cowboys. They didn’t just compete at bronco and bull riding, but also demonstrated their strength and fearlessness by performing tricks, like crawling under a galloping horse’s belly and changing horses while moving.

However, for various reasons, not least because men controlled the sport (sound familiar?), female participation in rodeos degenerated into ‘glamour’ roles in the mid-20th century. These days, women’s rodeo is on the increase again, with the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association putting on events and having over 2000 members.

I’ll end this post with a pithy saying from the National Cowgirl Museum website:
“The only thing pink about growing up cowgirl is a sunset”

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