The University of Wyoming raised hackles with this fall’s new advertising slogan: “The world needs more cowboys.” Perhaps not surprising, the objection was to the use of the “stereotypical image of a cowboy” as an image identified with the university.
Faculty said the image is “racist, sexist and counterproductive to recruiting out of state students.” The stereotypical cowboy, cultural specialist Darrell Hutchinson argues, is nothing more than “a white man with a wide-brimmed hat riding the range on horseback,” a la John Wayne or the Marlboro man. He’s a symbol of white male machismo that doubtlessly reeks to the woke faculty of toxic masculinity.
University spokesman Chad Baldwin was quick to defend the slogan from accusations that it lacks the requisite diversity, explaining, “Every time that slogan is used in any of our materials, there will be an accompanying image or images that are not the traditional idea of a cowboy. . . . That’s why this campaign works — it’s the dissonance [emphasis mine] between the term ‘cowboy’ and the image that draws attention.”
But We Made Him a Politically Correct Cowboy!
According to Baldwin and other university officials, the ad campaign seeks to redefine the image of the cowboy in order to make it more inclusive. They want to bring the cowboy into the twenty-first century. According to the promo video, the University of Wyoming’s cowboys “come in every sex, shape, color, and creed.” The video shows scenes of putative students and graduates painting, crunching numbers at a whiteboard, conducting scientific research, skiing—basically engaging in every vocation under the sun except moving cattle on horseback.
Essentially, the university’s defense of their slogan rests on redefining the legendary image that gives birth to their mascot, a redefinition that sells the traditional image of the cowboy downriver in favor of a modern “cowboy” that tries to appease the politically correct sensibilities of the faculty.
This defense strikes me as wrongheaded. Firstly, while Baldwin is right to say that the modern image of the cowboy is much more diverse than the university’s critics seem to think it is, the same could be said of the traditional cowboy, who is much more than just a “white man in a wide-brimmed hat.”
Secondly, and more importantly, it is actually within the cultural capital that surrounds the traditional image of the cowboy—i.e., within the stereotype so aptly portrayed on the silver screen by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—that the university should look to find the virtues, values, and ideals that they want to instill in their students. There is more meaning in the cowboy stereotype than university officials seem willing to own.
The Cowboy Is an Equal Opportunity Icon
The faculty’s charge that cowboys lack diversity is particularly ironic because, in the pantheon of Western culture’s heroes, the cowboy is probably the least exclusive of them all. This is particularly so along the lines of race, class, and sex that identity politics prizes so much.
The cowboy, is, for instance, just about the only lower-class hero in Western mythos. Cowboys don’t come from the aristocracy. Stereotypically, they want nothing to do with money, unless it can be won at a poker table.
Virtually every other Western mythic hero has come from the upper classes. Knights in shining armor in the Middle Ages were always aristocrats, or related thereto. Greek and Roman heroes were kings and patricians. Not so the cowboy. The cowboy is by definition salt of the earth.
The idea that the cowboy is sexist, seemingly UW professor Christine Porter’s biggest objection to the new slogan, is equally unfounded. Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane are turning in their graves at this suggestion that somehow the legendary figure of the cowboy excludes women. To speak of cowgirls in the here and now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a girl raised on a ranch in the American West who doesn’t play an integral role in working her family’s cattle.
Nor, finally, is the cowboy of American legend inherently racist, as is evidenced by, among other things, the inventor of modern steer wrestling, Bill Pickett’s, role in developing the rodeo. Although a fictional character, the figure of Deets from Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” is also notably not out of place as a legendary cowboy in the fabric of the novel that gives him birth.
A little research would also reveal that the American cowboy is arguably derived almost entirely from its predecessor, the Mexican vaquero. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “buckaroo” is most likely derived from the Spanish vaquero. Thus, the construct of the “stereotypical cowboy” that the UW faculty so strenuously objects to as racist and sexist is not so much the cowboy as it exists in the American imagination as it is the lazy product of their own cultural ignorance.
Read a Little More, Whine a Little Less
This willful ignorance about the cowboy extends to more than just a mistaken notion of the figure as a white man in a wide-brimmed hat. More egregiously, this misapplication of identity politics fundamentally mistakes the cowboy’s symbolic capital and misses the point of why the figure was likely adopted as the university’s mascot in the first place.
Above, I used the terms “mythic” and “legendary” to refer to the American cowboy. That’s because the traditional, stereotypical cowboy is, above all, a cultural hero. He (or she) is in fact the central hero figure of the American West and one of the foundational heroes of American culture as a whole.
As such, the cowboy is not primarily a symbol of any ethnic group of people so much as it is an embodiment of virtues and ideals that our culture has held dear. The cowboy embodies the virtues of toughness, self-sufficiency, and courage. He embodies pride and self-sacrifice. Above all, perhaps, the legendary cowboy embodies grit.
Grit, according to Angela Lee Duckworth in her 2013 TED talk “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” is a virtue sorely needed in education today. Her research identifies it as the single most “significant predictor of success” in a variety of professional and social contexts. Yet her talk ends by admitting that, at this moment in our history, social science doesn’t know an awful lot about how we can instill this characteristic in our youth.
We Should Celebrate Cowboys, Not Tear Them Down
A helpful place to start would be holding up—rather than tearing down—the mythic hero of our culture that most clearly and colorfully embodies grit. We should encourage the next generation to see the cowboy for the hero he is rather than reduce him to an emblematic stereotype of political correctness. Like all mythic heroes, the cowboy should transcend politics.
This is exactly the problem on modern university campuses. In modern academia, nothing transcends politics. Everything is rooted in ethnic identity and class struggle. When everything is seen through this politically correct lens, there is no place for ideals or the heroes that embody them. Such figures are “mystifications” that only serve to keep political injustices in place.
The desire to rectify injustice is a good thing, but when the desire to erase any distinction is taken to such a pitch that the ideals that inspire a culture are pitched overboard because the heroes that embody them don’t fit a political narrative, then we end up leaving ourselves with nothing to strive towards and precious little to hope for in terms of who we want to be.
It is no wonder, then, that grit is so lacking in among the “snowflakes” that populate modern American university campuses, as evidenced by a recent Psychology Today article that reports an alarming decline in college students’ mental resilience. If Duckworth is right that grit is the most significant predictor of success, then this decline should be alarming indeed.
One of the most iconic fictional cowboys in the American mythos is the character Rooster Cogburn in the aptly named film, “True Grit” (portrayed by John Wayne in 1969 and reprised by Jeff Bridges in 2010). Cogburn is an identity politics nightmare. A booze-swilling, impolite, sexist scoundrel of a man, he’s the polar opposite of a university snowflake. But he has grit.
When Col. Stonehill asks the character Mattie Ross why she hired a man like Cogburn to bring the man who killed her father to justice, she replies, “They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.” To which Stonehill remarks, “Well, I suppose he has that.” Like Ross, I think it’s relatively safe to say that we want more men (and women) with grit.
So does the world need more cowboys? As one might say in the sparse cowboy vernacular, “Damn straight.”