The University of Wyoming has put out an advertising initiative with the slogan “The World Needs More Cowboys.” This has sparked outrage on the grounds that the figure of the cowboy is racist and sexist, an emblem of white privilege and toxic masculinity.
This, even though the university ads will show pictures accompanying the slogan of University of Wyoming students–whose mascot is “Cowboy” and “Cowgirl”–in non-traditional roles. “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,” said a university spokesman. “That’s why this campaign works — it’s the dissonance [emphasis mine] between the term ‘cowboy’ and the image that draws attention.” So these “cowboys” will be suitably diverse individuals working in labs, creating works of art, and, in the words of an article on the controversy, “basically engaging in every vocation under the sun except moving cattle on horseback.”
That article was written for The Federalist by my former colleague and fellow Patrick Henry College literature professor Cory Grewell. He shows, first of all, just how ignorant the critics of the cowboy slogan are. And that it is precisely the traditional figure of the cowboy that should commend itself to those who purport to care about social justice.
From Cory Grewell, If You Think Cowboys Are a Symbol of Racism and Sexim, You Are Ignorant:
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.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.
Cory goes on to unpack what the cowboy figure–one of the foundational heroes of American culture–means.”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.” And these are qualities that are greatly needed in America, particularly American universities, today.
Which raises another issue: Have you noticed that cowboys and the “western genre” have pretty much disappeared from today’s popular culture? With the exception of dark, ironic depictions designed to undermine what westerns used to stand for? What does it mean when a culture is reduced to mocking and erasing its heroes?
Photo: Nebraska Cowboys by Solomon D. Butcher (Nebraska State Historical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons