EDIT: I’ve been getting quite the response to this post (which is great!) but I wanted to insert one note before I continue to moderate comments. If you’re visiting my blog for the first time, do please take a look at my information page first. My own background is from the rural South, and I started this blog for rural culture and rural rights, especially Appalachian and Southern economic/ environmental oppression. I am an intellectual (if by that you mean kinda dorky and quiet), but even my college thesis was about rural-urban interactions and power dynamics.
So please, don’t mis-read this post as an attack on the rodeo. I had a great time! And I met some great people (and yes, I did talk to the “locals” –although the majority of the crowd was certainly not from Cheyenne, so I’d say we were all visitors in one way or another).
This is meant to be a sensitive, but also fair, exploration of the question that was in my head all weekend: why don’t I see more people with tattoos and shaved heads at the rodeo? I’m also trying to imply that urbanites and intellectuals go to the rodeo– because as far as I’m concerned, the more diversity in a crowd, the better the communal dehydration.
So I’ve been trying to re-hydrate all week after drinking nothing but beer this past weekend. I don’t mean that I chose to drink beer all weekend; I mean there was no available beverages except beer (and soda, which I don’t drink). At one point, I tried sipping water from the campground bathrooms. (Not recommended, for the record.)
Where did I experience this marathon dehydration, you ask?
…That would be the Frontier Days Rodeo, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Which I guess means that I’m really west of the Mississippi now.
Still, my colleagues and I definitely stood out of the crowd: one of us with tattoos down her arms, and another one with a shaved head… The two men in our group, on the other hand, tried to embrace the weekend with plaid shirts and cowboy hats (with only moderate success). You can distinguish the urban and East Coast men from the cowboys and ranchers because their buzz-cuts are neatly shaped at the back of the neck. (I noticed this sitting at the back of the bus ride from the camp ground). When it comes to “reading” other people’s appearances, little things like that are just as significant as tattoos and shaved heads.
The general atmosphere of Frontier Days is basically that of a state fair (same grease-soaked food, same vomit-inducing rides) but it all revolves around the rodeo stadium– and of course the evening country concerts. The majority of the day-crowd is definitely nuclear families, who have all somehow managed to produce exactly one son and one daughter.
The night crowd is… well, let’s just say that one of my colleagues had his foot peed on.
You can identify the real cowboys because their shirts are tucked in. Their jeans are stiff and pressed, and they have this kind of awkward silence about them, like they’d rather not be in a crowd. Everybody is sunburnt, but the cowboys have this terra cotta skin that looks like decades of layered sunburns. Also, their belt buckles are big.
One of my colleagues informed me that “buckle bunnies” are the cowboy-version of groupies. I’m not sure whether he was lying or not.
Anyways. I spent the weekend wondering why urban-liberal-intellectuals (ULI’s) never appreciate events like this. It’s more than pretension or animal-rights politics; I think there’s a genuine discomfort with some basic cultural element of state fairs, rodeos, and theme parks. David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All,” where he basically stumbles around the Illinois State Fair in a totally overwhelmed haze.
Here’s my tentative hypothesis
I think urban liberals don’t like these events because they function as a perfect metaphor for all of the large-scale violence that we experience on a national and cultural level. A little too perfect a metaphor, maybe.
Because in fact, going to the rodeo is basically a stadium of people getting off on violence. This is true of most spectator sports, but at the rodeo there is a more obvious gladiatorial element: the entertainment relies quite literally on watching one living being dominating another. And if you don’t think that this mirrors larger forms of violence, just wait till you walk outside the stadium and see the family leading a group of boys, each carrying a full-size, blow-up AK-47. Ah, the innocence of childhood. What is most warfare, really, except one nation roping another into submission?
There are a few events where cowboys team up to rope a calf or a colt or something. They’re kind of like allied forces in domination! Familiar? I like the actual bull riding the best, because it seems the most evenly-matched. Check out this guy getting trampled. High entertainment, for sure!
Perhaps the presence of t-shirts that say something like “Welcome to America. Now Speak English” are a better example of the way that these events revolve around an “us versus them” mentality. Which is ironic, because these events are supposed to be communal events. Foster Wallace talks about this too, in the aforementioned essay about the Illinois State Fair: “The state fair is rural Illinois’ moment of maximum community, but even at a Fair whose whole raison is ‘For-Us’, Us‘s entail Thems, apparently.” In that essay, he’s talking about the tension between agricultural folk and the family crowd, and ag-folk’s outright distain for the carnies. At the Frontier Days rodeo, patriotism was the thread that linked all these metaphors together: whether it was the American flag-patterned prizes, or the cowboy who received the biggest applause for serving in Iraq.
Anyways, it seemed pretty clear that these elements worked together towards a common cultural theme: violence against thems. And this includes the way that many ULI’s stereotype obese Midwesterners (the primary fault in DFW’s otherwise-brilliant essay), or blame conservative ranchers for miscellaneous political ailments. Because, despite the uncomfortable and unhealthy culture of Frontier Days, I think cowboys themselves have a hell of a healthier relationship to animals than suburban PETA activists who refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the human-animal relationship. They do respect those bulls, for sure.
(…Not that I think cowboys are living great lives– check out this crazy fucking horse!)
I’m working on a long essay about Frontier Days for print publication, so this post is a preliminary and abbreviated version of that. Mostly it’s just a summary of my thesis.