BHSU Professor Speaks On Pop Culture Cowboys

Jan 18, 2017

Credit Chynna Lockett

The stock show is coming to the Black Hills and that means the cowboys are too. A local professor took a look at what makes working cowboys different from the ones in movies, songs and advertisements.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender takes the stage at the ribbon cutting for the 2017 Black Hills Stock Show. 

Horses stand behind fences and the smell of manure fills an event center at the Central States Fair Grounds. Much of the crowd is dressed in cowboy or trucker hats and tall boots. People laugh as they gather on stage for the ribbon cutting.

Cowboys from all over the state gather in Rapid City to be a part of this event.  

“Now the historical cowboy actually came out of Mexico in points north of there in the 1870’s. Real Cowboys actually derived from Mexican Braceros.”

Dr. Tim Steckline is a professor of mass communications at Black Hills State University. He introduces two types of real cowboys.

“Working cowboys. They typically will drift through a series of jobs at different ranches nowadays. It’s hard to get working cowboy who can stay on one ranch for life. It’s just the way the business is. They typically will not have a family. I have met some exceptions but most working cowboys move around and don’t have the wherewithal for a family.”   

He says this lifestyle also means they often don’t have a pension or insurance. The second type is the rodeo cowboy.

“Rodeo cowboys are similar in the way that they have lots of injuries and body parts that get beat up. They’re a little more dressy. A little wilder. They like to party, I think just as much as a working cowboy does.”

But the biggest similarity is working with livestock.

Steckline says that real cowboys also tend to live by a code. He reads the 10 rules as written by motivational speaker James Owen.

“Live each day with courage. Right, courage is one of your main virtues. Take pride in your work. Always finish what you start. Do what has to be done. Be tough but be fair. When you make a promise, keep it. Ride for the brand. Talk less and say more. Remember that some things are not for sale. And, know when to draw the line.”

Steckline says the legend of the cowboy has been reproduced in pop culture. This has led to the creation of five mythical types of cowboys seen in movies and advertisements.

He says this started when some men feared they would become over civilized. They would seek out the cowboy lifestyle hoping to become more masculine and connected to nature.

One of his first examples of mythical cowboys is the virile. Steckline defines them as independent tough guys.

“Now here’s a virile cowboy from advertising—The Marlboro Man. You’ll notice he’s got the virile cowboy’s mark. He’s lonely, he’s out in the wilderness, he works hard. He’s got the signs of it. His hands, his clothes are made for work. He’s wearing the costume he’s supposed to have. His face had that implacable look. He has not emotions that you’re going to see.”

But Steckline says these virile cowboys started to give up their independence when they fell in love. This was the ending to many old westerns.

“Every so often, two things will draw them back to domestication. One of them is I can start a ranch and settle down. Another one is I found a woman and she’ll make me get a ranch or move to town and settle down. So those are what produce decadence.”

Steckline says by accepting decadence, the domesticated cowboy isn’t living the lifestyle of a real, working cowboy.

A more regressive type is the professional. 

“They aren’t exactly cowboys. They’re close but they take up a profession.”

He says these types are often gamblers, gunslingers or travelers that are motivated by a payoff. Professionals are also the stars in vengeance plots.

“The person who wants vengeance professes vengeance the rest of the movie. They put aside cowboying and everything else to get vengeance.” 

Steckline says many professionals have a personal code that is greater than the cowboy code and feel a sense of indebtedness.

Another very different type is the Poseur.

“The person who takes the surface cowboy and plays it but doesn’t worry about living up to the myth or the code anymore. They’re just interested in the appearance and the way cowboys talk and act.”

He says poseur cowboys don’t really want to do cowboy work like cleaning stables.

“By pop culture’s turned up images of midnight cowboys, rhinestone cowboys, space cowboys, electric cowboys naked cowboys, bonanza jellybean. He wants to dress like one and act and pretend he’s one.”

Steckline says the final type is a reaction to the disingenuousness of the poseurs.  The cynical, detached cowboy hit the screens. 

“It’s a cowboy at the end of his rope. He’s got nothing left to claim except for what’s left of the tattered style and myth that persist in the urban areas. The code is selectively or ironically applied.”

They make their own code like the Dude in the Big Lebowski. This means they don’t necessarily follow all of the codes like riding for the brand or sticking up for others.

It's not always easy to be a real cowboy in modern times.  

“How could anybody be too over civilized, right? Just Slide into a big warm claw footed tub full of hot soapy water. That feels so good. But you know what? That would not be the cowboy way.”

Steckline says real cowboys aren’t worried about being wealthy or successful. They’re more concerned about being honest, authentic, hardworking and true.