Defining the inherent and hidden meanings of the American Cowboy within the state of Texas requires taking a long, hard look at what the cowboy has historically stood for.
Following the well-known notions put forth by Roland Barthes within the field of semiotics, we see that the American Cowboy in Texas (remember that Texas was once its own country/independent Republic between 1836 - 1845) is conditioned by the following myths:
Myth: The cowboy is healthy
Reality: The Marlboro Man died of cancer
Myth: The cowboy is free and goes wherever he wishes
Reality: New 21st Century measures enacted by the government restrict land use and water rights. Add to that urban sprawl, restrictions on land and water use and the rise of factory farming over cattle drives.
Myth: The cowboy provides beef to feed the people
Reality: Fast Food Nation book revelations, the rise of Factory Farming (antibiotics, steroids). Meat is seen as unhealthy, the rise of vegetarianism
Myth: Land ownership, wealth, success as the backbone of American society
Reality: Farm Aid and Willie Nelson, decline of the family owned farm, loss of the historic Cowboy Culture, becoming a dying breed
Myth: John Wayne vs. the American Indians, and the total defeat of those American Indians
Reality: Knowledge of all tribal peoples around the world is being lost and is needed now more than ever—this after the effects of the postmodern technocratic society and globalization are being felt acutely, especially in the West. The loss of human identity, social norms, politeness and meaning has left a void in the zeitgeist.
Myth: The cowboy as a symbol of rugged, independent and Christian America.
Reality: Christianity preaches a reliance on God and God’s laws, over the alleged independence of the cowboy.
Myth: The Cowboy symbolizes the archetype of the ultimate male
Reality: An infinitesimally small number of men could be Cowboys today due to obesity, poor physical conditioning and addictions to Big Pharma medications to alter any given mood. Add to that society defining manhood in terms of paper money (as paper trumps cattle and land holdings)
Myth: The Cowboy is the archetypal laborer due to his ranch work and cattle drives
Reality: The postmodern technocratic society increasingly relies on information, software and automation. “Brand Texas Cowboy” is changing even while “Brand Human” undergoes radical changes simultaneously. While cattle were once branded with a hot iron by cowboys, humans are now defined (branded) by the human genome. This paradigm shift is nothing short of breathtaking. DNA was not discovered until 1944 and the human genome was cracked in the year 2000.
Barthes sees semiotics as an endless chain of micro-manipulations which either paint a false picture of what it means to be happy and successful in society, or merely serve as a method of salesmanship in regard to certain icons, goods, services and lifestyles which serve the status quo.
For the State of Texas and the cowboy, the mythologies of various forms of Americana continue to this very day, but they have reached a terminal phase due to the realities of life in 2011 America. For now, The Cowboy Myth can best signify where we have been, what we once were, perhaps how far we have fallen, yet most of all, help us to understand that we were never the nation and/or people we imagined ourselves to be. Rather than leaving us feeling downcast, this realization can help us find a new, truer and better identity. There can be no doubt, however, that our national and indeed the global love affair with the mythology of the Texas Cowboy will continue long into the future.
Jennifer Lynne Kesseler