Wednesday, May 26, 2010

10 Rodeo Queens

Today we're reading selections from Joan Burbick's ethnography of rodeo queens. "Ethnography" is a scholarly technique in which anthropolgists visit a particular culture, listening and observing and seeking to understand that culture's logic. Ethnography began with western anthropologists visiting supposedly "primitive" people in remote spaces like Samoa or Papua New Guinea. More recent scholars like Joan Burbick use the anthropological techniques of ethnography on people closer to home -- and they strive, too, to be conscious of their own roles as listeners and observers. Because American Studies is interdisciplinary, this anthropological approach is yet another strategy we can use to help us learn about ourselves.

Yet, as an ethnographer, Joan Burbick is such a careful listener and lyrical writer that it may be possible to enjoy her story while missing her deeper points. Consider some quotes:

"As I started talking to rodeo queens ... I quickly realized their memories and lives were forcing me to rethink the history and culture of the West.... The West is a tenacious symbol of power and freedom ... [but there are] tensions between mythmaking and ordinary life."

How does that frame her story that begins with the smell of the paper mill, and her description of gritty bold Dorothy, the 1935 rodeo queen whose horses were all sold for dog food? One of Burbick's crucial sentences is: "I was not prepared for so much pain." Think about this. What pain is she documenting?

In addition to using anthropology, Burbick also used history to put the pop-culture of rodeo into a wider perspective. She retells the story of Turner and Buffalo Bill who popularized the image of a frontier just when America was urbanizing and diversifying, at the turn of the twentieth century. "Out of this intense demographic change, the white, Anglo-Saxon cowboy and the red Indian emerged as convenient action heroes. These simplified stick figures propagated a frontier mythology that hid both the systemic violence of conquest and the modern incorporation of land and labor." In the 1930s, during the land loss of people like Dorothy, rodeo grew even more popular -- but the people whom Burbick talks to add complexity to the "stick figures" of the myth. They also emphasize the business side of it:  "even as it tries to link itself to a pastoral, nostalgic, premodern America of ranch life, it courts the dollar sign. Rodeo is big business."

We are skipping her middle chapters, but I encourage you to seek out her book, since it's a fascinating portrait tracing what changed in the twentieth century for rodeo queens of varying races and classes. See if you can pick up the thread of her story in the chapter we read on the 1980s. What has changed between Dorothy's bold and rebellious horsemanship of the 1930s and the current rodeo, where "Each horse took hours of care, as did the women's hair"?

By the 1980s, America's rural west was staggering under high rates of domestic violence, unemployment, and poor health. "In this context, nostalgia became defiant... Nostalgia became a substitute for facing and solving the hurtful and complex realities of home." Nostalgia became especially popular among white conservative Christians, touting "values" that Burbick finds "slippery and vague." She ends her chapter with a description of women violently dressing sheep into "humiliating" costumes of femaleness. How does that vision reflect on the idea of "values" or on the human rodeo queens, who, like the sheep, are dressed into a vision of artificial femaleness?

You read about some parents calling rodeo "a wholesome dream," but is it wholesome, in Burbick's portrait?

Think about Lee Ann, the queen who wasn't allowed to rebel even with a few strands of hair; think about Erica, the queen who was told her family wasn't rich enough; and think about Katie, the queen who was pressured so much she quit, then died in a car accident. By the 1980s, being a rodeo queen required thousands of dollars in costumes and travel to try-outs, plus hours of training to learn the "constant vigilance" required to "perform as corporate icons, moral beacons, and pretty Barbie dolls." I was tempted to squeeze in Burbick's chapter about the Las-Vegas-ification of the rodeo, with rhinestones and commercialization and artificiality piled on what had already always been a commercialized and artificial ritual -- but there was no room, and I hope you will get the idea even from the few chapters here. 

The Indians whom we meet in her last chapter seem less unhappy than the contemporary white rodeo queens, because at least the Indians are aware of the entire performance, and laughing about it: "It's time to play Indian." That sentence may be a joke, but it's also frightening. Burbick concludes with dismay at "the limited number of roles the rodeo had for people to play... the rural West was reduced to pasteboard cutouts for mass consumption." Do you notice any connections between Burbick's description of the rodeo and last week's reading about Disneyland?

Consider again these lines from her preface:
"I live in a place that is neither an escape nor a nostalgic refuge from the pressures of the modern world. My West has its problems.... I live in a place both scarred by systemic violence and sustained by daily human effort. Scratch the surface, and layers of racial and ethnic injustice emerge next to an unbridled desire to build a home and nurture the land." 

And these lines from her conclusion:
"Can the West produce a cultural ritual [that would] be willing to listen to neighbors who live on reservations, work in the apple orchards, or pump gas? Is it possible to move the tale away from a monolithic telling, droning on and on like a dream machine, silencing all critical thought?"
Bringing back critical thought is Burbick's goal, and the goal of this class. I am looking forward to hearing your own critical thoughts about the ritual of the rodeo. 

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