Last night’s screening on meta-cowboyism last reminded me of the cowboy sets you can buy in a toy store, containing a hat, a sherrif’s badge and a cap gun. Tie an old handkerchief around your neck and boom! You’re a cowboy. It’s the easiest costume to put together, and anyone will recognize you. Throughout the videos shown in the screening it became clear that you can put a hat and a gun on anyone, and they become a cowboy, their outfit representing the freedom and independence naturally involved with this character, the ultimate personification of the American dream.
According to Gerwin van der Pol, professor at the University of Amsterdam, westerns are “just as common as the weather forecast”. After WOII, of all the American movies that flooded Europe, westerns were by far the most popular. The image of the cowboy is so widespread and ubiquitous, and thus a welcome icon to represent the American dream, be it in films, commercials or art.
Everybody knows The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or the Marlboro man, but try describe these cowboys. Ten to one you’ll end up naming the items in the toy kit mentioned earlier. A hat, a gun, a horse maybe. It’s a cowboy, the looks say it all. Does anybody, especially if their not American, know the differene between one cowboy and the other? I don’t think so.
One of the videos shown at this screening was Alone by Gerard Freixes, in which footage from The Lone Ranger is cleared of all other characters, making the ranger truly alone. The video gets a lukewarm response, which may have something to do with the fact that to most of the audience, the Lone Ranger is probably just another cowboy. In a way everybody immediately recognizes what he is: a cowboy.
Then again, the behaviour of the cowboy seems harder to recognize. In the piece Bad Luck City Aaike Stuart shows a portrait of an “urban cowboy”, as he calls it. Roaming the streets of Berlin, shooting a gun and riding a horse, his activities are very cowboy-ish. But the main character, wearing a baseball cap and a t-shirt, does not necessarily strike you as a cowboy. Had it not been for the title of the screening, the idea of the cowboy may have never come to mind. It would just be a guy walking around Berlin, shooting a gun, or sitting by a campfire.
The image of the cowboy seems to be clearly imprinted on our collective European memories, and the simple characteristics of his appearance are enough to remind you of all he represents. So if you happen to be in search of a cheap but easy way to signify America’s culture and (in the case of westerns, factually incorrect) history, check out your locl toy store.