The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture

Cowboy Hero
Critical Essay by Darci Clark
The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture By William W. Savage, Jr.
Topics in American History: The American West

In The Cowboy Hero, William Savage suggests the image of the cowboy hero has been used to “transmit social values and sell merchandise.” I think this may have been true several decades ago when this book was written, but now it seems the image of the cowboy hero has changed in the media. The iconic cowboy imagery of the Marlboro Man was last used in 2005 and the cowboy image in TV and movies is no longer the best example of morality with shows such as Hell on Wheels. The term “cowboy politics” was even used to negatively describe former President George Bush’s cowboy-esque ultimatum to Saddam Hussein in March 2003 prior to the Iraq War.

Savage is correct that the cowboy is an instantly recognizable symbol of America. His analysis of cowboy scholarship as “speculation passed off as history” could be said of many eras in the past where there is little or no documentation for historians. Whatever the life of the historic cowboy may have been, his image did achieve mythic status in American culture. Savage states that the modern laborer identifies with the cowboy because of similar economic circumstances. This may be true today in some Western and Southern states, as well as rural areas where ranchers and farmworkers perform similar work, but not in urban areas. Modern laborers may identify themselves with a variety of “heroes” but the cowboy in our technological society is less likely. Some ranchers have left behind the cowboy image and instead have begun to focus on sustainable agriculture and protection of the environment to improve their economic opportunities. This is certainly not the reckless mentality synonymous with the image of the cowboy that Savage attributes to the media.

Savage also discusses the popularity of cowboy influenced attire. He is correct that fashion styles come and go over the years and Western wear is no different. Nostalgia plays a large part in cowboy style for those who choose to wear it. Savage mentions how different the clothing of the historical cowboy is from the boots, shirts, and jeans marketed as cowboy clothing. Occasionally the rise in cowboy or Western clothing is influenced by a popular film or TV show at the time, instead of being associated specifically with the cowboy hero image. Around the time Savage’s book was published, the John Travolta film Urban Cowboy (1980) was released and caused a major surge in the popularity of Western wear. This is a case where popular modern culture, rather than the cowboy himself, influenced the public to emulate the image of the cowboy.

Savage also states that in addition to cowboy influenced clothing, some people play cowboy by purchasing firearms. He mentions the use of Wild West nostalgia in firearms advertisements, and today some models are manufactured and advertised to highlight their historic and collectible value. However, most gun models today gain popularity through advertising in the entertainment industry, in movies and especially war themed video games. Savage states that the individualism of the cowboy mentality to protect what it yours regardless of the law was made popular by the media. That mentality has been questioned recently due to the rise in terrible mass shootings over the last few years, and the calls for stricter gun control laws and assault weapons bans. If opponents of gun control do so in the name of cowboy individualism how can they reconcile that with the common sense that Savage says is the key to cowboy popularity?

Savage suggests it’s safer to avoid the guns and instead play cowboy at a dude ranch. Today there are plenty of dude ranches for tourists to visit which offer a temporary cowboy experience, and in our busy, technological world it seems like it would be a great opportunity to unplug and forget your everyday problems. Other people indulge their cowboy fantasies by attending rodeo competitions where they can see cowboy skills firsthand. Savage points out the fact that rodeo participants are not cowboys, but athletes. Even though real cowboys competed against each other from different ranches in the 1880s in an early form of rodeo, commercialism began in the Wild West traveling shows and evolved into the rodeo we have today. While rodeos have become big business they have also become the target of animal rights groups such as The Humane Society and PETA due to the treatment of animals during rodeo events. Children even take part in bull riding competitions which, of course, is incredibly dangerous. Savage comments on the health risks of junior rodeo, but also on the psychological effects this sport has on young boys. The kids are expected to behave like an ideal cowboy and act like a man. Many little league sports may be physically dangerous and push kids to excel as well, but they are unlikely to encourage a child to take part in an unhealthy habit like chewing tobacco.

Savage states that cowboy imagery is prevalent in other sports particularly pro football, but also to a lesser degree in baseball, basketball and wrestling. While there are definitely team names related to cowboys, the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL being the most obvious, I have to disagree that the imagery of the cowboy is still prevalent with football fans at the stadium. The branding of the NFL and its teams has made expensive team jerseys and other clothing the top choice for fans, rather than imitation cowboy gear. The team will always be identified with the cowboy because of their name, but not necessarily with cowboy imagery as much as in past years.

Besides sports teams, the cowboy image has also been used to sell many types of products. The most famous is the Marlboro Man, which was created by the tobacco company Philip Morris in 1955 to sell its Marlboro cigarettes. The Marlboro Man ad campaign in print and on television was successful for many years. In the ads, the Marlboro Man would be shown engaging in cowboy-like activities while smoking with the advertising tagline reading “Come to Marlboro Country.” In 1971, tobacco ads were banned from television so after that the Marlboro Man appeared only in print ads. The Marlboro Man remained an effective advertising tactic until anti-smoking groups publicized the fact that several of the former Marlboro Man actors had died of lung cancer. This revelation certainly affected the ad campaign and raised awareness of the dangers of smoking. It is unfortunate that the cowboy was used to sell such a dangerous product. It may be due to the negative association with the tobacco industry that the cowboy is rarely used in advertising today.

The Cowboy Hero was an interesting read, but I thought Savage’s commentary was a bit dated for an effective analysis on the cowboy image in the 21st century. It may be my own perception of the cowboy has been influenced by later 20th century imagery rather than the examples discussed in Savage’s work. Instead of Gene Autry and John Wayne, I am more familiar with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and other films and documentaries which focus on the more realistic aspects of life in the Old West. In addition, much of the cowboy imagery used today seems a long way from being politically correct. Rodeos where animals are routinely mistreated as well as the cowboy mentality in relationship to gun ownership are ideas I disagree strongly with. It would be better to learn about the true historical cowboy and his contribution, however small, to American history rather than the media’s degradation of his image over the last century.

Advertising Age. “Marlboro Man Rides Into The Sunset.”

American Popular Culture. “From The Center: The Cowboy Myth, George W. Bush, And The War In Iraq.”

The Blue Review. “Buy Guns: The Allure of American Gun Advertising Through The Ages.”

CBS News. “Would You Let Your Kid Ride A 900-Pound Bull?”

The Christian Science Monitor. “New Breed Of Ranchers Shapes Sustainable West.”

The Humane Society. “Statement On Animals In Entertainment And Competition.”

New York Times. “Git Along, Li’l Fashion Plates; A Rocky Mountain Upstart Wages Jean Shootout in Wrangler Corral.”

PETA. “Rodeos.”

Popular Mechanics. “New Cowboy Guns Of The Old West.”

Savage, Jr., William W. The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture. University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Stanford University Exploring The West. “Marlboro Man.”