Our theme week for this month is cowboys and to kick it off, the Smut Reporters sat down to talk about the cowboy archetype.
Bottom line: Do you like the Cowboy archetype?
Erin: With this question I compare myself to my college roommate, who was all about the cowboys when I was not. So I guess no? But it’s not an aversion as much as indifference.
Holly: Yes. It’s the competence porn of blue collar romance plus wide open spaces plus animals. Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to a lot of Ye Olde Country Music. (Obligatory link to “El Paso” by Marty Robbins.)
Ingrid: I absolutely do. I agree with Holly—there’s a level of competence and skill involved, and I’m not remotely sorry to say I’m a huge sucker for it.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Cowboy archetype?
Erin: Mentally I think I conflate “cowboy” with historical Westerns, but if I’m thinking more carefully about this question then… historical or contemporary (or other – space cowboys, anyone? Firefly?) the overall aspects of the cowboy would be the same: rugged, confident, plainspoken, casual (boots & jeans pls & thx), independent, instinctual and probably a little bit paternalistic. And, of course, not every hero with those qualities simply is a cowboy; the character must also be directly identified as a cowboy.
Holly: Does the hero wear boots and a stetson? Does he live on a ranch—or long to live on one? Is there at least one scene with a horse or cows? (Though Erin’s right that space cowboys are a thing and generally involve none of these things…)
Erin: Oh, yeah, the setting definitely plays into this archetype in a big way.
Ingrid: There’s a quite literally a song about it. Hello Dixie Chicks.
Holly: Obligatory links to “Wide Open Spaces” and also “Cowboy Take Me Away” by the amazing band now known as The Chicks.
What do you think is fun about the archetype?
Erin: There is much to be said for a man who knows how to get his hands dirty and get the job done. And tips his hat and wipes his boots while escorting his date to the local watering hole in perfectly fitted jeans and his nicest checked shirt.
The small town worldbuilding that’s available for stories set in isolated locations like this is also often really enjoyable to read. And I was born and raised (mostly) in South Dakota, so I love me some wide open spaces.
Holly: Cowboys are basically a very specific niche of blue collar romances. So everything that’s sexy about the blue collar archetype applies here. Plus there are horses.
Ingrid: I agree. The capability. The skill. The care and consideration for animals. Plus the stoicism! It’s good stuff.
What do you find problematic about the archetype?
Holly: Cowboy romances, both historical and contemporary, tend to be very, very white. And that’s just…not the reality. About 25% of cowboys working between 1860–1880 were Black, and while I can’t find numbers, cowboy culture borrowed heavily from vaquero traditions, which implies that there were a lot of Hispanic cowboys as well. On the other hand, most “cowboys” in romance novels are ranch owners, not itinerant ranch hands—but the whiteness of those ranch owners ignores the significant population of wealthy Tejano and Californio landowners. Of course there are authors who buck that trend—Beverly Jenkins’ and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Black cowboys come to mind—but this is a romance space that is linked intrinsically to stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be a “real American,” and we’re missing huge chunks of that story.
Erin: I think it’s very much meant to tap into a privileged ideal of what is AMERICAN and COMPETENT and MANLY, and yes, as Holly has said, that does not actually reflect the history of American cowboys (which are by no means the only cowboys in the world, even if we think they are). It’s such a narrow narrative that reinforces a broader American cultural narrative about our history that isn’t based in reality. This isn’t a significantly different argument from what’s wrong with Regency romance – people have consumed so much of a certain type of media that they think they have the correct historical narrative without having actually consumed any historical research at all.
Holly: Obligatory link to very smart piece I wrote about realism and genre back when I only had one child and more functioning brain cells than I do now.
Oh hey, and here’s a fun fact! I was looking up data on cowboys, and apparently 30% of contemporary cowboys are women. Don’t see many female ranch hands in these cowboy romances either.
Ingrid: I agree with everything said here. Absolutely. I would also like to point out that there are a lot of historical cowboy books that represent indigenous people (especially indigenous women) in harmful and inaccurate ways.
How do contemporary and historical cowboys differ?
Erin: Probably in many essentials they don’t differ significantly, and I haven’t read a ton of contemporary cowboy books, but I would guess that the cowboys in the historical romances are tapping heavily into the Western genre, where we’re going to see one-horse towns and gunslingers (I’m thinking of Deadwood, I admit), while the modern cowboys are going to lean more to small town tropes and relationships with hardships tapping into working class struggles. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised to find two cowboys who are struggling to make ends meet, but the historical one might be looking at dealing with lawlessness, supply issues (a lot of Old West communities were pretty isolated), and big impacts from the vagaries of nature while the contemporary one might be looking at dealing with dying/changing industries (vagaries of global economics), sinister big agriculture, and (in my experience) problems that don’t stem from the agricultural part of being a cowboy at all. (Rebekah Weatherspoon’s cowboys own a really swanky hotel ranch, for example.)
The other thing I would expect (though this might be changing with more current releases of historical romance)(at least I hope it is) is more overt racism in historical romance. Holly’s right that these books are typically super white, but I expect that a lot of contemporary romances will simply go the way of so many other contemporary romances and simply not account for racial diversity at all, while the conflicts between white settlers and Indigenous peoples and/or Mexicans are more likely to be a plot point in historical romance and almost certainly told with a skewed eye favoring the white colonial narrative. Even if there’s a person of color included in a non-villainous context, that character will likely be cast as a two-dimensional sidekick type that offers a nod to the existence of cultures that were obviously present but have not been fleshed out with thoughtfulness. Or, you know, they’re ignoring racial diversity just like contemporaries and ALSO they’re ignoring entire historical narratives.
Holly: Building on what Erin said, don’t even get me started on the historical cowboy stories where the cowboy is also a “savage” but he’s secretly actually the white heir to a giant ranch.
But I think the big difference between contemporary and historical cowboy stories is that almost all historical western romances are lumped into the cowboy category, regardless of whether the character is actually a ranch hand or owner—because of the setting, you’ve got boots, horses, and wide open spaces, even if the hero is actually a lawman or a bounty hunter or a gold prospector or whatever. In contrast, contemporary cowboy stories are much more tightly focused on ranch life, though I don’t think I agree with Erin’s assessment that contemporary cowboy stories are focused on working-class economic struggles.
Erin: To clarify my assessment—I think I said that I haven’t read many of these, so definitely I can be corrected, but I wasn’t thinking it’s a universal aspect of contemporary cowboy romance so much as it is more likely to be a working class struggle if the hero’s not a wealthy ranch owner. Diana Palmer’s 1980s Calhoun is really wealthy, so obviously economic hardship is not one of his problems, but none of his problems related to ranching. Maybe y’all would argue that working class is working class regardless of time, but even though that’s essentially true, I still feel like a modern working class struggle and an Old West working class struggle have different flavors or vibes. If that makes sense. I think this is kind of a tough question because how different is different when the big difference is the setting?
Holly: I guess what I mean is that I feel like a good number of cowboy stories that I’ve read feature ranch owners rather than itinerant ranch hands. So even if the ranch is in trouble, these cowboys are still landowners. The bigger point I wanted to make was that in contemporary cowboy stories, the boots/ranch/horse trifecta is a much more narrow signifier of the kind of work that the hero actually does. A contemporary cowboy is much less likely to be a sheriff or whatever—he is either a ranch hand or owner, or occasionally, a rodeo star.
What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?
Erin: I went through my books (ALL of them, not only the ones I’ve tracked since we started the blog), and there are so few that I’ve actually read and remember that I’ll advise you to look to my colleagues here first.
However, I loved Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins, which I’m reviewing this week. While Ian does have a huge ranch in Wyoming, and he definitely dresses the part, most of the story takes place with Ian primarily focused on his lawman role, so it might not scratch your itch perfectly, but the scene when Maggie sees Ian for the first time is cowboy PERFECTION, and the setting is ultra Western.
I also had an absolute blast reading Calhoun because it was just so perfectly old school tropey Texan cowboy spectacular. I reviewed it last year, so read more for content notes, but it made me want to go read a bunch of 80s categories just for fun.
Holly: Look, I am a sucker for a good Western, but man, many of the old ones are so yikes. A more recent one I enjoyed was The Gunslinger’s Vow by Amy Sandas, though I guess Malcolm is technically not a cowboy (no cattle, just horses). For a contemporary cowboy, I liked Cowboy Take Me Away by Jane Graves, which features a bad boy bull-rider, which is a nice change of pace from the emotionally constipated ranch owners who populate this space. (Disclosure: I read this book like eight years ago; I remember liking it, but not a ton of the details.)
I’m also gonna drop Operation Cowboy Daddy by Carla Cassidy in here. I don’t read a ton of Harlequin contemporaries, but there’s a lot of cowboy action happening in that space, and this is one I mostly enjoyed. I liked that Tony is a Native American ranch hand, with all the social and economic precarity that comes with it. (There are some bits about motherhood in here that I…didn’t love.)
Ingrid: Keep in mind I can’t remember books, but I did have a very stressful time period where I only read buttoned up, prim westerns—and there were three series I read with a ton of cowboys. Brides of the Wild West by Katie Wyatt, Bear Creek Brides by Amelia Rose and Pendleton Petticoats by Shanna Hatfield. Then I went through a phase with books that had quite the opposite style, so.
Books we mentioned in this discussion:
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