Exploring Gender in Cowgirl Narratives

elizabeth taylor from national velvet Cowgirl narratives—films, shows, and books featuring women and horses—often show women who are at home in their bodies, connected with nature, and many times, disrupting traditional gender roles. As cowgirls, women are shown in acts of blissful physicality. They follow their dreams. They are independent and strong-willed. But the horse seems to be essential in these experiences, and the contemporary relationship between woman and horse, particularly in our cowgirl narratives, is undeniably gendered. What is it about girls and horses? What do cowgirl narratives tell us about young girls and women?

As both a life-long horse owner and a gender-women's-studies teacher, I think about this a lot. Obsessively, even. I've always personally connected to cowgirl stories, but the tales of daring women and horses have not often been considered within the larger media landscape.

In this two-month long blog series, I'll be examining representations of women and horses in film, TV, and songs. Looking at films like, Wild Hearts Can't Be BrokenSecretariatNational Velvet, and Dreamer(among others), television shows like Heartland, and books like Princess Smartypants (I will argue later why this falls in with our cowgirl narratives) I will be asking the question: What do these representations tell us about our ideas of gender?

Freud suggested that the connection girls feel with horses is a sexual one. But many, especially horsewomen, have sharply dismissed this as an outright insult, positing that their relationship with their horse is about something larger than themselves: a deep connection with the world around them, pleasure in hard work, and about power. In a 2011 feature with NPR, Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, argues that in identifying with horses, girls are "expressing their own power." Other essayists, like Lauren Slater, have also written about this attraction.

One cannot examine cowgirl narratives without considering where they fit within the hyper-masculine cowboy narratives. Often in the US we associate the American Cowboy with stoic heroism. He is brave as the protector of his stock, wandering out across the west on horseback, alone. He is just and good (or in the case of our cowboy anti-heroes in movies like Shane and Unforgiven, he executes his own brand of justice). In persisting pop culture iconography, the cowboy often represents a sense of freedom and fringe living. These images and stories are widely patriarchal not only in the male-dominance of the work, but in the approach to animals and nature. Ranch work traditionally hinges upon a view of dominance over nature, over horses, the space around them.

So what happens when cowgirls like Mattie Ross in True Grit emerge alongside these idealized visions of masculinity? Can we simultaneously celebrate the freedom and independence of the female protagonists while being critical of heteronormativity (when romantic relationships are present at all) and white-dominance in these narratives? While examining these representations will often get murky, one thing is certain: they send messages about gender that don't squarely fit within the conventional codes of femininity we often see in mainstream media, and the relationship between woman and horse becomes a complicated one when we consider themes of connectivity, community, and redemption.  Through this Reverse Cowgirl series, I hope to get somehow closer to the heart of why.

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Comments

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First!

First!!!

Super interesting blog series!

I am so excited for this! I know you're planning to focus on American film, which is great because though I've seen plenty of discussion of masculinity in Westerns, I haven't seen much about how representations of women on horses can complicate/subvert gender norms and heteronormativity. I'd be really interested to think about women and horses in other contexts too, like English/Anglophone literature. Specifically I'm thinking of Mansfield Park and other 19th century British novels, in which riding horses seems to be connected to women's vitality/independence but also a kind of sexuality that's prohibited or transgressive (Mary Crawford is a great horsewoman, Fanny Price is not).

Yes! Funny you should mention

Yes! Funny you should mention that, I have been reading arguments for/against riding sidesaddle. Oddly interesting stuff!

On the English/Anglophone front, how about South Riding?

Where Robert Carne's wife would rather have been hunting than anything else and is terrified of childbirth? Or the Flambards series, where Christina comes to love hunting? Is it the horsemanship (horsewomanship?) that appeals to these characters or are they in love with the wild riding across country?

Interesting idea for a blog series, I'm looking forward to this one.

Woman, Horse, and Power

I, too, see the relationship between horses and women as assertions of female power. As a little girl my family enjoyed the annual rodeo and my favorite event was watching the female barrel racers. Looking past the hyper-glitz of their spangled, tight-fitting riding costumes (a hyper-sexualized display if ever there was one!), the sense of power displayed by the riders as they let their mounts run full out across the ring wasn't lost on this 5-7 year old girl. Forget about dusting off those old volumes of Freudian psychology; what little girls like I witnessed was each talented, fearless woman working as a team with an animal big enough to crush her, strong enough to carry her away, and doing it with flare, precision, and brilliance. I felt respect and awe; I felt their power as the horse leant his strength to the female rider and she leant her skill to the horse. The flash just made it all that more exciting!

Wow, well said!

Wow, well said!

Wonderful Blog

So, this may very well be the most interesting and well-written blog post I have ever read. The discussions of western narratives impact the treatment and depictions of people with disabilities as well so this resonated with me. The individualistic facade ignores the reality that we are interdependent and glorifies physical conquests as the only true measure of independence and strength.

Plus, full disclosure I'm in love with the author! I love you babe!!!!

LOL "gender

LOL "gender studies"

Someone's wasted their life on nothing

If you think gender studies

If you think gender studies is so worthless, why are you reading this magazine and blog?

Seriously?

Out of that entire blog post and the subsequent thoughtful post it evoked the one thing you took from it was "gender studies?" A term not even explicitly mentioned within the blog. I second the opinion of the other response and wonder what is the motivation for one reading a blog posting on a website titled bitchmagazine.org, while thinking "gender studies" is a waste of a life (not just a waste of time). How ignorant can one possibly be? I think we do have some insight into the academic accumen of this comment given the first line - "LOL 'gender studies'". This represents a level of scholarly written analysis often unseen in a day and age of Twitter and Instagram. Well done hyun. And thank you for your collegial and thoughtful contribution to the "Gender Studies" discourse. I look forward to following your writings in the future.

As a female horse lover

As a female horse lover working with horses and taking an equine science class at a university in the wild west, I'm so glad to see these elements being incorporated into a Bitch blog! Looking forward to reading it.