Cowboys, for decades the dominant embodiment of the American West, continue to represent a nostalgic investment in a particular machismo. And yet we know, if only because of Annie Oakley, that cowgirls also rode the range and performed in Wild West shows. So we’re reminded by A&E’s new reality series, Rodeo Girls.
From the 1930s onward, women have had limited competition opportunities at rodeos. Most women compete at barrel racing, as do our “girls” here. Episode One follows the fortunes of five women as they arrive at Scottsdale Arizona Rodeo. Blonde Barb is on her comeback, having had two years off the circuit training horses at home with her husband. The others are all “single ladies”, as they tell us.
Megan and Jessica are rookies. Jessica is getting over a break-up with her cheating boyfriend. Megan’s Mum was a rodeo rider. Marvel has also recently given up on a horrible relationship and former swimsuit model Darcy (also one of the show’s executive producers) seems to have a knack for losing husbands — twice divorced (once from Jean-Claude Van Damme), once widowed — barrel racing is her healing process.
All these women are photogenic and white, despite the fact that women of many racial backgrounds are contributing to the growth of rodeo. (Rodeo supports separate race-specific circuits, though this is not a practice addressed in this reality show.) They compete in a conventionally masculine sport, but not as a route to escape their femininity. Rather, they embrace their identities as women.
Though they might not see it this way themselves, the women emerge as post-feminist figures, with all the contradictions and complexities attached to the term. They assert that “rodeos are our playground” and “we live by our own rules.” As Darcy puts it, rodeo is a “lifestyle” choice, in which she and her fellow riders wear lipstick and long hair as well as cowboy boots and spurs. Darcy takes time to dry her eyelashes before mounting her horse.
While the riders are conscious of the fact that people think they are just out “to look pretty”, they’re comfortable looking good in competition. At the same time, they take care to distinguish what they do from “pageant” (a line that is perhaps crossed in a future episode’s swimsuit rodeo). They ride hard and play hard, flirting here with cowboys, especially Marvel’s cousin Ty and trick roper Anthony.
But the boys don’t live in a post-patriarchal world. Anthony mock ropes Darcy as means to a date, but hits on Jessica another evening. Ty likes to tell the women what to do, and apart from Marvel, they are too tolerant of his patronage.
The women shift between self-interest and sisterhood. On race day, the camera captures the fierce intensity of their individual desires to win out over each other. There is special resentment against the wealthy Darcy who has spent $200,000 on a proven mount, while the others have had to “make” their own horses. And men are divisive. Darcy gets annoyed with Jessica after Anthony’s fickleness, and Jessica unappealingly flaunts youth’s desirability over age.
As the opening song has it, the traditional politics of “don’t take my man” live on. On the other hand, Barb has been like a mother to Jessica, encouraging her to “toughen up” to survive. Darcy is hurt when she overhears the others talking about her because on the rodeo circuit, “the support system is other cowgirls.” Throughout the episode, the laughter of the women punctuates the soundtrack, bonding them as a subversive cohort in what Marvel describes as “a boys’ only club.”
Jessica phrases her politics in another way; for her, the rodeo is “just me and my horses out on the road.” But what’s missing from Rodeo Girls is time with the horses themselves. There is no sense of the horses as agents in a team sport. The only named horse is Darcy’s new purchase, Dash, and she thinks of him as a luxury sports car (a Ferrari or a Lamborghini), rather than an equine partner. Barb’s grey horse spooks while tethered to a post, and briefly we see their emotional connection. Jessica has just bought her horse and they are “not clicking”, but their chemistry, or lack of it, is not available on screen. Though we don’t learn much about Marvel’s mounts, her brilliant ride, despite the pain of a twisted ankle, speaks to the intimacy and trust of the bond between her and her horse.
Combining the flashy trashy aesthetics of reality TV and the rodeo circuit, Rodeo Girls is at its best in the ring itself, as the camera speeds around the barrels with horse and rider. Mixing an empowering competence with a performance of femininity, these cowgirls display all the impurities of post-feminist girl power.