Oscar Season is in full swing with a number of exciting wins and more to come. One film standing out this season is Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” which has already triumphed in the film categories by winning awards for Best Film, Best Leading Actor for the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch, and Best Supporting Actor for up and coming star Kodi Smit-McPhee. The news was not fully jubilant, however, as this win received criticism by famous Western film actor Sam Elliott for the movie’s storyline of gay cowboys.
This then brings to mind the questions: What makes a cowboy? Is what we’ve seen in movies true to history? Were there any gay cowboys in the Wild West? As it turns out, our conception of the cowboy figure is not completely historically accurate, as the Wild West has a history of gay cowboys, which will be looked into. Caution, ahead are Spoiler Alerts for “The Power of the Dog.”
The movie follows the story of Phil and his nephew Peter. Phil being a feared and domineering man, who fits our traditional description of a cowboy, while Peter is a more effeminate cowboy, who loves to make paper flowers. Faced with his nephew’s identity, Phil meets a crisis within his himself as a closeted gay man as he now is presented with his nephew, who defies the ideals of what a man is expected to be. The message of the film is that even though both men are gay, they are still cowboys, and they both prove their bravery.
The traditional depiction of the cowboy we know today was shaped by the film industry in the post-World War II era. Wild West films offered an adventurous and romantic image of a time long past— men riding large steeds across wild frontiers and rescuing damsels in distress. However, the genre reached new pastures with the rise of the iconic actor John Wayne. A legendary Western star and symbol of machismo, he was the epitome of American masculinity. So popular was he then and now that his movies cemented the image of the cowboy that we know today as only hyper-masculine, straight, white, and male. It is to be expected to only think of this when asked to imagine a cowboy because this is what we have seen for the past half century so far. However, such a depiction is not entirely true to history. The Wild West had a surprising history of not only of queer cowboys, but also people of color as cowboys.
On the concept of the figure itself, it must first be stated that being a cowboy was first and foremost an occupation, not just a lifestyle. To be able to hold such a vast frontier together took a great amount of labor. In this social environment of the Old West, many marginalized groups were able to find more freedom than they did elsewhere. One group that found a home in the west was African Americans, especially in the post-Civil War era when many freed slaves needed work. Other minorities, including immigrants, Mexicans, and even Native Americans took up the mantle of the cowboy and worked across the Old West. The role of women is not to be undersold either, as they also worked to hold the frontier together. Some even famously went on to be Western icons themselves, such as Annie Oakley. The point being that the traditional image of the cowboy was not all there ever was.
For gay people specifically, the environment for a cowboy offered a good, although certainly not perfect, place to experience freedom for their sexuality. Being a cowboy involved being in close quarters with other men for long periods of time, where strong bonds could be made. They were isolated from much of the world and, thus, freed from many of the burdens in society they faced. This was coupled with the fact that sexuality during the time was seen more as something you did, rather than an identity. A good way that someone could have made the fact that they were gay known to potential partners was by talking about Walt Whitman, who was a famous gay poet, from time to time. This way they were able to covertly reveal themselves to their companions.
While the figure of the cowboy was in many ways annexed by Hollywood as straight, white, and hyper-masculine, this image is beginning to get its due starting with the classic gay western love story of “Brokeback Mountain” and now more so with “The Power of the Dog,” which not only challenges the traditional cowboy image in terms of sexuality but masculinity as well. These films show that anyone could be a cowboy and they were indeed.