Sorry, Sam Elliott, movie cowboys have always been gay

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It’s hard to believe that in 2022 people argue that cowboys — and by extension, western movies — shouldn’t be queer.

Acclaimed actor, frequent on-screen cowboy and famous mustache owner Sam Elliott caught the internet’s ire this week after an appearance on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast where he criticized Jane Campion’s Oscar-nominated film The power of the dog, calling it a “piece of crap” and comparing characters, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s central cowboy, to “Chippendales dancers”.

“That’s what all those fucking cowboys looked like in that movie. They’re all running around in leggings and shirtless, there’s all these hints of homosexuality throughout the fucking movie,” Elliott said. to Maron in the interview.

Besides the fact that leggings are a practical piece of clothing for someone who works on a ranch – and that Elliott himself was born and raised in the decidedly unwild west of Sacramento, Calif. – Elliott’s comments were not well received.

Throughout the podcast interview, Elliott posits the cattle ranching portrayed in the film as an inherently upright bastion of “family,” suggesting that queerness and homosexuality somehow dictate it. another one.

But I have news for Sam Elliott: movie cowboys have always been gay. Like, suuuuuper gay.

A long history of leather chaps and nostalgic looks

Ever since there have been cowboys on screen, they’ve indulged in playful homoeroticism and gender, whether it’s with guns, themselves, or each other. The cowboy of The Village People and the overwhelming number of leather chaps that can be seen in many queer spaces today have not made it into the culture in their own right: they are inspired by a long history of queerness and cowboys.

Classic western films from the mid-20th century feature all sorts of homoerotic tropes, from pairs of men heading off to the Wild West with only the other to rely on, to singing cowboys dressed in rhinestones like in 1954. Johnny Guitarwhich starred Sterling Hayden and a very butch (and dude-wearing) Joan Crawford.

And this homoeroticism came out even in the names of the films themselves. Browse through a selection of super cowboy John Wayne’s filmography and some trends emerge: brutal romance (1930), two finger law (1932), Saddle Buddies (1938), blue steel (1934) and Ride it, Cowboy! (1930). Any of these would make a great gay bar name.

Astute critics have pointed out that the setting of the so-called “Wild West” is a perfect place to explore the deep – ever-deeper – bonds between the men.

“The prairie and the wild west were often lonely, womanless places and whether in prison, in the navy, or in the armies of ancient Sparta, the womanless men will surely look to each other for comfort each other, and never say a word about it afterwards,” critic John Pattterson wrote for The Guardian in 2005.

One of the classic examples of homoeroticism in Western cinema comes red river (1948), where two cowboy characters, Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) engage in a little gun-sizing contest, if you will.

The two then engage in a lighthearted firefight, which another character ends by describing as “They were having fun – a peculiar kind of fun, sizing each other up for the future.” Later in the film, one male character accuses another of wanting to put his mark on “every rump in the state of Texas but mine”.

The “Spaghetti Western” films shot in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s were particularly noted for their inherent weirdness. movies like The good the bad and the ugly (1966) and A bullet for the general (1966) feature strongly bonded male friendships, where males often express deep emotional love for one another and shun relationships with females in favor of spending time together.

the Brokeback Mountain of all

That’s all to say, Brokeback Mountain didn’t invent the wheel when it comes to portraying homoeroticism in westerns. But the 2005 Ang Lee film — and the 1997 Annie Proulx short story it’s based on — made all that homoeroticism explicit in a mainstream production.

Brokeback Mountain takes all the nostalgic looks and emotional connections from these classic films and actually shows us the characters having sex and having sex.

Brokeback Mountain was one of the first high-profile examples of this subtext being created, but it has already been done in queer culture: the homoeroticism of westerns was made explicit long ago in the underground film of Andy Warhol Horse (1965), which features a game of strip poker between an outlaw and his captor (and yes, there are plenty of jockstraps).

Other films followed. Beyond The power of the dog this year there is also the Netflix movie The more they fall, which features an encoded trans-masculine character. Although God’s countrya favorite of the queer film festival in 2017, featuring a Yorkshire sheep farmer and not an American cowboy, the film plays with all the Western tropes of stereotypical masculinity, isolation and unexpected homosexual desire.

In country music, artists like Orville Peck, a masked singer wearing a cowboy hat, and drag race the former Trixie Mattel sings songs about homosexuality and cowboys. Even mainstream country stars like TJ Osborne of the duo Brothers Osborne are coming out and embracing homosexuality in what many would call the straightest musical genre. And of course, there’s openly gay Lil Nas X singing about riding bulls and “Wrangler on my booty” in the hit “Old Town Road.”

For Elliott to say that homosexuality and guys have no place in westerns or cowboy tales isn’t just outdated, it’s wrong. Ever since there have been cowboys on screen, they’ve been sharing sneaky looks and measuring their guns — and yes, they’re wearing leggings.

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