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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Rae

The Romance of The West: A Cowgirl Manifesto

They didn’t know what to call us before. Descendants of Artemis; some kind of moon fable brought to life with our nimble hands and wild hair. Keepers of the ranch. Almost cowboys. It was the “almost” that made us dangerous – the space between what we could do as women and what they thought only they could do as men was too small to see us as other. The horses we rode were the same, the rowels that spun on our boots were the same. The guns were too, but our kind used them in a different way. When we shot, we never missed. Sometimes, the guns were our mouths: we meant what we said.

In 1926, the same year that Annie Oakley died, a state official from Kansas declared us as myths (both verbally and in his memoir, now in the archives of the Kansas Historical Society at Topeka). I think she stole his words and took them to the grave with her. We’re still here, post-mythologized. Toni Morrison knew us to be outlaw women in her stories. Farmers see the way we saddle the horse and whisper vaquera. Shooting the bird, markswoman. Sharpshooter. Yes, cowgirl.

A cowgirl is “a woman who herds and tends cattle, performing much of her work on horseback” (thank you, Oxford Languages). She’s a rodeo performer; an often overly sexualized icon of the western U.S. She brushes coarse manes with tenderness. She sees the fangs of the cobra ready to strike and smiles back. She tips her hat to say thank you. Her pistol gleams in the sunlight, the barrel a warm mouthpiece for death.

The cowgirl is also strong willed. Opinionated. Hardworking. Independent. Dissentient. Capable of shedding falsities. Knows she owes more to herself than she does to the world. An outlaw. Any girl can be a cowgirl, with or without the boots. The single mother is a cowgirl. The child learning to say “No” is a cowgirl. Pop star taking off wig to reveal her true self is a cowgirl. Girl refusing to shave & refusing to hold hands she doesn’t want to hold & refusing to apologize & refusing compromise & refusing shame & refusing guilt & refusing&refusing&refusing&refusing is a cowgirl. I imagine you to be a cowgirl. The act of writing this makes me a cowgirl.

I’ve come to know many cowgirls throughout my life. No two are ever the same. When I lived in Tennessee I met a handful of textbook-definition cowgirls – all of whom dazzled me with shiny belt buckles and rope-calloused hands adorned with silver turquoise rings (you know exactly which kind I’m talking about). If they had their horse with them on the farm we were visiting or the street parade we were walking through, I learned to both respect and fear them. To have power over an animal once wild was something completely foreign to me, then.

The kinds of cowgirls that fall out of the scope of tending cattle – the kind that resonate more with me as someone who has never rode a horse – have been more prevalent throughout my life. I consider my mother to be a cowgirl in her own right, raising four children while pursuing a college degree for a number of years. Many of my friends are cowgirls, as they, too, have learned the art of refusal. Being an artist in a capitalist world is cowgirl as fuck (we refuse normality; we will not sacrifice what is ours to become one of theirs). The hundreds of beautiful queer people I danced with at my first Pride? All cowgirls.

I knew the night of the Pride event was going to be different because I felt different. I’m normally not one to say “yes” to anything that involves big crowds unless I spend weeks planning in advance. But I’ve been trying to squander the parts of my Type A personality that have held me back from moments I could have created if I wasn’t so afraid. Avoiding things shiny with newness was one of them (I think it’s the unpredictability of it that makes me anxious, but that’s a psychoanalysis for another day). So when my best friend asked me to go to Pride on The Shore, with the promise of seeing drag queens & Slayyyter & Chappell Roan (!!!), I confronted this newness with a newness of my own. I said yes.

Picture this: tiny jars of crushed blue quartz hanging from ears, purple glitter kissing collar and cheekbone, butterfly clips in pigtails, untied combat boots, grandmother’s knitted cardigan twirling in tune to the black skirt floating above beer bottles and fairy wands on grass. At Pride, you could be anybody. I chose to be me, but freer. Covered in more glitter. “Yes”; “I love this song”; “You look amazing”; “Let’s dance”: I meant every word I said that night. It wasn’t the boots that made me a cowgirl. It was my own volition.

This volition first took me to the inside of the venue where we watched an incredible lineup of local drag queens perform in blue body paint, swarovski crystal dresses, layered wigs. Nadia (best friend) and I stood in the back, the crowd & their cheers & the energy of something good pulsing around us. In between watching the queens and looking towards Nadia to see if their death drops garnered the same reaction from her as they did from me – and by that I mean a slack jaw and a phantom pain in my lower back – I overheard the women standing next to me talk about how safe they felt in that room. The sea of bodies we were part of had grown, the demarcation of my physical boundaries slowly dissolving as more people arrived. But no touch I felt was violent or unwarranted. Every bump or drop of stranger sweat that married my own felt more like a reminder of what it is like to be alive. To know you are one of many is a quintessential part of being human, and it is this that let us celebrate queerness & allyship & the universality of music in the same space. Every outlaw needs a reason to keep pressing against the dogma they are entrapped by. But our weapons didn’t have to be drawn that night. We had each other.

After an hour of watching the queens, we migrated towards the outside stage where Slayyyter, Jess Glynne, and Chappell were set to perform. The area in front of the stage was reserved for VIPs, so we were left to find a spot on the lawn behind the metal barricade. I could hardly see any green from how many people stood on the grass, but just when panic was starting to set in about finding a spot to claim as our own, a friend from school saw us and lassoed us into her group. We sat and met the friends + girlfriends of everyone. We talked about which songs we were most looking forward to hearing, which for me was “Casual” and “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl.” My back was sticky with sweat and my feet felt numb in my boots, but I didn’t mind. My cogitation was somewhere between unknown thrill and unexpected peace.

When the music started, so too did my heightened cognizance. I believe Slayyyter’s “I Love Hollywood!” augmented this – the heavy bass paired with idyllic screaming about dying at the Chateau awakened the part of me that is unafraid to watch the world. She was aware again: aware of the rainbows painted on cheeks, fries shared between lovers, pink hats on heads ready for the Pink Pony Club to commence. We were restless, hungry even, for the chance to be wild. Slayyyter’s blonde ponytail whipping like rope gave us a taste of what was once considered impossible. Outlaw women – vile, raunchy, confident in their ability to awaken the masses – could be celebrated. And they are.

I knew everyone around me believed this when all we could see was red, as if a wine-colored supernova had struck earth. Our favorite outlaw woman had arrived, and with her arrival had come iPhone cameras & Pride flags being raised in the air. I stood on my tiptoes to see Chappell Roan run on stage with her hot pink bodysuit and matching boots, but by the time she reached the first bridge of “Femininomenon” I was forced to watch her through a tall stranger’s iPhone recording the entire set. On screen, a permanent fuschia glow emanated from her body. This could have been the camera quality or the strobe lights, but I took it as a sign of everything she represented coming to life. Chappell didn’t have to strip herself of wigs and costumes to reveal who she really was as an artist. When she walked on stage, we knew her to be exactly who she was: a cowgirl in her own right, advocating for queer liberation; for women to be fearless again.

Our group had managed to sneak closer to the front of the lawn just in time for “Casual.” While we swayed from side-to-side and sang along, I overheard a couple next to me during the second chorus. They wore matching pink vests and cow print skirts. They held each other while they said this:

“She makes me feel so free.”


“Like, do you know how insane she is to make music for us? I fucking love her.”

“I fucking love us.”

That’s what this was then: love. Annie Oakley was once called the “Romance of The West,” and I believe that’s what all of us were then, too. Midwestern though, of course.

I continued to observe the crowd during Chappell’s set. If people weren’t making out, they were holding hands. If people weren’t holding hands, they were crying with their friends. If they weren’t crying, they were chugging Truly’s and hitting each other with fairy wands. Either way, we were all there when the pink confetti exploded on our pink bodies at the Pink Pony Club. It was romantic the way we drowned in the color of love with our hands reaching towards the stage screen exploding with stars as Chappell + her band waved goodbye. Our palms captured not stars but pieces of ourselves, all that cowgirl energy coming back into flesh.

By the time Nadia and I made it out of the venue and onto the street corner packed with hundreds of other people also waiting for their Uber, the cowgirls set loose upon the city to wrangle the moon as their own again. Every bar had a line out the door, and, for those of us that weren’t drinking, watermelon vapes and cigarettes were hit in-between fit pics. I could taste the smoke of both. Neither apparatus ever touched my glossed lips, but I didn’t mind the secondhand flavor. It was that aliveness again, which could only come on a night like this one, with rainbow flags and a waning crescent soaring above us.

Mark and his blue Toyota arrived after twenty minutes, much to our relief (our feet were hurting after three hours of dancing on grass and we were both craving the Trader Joe’s snacks we had at home). I crawled in first, almost tripping over my skirt as I did so. The three of us weren’t talking, besides Mark muttering to himself about how bad the traffic was as he did an illegal u-turn in the middle of the road, so the only sound in the car was his music. As we drove further away from the crowds of people screaming Chappell’s lyrics on sidewalks, I listened to Mark’s early 2000’s indie album with little interest. I paid more attention to the oncoming skyscrapers as we entered the city again, until I heard this:

You, you've got to got to love me

No one loves a cowgirl

Especially one in a sick and twisted way

I'm a cowgirl in a sick and twisted way

Don't be afraid

You, you've got to got to love me

I googled the lyrics in the car to make sure I heard the man singing correctly. I did. From his 2000 album Love Letters From Hell was John Maus’ song “Cowgirl”, which repeated the lyrics I heard for two minutes and forty-three seconds. I only know this because the song has a video from some third party account on Youtube – the song and album seem to not exist anywhere else (so how Mark had it in his Apple Music is a mystery I decided not to solve…how badly could he have wanted music from a man who had ties to the alt-right?). The song took on a new approach to the Romance of The West, but it was not one I felt to be true. Sitting in the backseat, my makeup and body glitter dissipating while that alert, alive part of myself pulsed with conviction, I was a cowgirl in disguise. Nobody had to love me, but some people did. It’s what we do.

Like Chappell, like my friends, like Annie, I am a cowgirl. Maybe not sick and twisted, or maybe so, but either way I am. We deviate, play, awaken, love. That’s something to be proud of.

(And now the world knows what to call us, even if we’re bound to be forever misunderstood).


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