I watched the Roger Corman classic western "Gunslinger" just the other night. You know you’re in for a feast of powerful-woman-powered drama when the words "Roger" and "Corman" are anywhere near a movie and in that specific order – much like "Jerry" and "Bruckheimer" has you making sure the sick bucket is handy before sitting down to torture yourself – and this was no let-down. Could have done with more exposed mammaries with satellites captured in their own gravity wells but that’s just a personal preference. It did feature unerotic, manly, can-can dancers though so at least one of my many, many, many, sick fetishes was addressed.
The film got me thinking about female cowboys, or cowgirls as they’re known, and not just in the obvious way. Mostly in the obvious way, though. A good couple of days worth, at least.
Sexual Equality In The Wild, Wild West
Corman knew, as I do and you soon will, that, far from being a man’s world where the men were real men with real hats and the women were content to be passengers on wagons or prostitutes in saloons, the true Wild West was a haven of equal rights affording men and women the same opportunities to don gunbelts and rob banks or dress up pretty and allow a whiskey-soaked prospector to swap his nugget of gold for a night of passion and fleas and chairs cracked over the spine when the poker being played downstairs reached the all-important Cheating Accusation Round and the compulsory brawl spilt out into the street and up the stairs.
Today we owe much of what we know about the halcyon days of the cowboy and his rapid expansion over the dead bodies of native Americans from the explosion of machismo-fueled spaghetti westerns that came out of Italy, Spain, Finland, Sri Lanka, and the other countries where spaghetti was still herded until recently. It’s all too easy to forget the old black and white serials that ran in cinemas in the 1940s and 1950s with titles such as "Rustler Girls Of Idaho" and "Captain John Johnson, The Best Damn Dancer In Texas!"
What Did Cowgirls Actually Do?
The role of the cowboy or cowgirl has become confused deliberately by the film industry over the years because a two hour film featuring Clint Eastwood repairing fences, herding cows to new grazing land, and shooting into the woods when a Frenchman’s craving for steak de cheval becomes too much to control and he wanders too close simply wouldn’t have coaxed the audiences in.
In general a cowgirl did pretty much that; fence-mending, general ranch-work, making the cows look pretty, sitting on the saddle pommel and going for a gallop through the hills, and coming up with daring new designs in gingham were pretty much the norm. Pot-shots at Frenchmen were rare except around Louisiana where it was considered a sport, and close to the border of Canada when packs of Quebeccians would ride south on their battle-mooses in search of sustenance.
Hired guns and outlaws are often confused with cowboys and girls simply because they dressed the same but a typical day for a female hired gun was markedly different; you wouldn’t find a hired gun trying to make her cows look pretty because there wouldn’t be any cows near the bank she was robbing, the sheriff she was shooting in the back, or the cows she was rustling for the rich Frenchman. Obviously, there’d be some cows near those cows but she still wouldn’t try to make them look pretty unless she was broody or in a funny mood after a pommel-gallop to the ranch.
Only a few cowgirls made it through the misogynic filter of the last century and remain in folklore.
Annie Oakley is probably the most famous cowgirl of all. Born Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses she became a sure-shot during the Third Quebec-Ohio War in 1878 while still a teenager. Orphaned at an early age, Annie maintained the family’s small ranch alone through shyness, whittling double-pommelled saddles for relaxation, and experimenting with earthy gingham colours until one day in September when a full brigade of battle-hardened battle-French on their battle-mooses rode past on their way to raze Cleveland. Annie followed, hidden by her combat gingham, and sniped them all the way until her ammo ran out leaving only a lone survivor to launch an assault against the city. He succeeded gloriously like so many before and since and Annie helped to rebuild Cleveland after his departure back north.
During the reconstruction tales of Annie’s exploits spread and she was sought by many suitors who’d lost loved ones in the great fire and had heard she wasn’t bad-looking as hillbillies went but Annie’s shy nature won over and she stood against a backdrop of trees to avoid discovery.
And so it was that she would have slipped off to her ranch and faded into obscurity had it not been for the fortuitous arrival of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and the keen eyes of The Amazing Colour-Blind Mexican. Bill convinced Annie to join his show, probably through mesmerism, and the rest is history. Which is a convenient way of saying I’m not talking about her anymore.
The Decline Of The Cowgirl
Wherever industrialisation has sprung up it has changed forever the rural ways that existed nearby and the early twentieth century saw a rapid decline in the job requirements of a typical cowgirl. Gingham lost favour as leather hoods, ballgags, and studded corsets gained popularity throughout the midwest; cow brainwashing techniques developed in Chile saw a vast reduction in the need for cattle herders while the new-fangled radar systems developed around the middle of the century allowed reliable robotic gun towers to be deployed for the first time to protect against the French.
Without proper care the cow has gone from the most gorgeous of animals to something most people never look in the eye unless they get a dodgy burger in a fast-food outlet and the cowgirl is now merely a large-bosomed, gingham-clad, pommel-riding, historical curiosity to conjure into memory on long bus rides.