Urban Cowboy. Bronco Billy
Women, the last frontier

by Rachel Kranz

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Time was, you went to a Western and saw cowboys beating up on Indians, cattle rustlers, bandits, outlaws, each other, and cows. URBAN COWBOY and BRONCO BILLY'S WILD WEST SHOW may have set a new record: they're the first Westerns I've ever seen where the cowboys spend most of their time punching the women.

James Bridges' URBAN COWBOY, starring John Travolta, and Clint Eastwood's BRONCO BILLY are very different movies. COWBOY purports to be a serious study of the "urban cowboy" culture of Houston oil workers. BILLY is a tongue-in-cheek chronicle of the checkered fortunes of a motley Wild West show traveling through Idaho and Montana. Yet both Westerns focus on a would-be cowboy hero's romance with an uppity woman, and his attempt to tame her at least partially through battering. The coincidence is not simply a result of the filmmakers' attitudes towards women, but it reveals a deeper poverty in Hollywood's current notions of Western culture and the Western genre.

Traditionally, the Hollywood cowboy was a man with a mission. Whether to aid in the triumph of Manifest Destiny over the American Indian, to bring law and civilization to the anarchic prairie, to maintain the West as the last province of the free spirit, or to preserve an environmental ideal, the cowboy's job transcended himself. His mission may even have been in the service of individualism — to carve out or maintain a part of the country where a man could "be himself." But the focus of the cowboy's quest was never a better life for himself alone; perhaps more than any other movie hero, the cowboy saw himself as part of history.

In this context, the cowboy's woman had various roles. She might be a part of that "better life" he was fighting to preserve. She might be an outsider, an Easterner or a snob, who had to be converted to Western values. Or, as timid wife/practical mistress, she might actually oppose his quest, representing the private security that he was to risk for the public good. In these latter two capacities, she might have to be "tamed," but only as a corollary to the larger mission.

Bud (John Travolta) in URBAN COWBOY sees himself as a cowboy. But in the absence of any kind of "public" work — clearing the prairie, catching the cattle rustlers — his entire cowboy activity is confined to the floors of Gilley's, a huge nightclub featuring such cowboy toys as a mechanical bucking bull. Like previous movie cowboys, Bud makes numerous moral statements about what a "man" is supposed to do. But without a quest to give the code a social slant ("A man can't back down when things get tough." "A man's got to do what's right," etc.), his manliness is solely defined by what he'll tolerate from his wife.

A fight in which Bud slaps Sissy (Debra Winger) for her participation in a "man's" game with a punching machine that scores strength at Gilley's is the spur for their decision to get married. Later, he hits her in a quarrel over her housekeeping. When Sissy insists upon riding the mechanical bull at Gilley's — and rides it better than Bud — they have another violent fight, leading to his involvement with a tycoon's daughter and hers with an ex-convict. Each time the issue is what a man can expect from his woman, a point reinforced by the ex-convict, who beats Sissy even more brutally than Bud.

In an earlier movie, Bud's rivalry with Wes, the ex-con, might have been the focus of the picture. The two would have represented different values, ending in Bud's victory in gunfight or rodeo. The "girl" might have accompanied the victory, but only to emphasize the point.

In URBAN COWBOY, the "girl" is the point. Bud's fight with Wes is not over values, but over sexual prowess. Thus even though Bud finally beats Wes in the "rodeo" — a contest on the mechanical bull — Bud's real goal is to impress Sissy and get her back. Wes' crime is not so much that he represents a different way of life as that in taking Sissy, he takes Bud's only proof of manhood. Wes' sexuality almost literally unmans Bud. In a key scene, shots of Bud's falling from a dangerous scaffolding at work are closely intercut with Wes' teaching Sissy to ride the forbidden bull. Not only does the close-cutting imply that Wes' seductiveness causes Bud's fall, the fall itself results in Bud's breaking an arm, a traditional film symbol of impotence. In this context, Wes' greater brutality to Sissy further emphasizes the link between violence against women and manhood. Stripped of the cowboy's original social role, the urban cowboy's only remaining proof of manhood is his woman.

The movie is full of self-conscious references to the new poverty of the cowboy dream. The tycoon's daughter coos,

"I think modern men are too complicated. I told my Daddy that I go for cowboys because they represent the simple values — they're brave, strong, direct, honest … 'You mean dumb,' Daddy replied. Daddy's a real scream."

Later Bud speaks wistfully of his dream to buy a ranch:

"I suppose all cowboys dream of going back to the land. Well, I'm probably full of shit."

There's clearly material here for a moving statement about the remnants of a dying culture and the frustrations of the working class men and women trying to keep it alive. But the movie studiously avoids any actual encounter with the realities of urban cowboy life.

For example, two industrial accidents take place at the oil field where the nighttime cowboys work. One, Bud's near-fatal fall, is reduced by intercutting with the Wes-Sissy scene to yet another expression of his marital problems. The second accident, the death of Bud's uncle in an oil fire, is the pretext for an encounter between Sissy and the tycoon's daughter at the funeral. Neither accident makes any statement on the dangers of industrial work or the possible responsibility of the company for such dangers. Numerous shots of Bud at work are intercut with the nighttime bar scenes, evidently meant to convey the connection between working class labor and recreation. But the work shots are so brief, one wonders why they're there. They serve only to turn industrial work into local color, a kind of exotica to flavor the romance.

The clipped, quick editing is still puzzling, however. When we see, several times, a work scene jump into a bar scene, what connection are we to infer? Does Bud's daily work make his bar life admirable? Heroic? Pathetic? Ironic? The connection is puzzling, not because there's a wealth of meaningful conclusions to draw, but because there doesn't seem to be any conclusion. The connection itself, implied by the editing, doesn't seem to matter — in the visual terms of the film, one interpretation is evidently as good as any other.

Other scenes in the movie display this flat, affectless quality, as though every image, every person, is so weightless and disconnected that its significance can shift at a moment's notice. When Bud and Sissy are first married, he takes her, blindfolded, to their new mobile home. There is a lengthy shot of first the trailer, stark against white concrete, and then Sissy's face as she reacts. For a minute she's too stunned to speak. Will she be angry? Disappointed? The trailer seems to have a negative connotation, either a reflection on Bud's cheap taste or a sign of his poverty. But no, Sissy is ecstatic. Are we to take the scene as pathos, that she could be happy with so little, or as a rebuke to our own snobbery in despising the trailer? Is Sissy faking happiness to placate Bud? Or perhaps we weren't meant to despise the trailer — except then why the long pause of suspense while Bud takes off Sissy's blindfold?

In the first shot, the trailer looks cheap and small, but later interior shots make it seem spacious and comfortable. This is no meaningful ambiguity, playing off the contradictions in urban cowboy/working class life and our reactions to it, but rather a denial of meaning. We're evidently meant to accept two contradictory values for the same image, for no reason than that they exist side by side in the film. In discussing this scene later, I found viewers indeed had a number of different interpretations of Sissy's response to the trailer, each able to be supported by evidence elsewhere in the movie.

A similar confusion pervades the characters. Bud spends his first night in Houston in bed with two women from Gilley's. His aunt, a working class mother of two, covers for Bud by telling his mother he was in church. In another scene, Bud's uncle and aunt accompany Bud and the tycoon's daughter to a nightclub, even though Bud is still legally married to Sissy. Are we to infer that Houston oil workers take sex and marriage so lightly? That Bud's family is unusual? Or simply that no one in the film is bound by cultural ties of any kind? On the other hand, Bud seems to spend far more time with his relations than the old Western heroes ever did. He aspires to the traditional cowboy "loner" status, but the complex urban environment forces him to seek economic and emotional support from his family.

Universal freedom from cultural ties is the avowed goal of the would-be cowboys in BRONCO BILLY. Clint Eastwood's Billy is such a determined cowboy. He parodies himself, just as he did in his role of tough cop in his earlier fun THE GAUNTLET (see JUMP CUT, 20). The audience roared in delight when the former Dirty Harry tells a group of orphans at his show that a cowboy never kills anyone "unless absolutely necessary." Spoiled New York heiress Antoinette Lilly (Sondra Locke) finally asks Billy what we've been wondering all along: "Are you for real?" He answers, "I can be anything I want to be."

It turns out that no one in the Wild West show is for real. The sharpshooter used to be a bank teller; the rope twirler is a deserting Viet Nam vet; Billy himself is an ex-shoe salesman from New Jersey. "Haven't you learned the lesson of the show?" a character asks Antoinette. "You can be anything you want. All you have to do is go out and become it."

Perhaps there is something liberating and American in a philosophy which allows such individual scope. After all, the Old West was traditionally the heart of democracy, where poor man and former criminal alike were guaranteed a chance to start over despite their origins. If the changes were better in popular myth than in reality, still, there was some truth to the myth, for white men at least. Because she's a woman, even though Antoinette is shown to be as good a shot as Billy, she never gets a chance to use a gun in his show. She can only have a new start in life by acquiescing in the denial of her unique abilities.

There's also something more than a little sad about a country in which all cultures, all pasts, are so weightless and dispensable they can be got rid of by a simple act of will. In the old Westerns, the snobbish Easterner represented something specific — on one level, a set of repressive, class-bound values, on another, the penetration of Eastern capital into the Western states. When that Easterner was converted into a cowboy or cowboy's wife, it was supposed to represent the triumph of one way of life over another.

BRONCO BILLY's Antoinette doesn't represent anything. She's simply spoiled and rude, to such a point that it is almost satisfying to see Billy get the better of her. For much of the film, Billy's Wild West show is failing and even Billy's best efforts can't make it work. He can, however, be successful in his efforts to bring Antoinette "around to my way of thinking," as he puts it, accomplished partly by giving her a couple of good slaps, and by other forms of faintly masked sexual humiliation. In every other sector, Billy's values are mocked as anachronistic. He even tries, in a hilarious scene, to stage a train robbery, though his horse and six-shooter are no match for a modern train. But the taming of Antoinette pays off spectacularly. When all else fails, a man still has his woman.

It is interesting that in both films, economically well-off women are left alone. Not a hand is raised by anyone against the tycoon's daughter in URBAN COWBOY (though as an upper-class woman slumming, she can also afford to play at compliance in a way that Sissy can't). At the beginning of BRONCO BILLY, Antoinette easily puts her ridiculous weak-kneed husband in his place by threatening to "cut you out of my universe — starting at the bank." It's only when the husband runs off with her money and she has to ask Billy for help that she's open to victimization. The message seems to be that if a woman expects economic support from a man, she must agree to be the vehicle by which he can feel like a man, since his world has left him no other proving ground than her body.

Even this statement is too strong for the predominantly amoral tone of both movies. Although both films dwell upon battering at great length, neither film takes it seriously. Since neither film can support the comprehensive moral framework of traditional Westerns, each must turn to another genre to fill in the gaps. URBAN COWBOY draws on Hollywood's version of innocent young love in an evil world. Thus we are never sure whether Bud's beating of Sissy represents his morally righteous indignation at her sloppy housekeeping and attraction to another man, or whether he's simply a confused, inarticulate young man with no other outlet for his feelings. BRONCO BILLY frequently alludes to the screwball comedy tradition of a spirited woman paired with a staid man. Billy's pretensions to cowboyhood are mocked almost as readily as Antoinette's snobbery, so when he humiliates her, we laugh at them both. The viewer who enjoys watching men abuse women is free to do so without having to acknowledge that that's what's going on.

A prime example of comedy's blunting violence occurs repeatedly in BRONCO BILLY. The Wild West show's showstopper is an act in which a woman assistant is strapped spread-eagled to a spinning wooden wheel. Billy, blindfolded, shoots four balloons pinned near her arms and legs. The fifth, located between her legs, he pierces with a knife. The first time we see this trick, Billy misses and the woman's thigh is cut. We've watched the woman become hysterically nervous as she's strapped to the wheel and spun around: we've felt her vertigo through a subjective, spinning shot of Billy and the knife. We hear her scream as the knife hits her — and then we cut to Billy, who rolls his eyes heavenward in disgust. Although subsequent assistants don't get stabbed, they never fail to scream in terror — even the haughty Miss Lilly breaks down when she is forced to take that role in the show. The audience never fails to laugh at the hysteria of the spinning women, just as the cut to Billy's disgust was a sure-fire gag. We are encouraged to enjoy the women's humiliation, supposedly made more palatable by the ready humor.

The theme of racism in BRONCO BILLY in many ways parallels the film's ambivalent portrayal of woman abuse. Scatman Crothers as the Wild West show's Black master of ceremonies winks at the movie audience while telling the Wild West show audience that the show's Indian dance has never before been seen "by white men." When the Indian Chief Big Eagle complains about not being paid, Billy asks him if he'd rather be "back on the reservation, drinking bad whiskey." Yet later we discover both that Big Eagle has written several books on Indian culture, and that he evidently adores his paternalistic boss. The film has it both ways at once, showing the racism while seeming to deny it.

One can't imagine such ambivalence in, say, a John Wayne movie, where violence against women, Indians, or anyone else would be readily acknowledged, indeed glorified, as part of a moral and historical effort. These contemporary movies don't even pretend to moral consistency. They just ask us to go along with the story, encouraging us to be as alienated, as morally weightless, as the characters.

Audiences don't necessarily go to movies for the pleasure of making moral judgments, of course. URBAN COWBOY offers the dynamic sexual presence of John Travolta and the excellent acting of Debra Winger. BRONCO BILLY's send-up of Clint Eastwood's macho persona is often funny and probably also sexy if you're an Eastwood fan. But it's interesting that Bronco Billy's message of "you can be whatever you want" comes at a time when U.S. moviegoers are facing increasingly severe economic constraints, that Bud's resentment of these constraints is so acceptably converted into the battering of his wife. When the high moral code of the cowboy is turned into a corny joke, when the Texas prairie is covered with dangerous oil fields and the only bronco left to bust is just another machine, women are evidently the cowboy's last frontier.