American Cowboys Played By Girls

My two very favourite American Cowboys are Brandon Teena and Calamity Jane, who were, I realize, quite different from one another.

Brandon, born Teena Renae Brandon in 1972, was a gas station attendant, petty thief and ladies’ man who spent most of his life in Lincoln, Nebraska. Jane, born Martha Jane Canary in 1852, was a sometimes-married frontierswoman and professional scout, who eventually settled in the small town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Brandon became an icon of the contemporary lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender movement after he was raped and killed in 1993 and Jane, has been a mainstay of American history books and museums, since the late 1940s.

Still, despite these differences, both were born and raised as girls, who, upon adolescence decided to dress and live as boys and both have been immortalized by Hollywood actresses in Hollywood films as soulful, heartsick cowboys, brave enough to defy the strict social rules of their small hometowns in the American Mid-West.

In pictures taken just weeks before his rape and murder, Brandon Teena looks like a young Matt Damon (at left in image below), his thin girl-body obscured and made thicker by layers of thermal underwear and flannel shirts. Set alongside his celluloid counterpart played by Hilary Swank, (an actress, who before her Academy-Award winning turn as Brandon was most famously known as a the new Karate Kid or maybe Carly Reynolds, the single mother who dated Ian Ziering’s character Steve on the nineties teen soap opera Beverly Hills 90210, at right in image below), his story seems utterly ordinary and, perhaps even more importantly, unsensationalistic.

He was, quite simply, a boy from a trailer park in Lincoln, Nebraska, just out of high school and out in the world looking for friends and love at the roller rink, in the parking lot of the local 7-11, in the blue-collar town of Falls City, just outside of Lincoln, where he moved and settled in for a short period of time after meeting and falling in love with Lana Tisdel, the prettiest girl in town.

And it’s the same for Calamity Jane, staring out from old black and white photographs or dancing across the movie screen, her cinematic counterpart as sunny and bright as the real Martha Jane Canary looks dark and composed.

In the Hollywood version of her life, Calamity Jane played by Doris Day (see image at the very top) even sings. And why shouldn’t she? Unlike all the other girls in this 1953 movie, dressed in the petticoats and dresses that most women were obliged to wear during Calamity Jane’s time, the Cowboy-upped Doris Day looks as sexy and free as my third favourite American Cowboy Played By A Girl, The L Word’s profoundly beguiling Shane (played by Katherine Moening).

End Note: An earlier Rocket Science post on sexuality is right here.


Categories: Visual Sociology

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