Write Byte

The Allure of the Western Romance

(December 20, 1997)


When I was in graduate school, a local UHF channel ran western re-runs (Rawhide, The Rifleman, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, The Lone Ranger, and Bonanza) on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I watched an awful lot of Clint Eastwood, Michael Landon, and Barbara Stanwyck in those days, and developed a rather cheesy enjoyment of cattle ranching versus sheep ranching stories, along with a life-long affection for cattle drives, especially when they manifest themselves as road romances!

The Western Romance features loner cowboys and women strong enough to travel under harsh conditions and live in isolated areas. This sub-genre waxes and wanes in popularity. Some western romances are romps, others are deadly serious.

I recently asked author Cheryl St. John to explore the allure of the Western Romance. This is what she had to say:

My first crush was on Little Joe Cartwright. I went to bed at night dreaming scenes of living on the Ponderosa with that dreamy studmuffin, and I resented every actress who played a romantic interest opposite Michael Landon.

I guess I age myself drastically (as if my children hadn’t already done that) when I admit to watching The Lone Ranger in black and white on our Zenith portable every Saturday afternoon, and to admiring the length of fringe that dangled from Tonto’s deerskin tunic.

And yes, even then, Clint Eastwood charismatically held a young audience in awe with his role as Rowdy Yates on the series Rawhide. Head ‘em up, move ‘em out!

Wagonmaster, Ward Bond wasn’t exactly a typical leading man, but Wagon Train held America’s attention weekly. Must have been Robert Fuller. The Big Valley - I have a son named Jared by the way - , Bat Masterson, The Texas Rangers, Maverick, Sugarfoot, The Rebel, The Grey Ghost, Have Gun Will Travel, Paladin, The Virginian, and let us not forget John Wayne and all the western movies of our early years, shaped our young minds. I mean, who could forget Fess Parker in a pair of buckskins?

The American West is a much romanticized part of our history, our heritage. We all know that life in Dodge City was dirty, that hundreds of women died along trails on their way west, that bathroom facilities were nonexistent and hygiene at a disgusting low, but we’ve chosen to remember and glorify the courage and the pioneer spirit of those men and women who forged our nation and ‘civilized’ the West.

I dare say none of us read romance for a reality check. The condition of our society and the situations that surround us in everyday life may be why escaping into the pages of a book is so appealing. In a romance we know no matter what befalls the characters, good triumphs over evil, and happily-ever-after is in the wings.

Cassandra Austin, Cally & The Sheriff, Harlequin Historicals, 8/97 says, "Except for a time after Vietnam and Watergate when it was hard to believe in heroes, westerns have remained popular. And even then, Clint Eastwood made westerns with anti-hero heroes. Every time Hollywood said the western was dead, someone would make one that reflected our changing attitudes, and it would be a hit: Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven."

Cassandra also brings up another interesting point: "As much as we love the western movies, they nearly always tell a man’s story. The western romance, however, let’s us take part in this heroic struggle by giving us the woman’s point of view."

Pamela Ingrahm, Wedding Planner Tames Rancher, Silhouette Desire 7/97, thinks the more we change as women, the more we stay the same, and our fiction reflects that. "It has been so pathetically frowned upon for a woman to even hint that she wants to feel safe and protected, reading cowboy romances lets us delve into that dirty-little-shameful-fantasy that we don’t want to be alone. ‘I am woman, hear me roar’, has turned to ‘I am woman, I am tired’."

Did life seem simpler when our roles as men and women were more clearly defined? Meeting today’s standards wears us out. Women’s fiction mirrors our changing society, and women are allowing themselves to be women again.

History has shown us that situations usually go to the extreme before they’re recognized and addressed.

One of the researchers of the differences between men and women and marriage seminar counselor, Joe McGee, claims that a woman’s #1 need is security, while a man’s is (let’s all get ready for the big surprise) sex.

Jayne Anne Krentz aka Amanda Quick said in her article Why Romance Sells, Romantic Times Magazine, January 1994, "Like it or not, it is the female of the species that has always had the primary responsibility for creating the family unit. That unit is the socioeconomic unit of civilization itself."

In her banquet speech at the 1989 RWA conference she said, "Our genre is the literature of human survival". And survive is what men and women did on the frontier.

The late Suzannah Davis once explained in a keynote speech to Romance Authors of the Heartland that it’s a woman’s basic instinct to seek the hardiest, most capable man to father her children. Our western hero exemplifies strength, loyalty, capability - and security.

The rancher/farmer’s sweat and blood are imbedded in his land—as deeply as the riverbeds and the roots of the ancient trees. It may have been his father’s before him, or he could have broken his back to earn it. In any case he will die to keep it. Solidarity. And any man who would pour this much passion into his land, will love his woman even more ardently.

Christine Pacheco, A Husband In Her Stocking, Silhouette Desire, 12/97 claims cowboys have always been tough and rugged, but with a strict moral code. "They do the right thing, bring the bad guys to justice, keep the world safe. They have hearts as big as the West. They love their land, their horse, and especially their women. They’re capable of wielding a gun for our protection. Above all, they have honor." The western hero can hold his own when it comes to raising the children he’s fathered, too. He loves animals and children and protects and nurtures them. He will fight renegades and weather and anything in his way to lay claim to his child.

The cowboy/rancher can be a blend of the alpha-beta male, a loner and a man not in need of the things a woman can ‘do’ for him. He can make it on his own because he can cook over a campfire and fix everything that breaks, but he appreciates a woman’s differences and skills, and eventually accepts the nurturing she needs to give. He needs the love and gentleness, and the ‘taming’ she represents.

To nearly all women I’ve spoken to on the subject of westerns/cowboys, physical appearance plays a major part in the attraction. The reality was that dungarees or Levis were not exactly ‘slim cut’ or sexy; they were stiff and probably dirty, and few real cowboys fit the image of the Marlboro man, but our fantasy cowboy has a lean backside in a pair of tight-fitting jeans, long legs, and that ever-present Stetson pulled low over his eyes. Ever notice how a pair of chaps invariably draws the eyes to the uncovered sections of denim?

Our man wears his Colt strapped to his thigh, the holster rides his lean hips, his spurs jangle - this dangerous guy exudes sex appeal. The western hero is a hard body due to demanding work on the range, riding and roping, chasing outlaws, stopping the runaway stage, and sleeping on the ground.

He’s untamed, a little wild, and a lot sexy. He doesn’t need a gym membership or a StairmasterÓ.

These men work from sun up to sun down, except when they’re sweeping the heroine off her feet, and are not prone to laze away afternoons in front of the television. To me, Kevin Costner was much more appealing in his duster in Wyatt Earp than on the golf course in Tin Cup.

The western heroine is his equal. She is not a helpless simpering female, but a woman with a goal of her own. In one of the biggest western hits of the year, Maggie Osborne’s The Promise of Jenny Jones, the author gave us a heroine who wanted no part in accepting a conventional role as mother or child care provider, but took on the duty of transporting a child because she’d given her word.

Her lack of feminine skills and artifice was refreshing and amusing. And Jenny reminded us that "nineties" women existed in the Old West, too.

The simpler times allow us the imagery of less physical perfection and less emphasis on glamour. Who wouldn’t rather be the height of appeal without having to wax, pluck, mousse and work out? The reality of period clothing and lack of modern convenience is something few of us would actually care to return to, but our heroines don’t miss air conditioning or showers or microwaves.

Like her male counterpart, the western heroine beats the odds and overcomes adversities by sheer determination. These are the strong, capable, courageous women we’d all like to be.

The western villain can be the land, the weather, or the nastiest, smelliest dirtball who ever got his just reward. Here’s where the line between right and wrong has changed. Our television screens weren’t the only things that were black and white in the early days. The concept of good and evil didn’t bear the current shades of gray. In the old westerns, the lines between right and wrong were clearly delineated. If you stole a horse, you hung, and the villain accepted his punishment because he knew he’d done wrong. The bad guys always got it in the end. Justice was swift. The good guy came out on top. Today the criminal has more rights in court than the victim.

Raina Lynn, Partners In Parenthood, Silhouette Intimate Moments 7/98 adds to this thought. "Cowboys are a major part of American folklore. The mythical cowboy represents a time when there was a clear line between good and evil, a time when good men always rally around the sheriff when the bank is robbed.

They wear white hats. They never compromise their beliefs. They marry the girl with the good heart, not the one with the flash and dazzle. They treat all women with respect. No matter how much the genuine article differs from the myth, in the public’s eyes, real cowboys are John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. Add that to the people fed up with the urban rat race, and ‘going country’ has a broad appeal."

And just like identifying the hero by his white hat, you could tell the bad guy by his disreputable looks and black clothing. Wouldn’t that be nice today? There was a code of ethics among villains, too.

Recent westerns have portrayed situations more realistically. Native Americans weren’t necessarily bad guys. Heroes grew more three dimensional, too. But all things evolve. I mean I didn’t stay in love with Little Joe.

I transferred the rush to Adam, probably because I was growing older. Haven’t watched those reruns in many years. (I think I’m afraid Lorne Greene will start looking good.)

Cheryl St. John

Cheryl also maintains a web site at http://www.tlt.com/authors/cstjohn.htm

Read an AAR Review of Cheryl's Child of Her Heart
Read an AAR Review of Cheryl's The Doctor's Wife
Read an AAR Review of Cheryl's Joe's Wife
Read an AAR Review of Cheryl's Nick All Night
Read a Write Byte on Westerns by Ana Leigh