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Cowboys & TV
sat me down on the couch in the middle of my two brothers. They started
out by saying, "We have something important to tell you."
I knew it had to be big. And for a six year old who had finally established
a group of friends at school, had found the best bike route to a creek filled
with salamanders, and had just started a raisin colony with a neighbor using
dried grapes, being told that her dad would be transferred to Dallas, Texas,
was a big deal.
Although I was only six years old at the time, the word "Dallas" immediately
brought an image to my head. I pictured broad, vast plains of wheat and grass
surrounded by a wood and wire fence. Grazing cows stood among the wheat and
grass. Every now and then, a man dressed in boots, spurs, tight jeans, a big
belt buckle, a plaid shirt, and a cowboy hat would ride by atop his horse.
I pictured saloons dominating the towns and a sheriff with a star-pinned badge
across his vest, moseying along the dirt roads. I pictured the people in Dallas
to be extra friendly, with a "howdy" and a tilt of the hat or curtsy
of the skirt to anyone and everyone they meet.
I visualized all this imagery from one media source: television. I obtained
my images from a combination of several programs, rather than from a specific
My parents described this new city in comparison to what I knew, which was
the small town just outside of San Francisco called Moraga. "There aren't
as many trees, and it's much flatter. However, everything is new and big, with
tall buildings, shopping centers, and even amusement parks. And the best part," they
said, "is that we will have a pool."
And yet, with all they said, I could not get my images out of my head. I did
not know pools or big shopping centers, but instead I knew John Wayne, and
I knew the Lone Ranger. I had sat down on numerous occasions with my father
in front of the television as we watched the black and white prairies and the
God-like John Wayne ride his horse into the sunset.
I had even seen an episode of Sesame Street where the children, all dressed
in jeans with bandannas around their necks, visited a ranch, and they all took
turns riding a small pony around a square fence.
This, to me, was Texas. While some of these small towns, ranches, and prairie
life still exist in several areas of the south and throughout Texas, why did
television define my interpretations of Dallas? The shows I watched at age
six always had the bad guys lose, with the cowboys saving the day, coming out
on top, even more heroic than the lawmen. In a way, I guess this way of life
is refreshing and healthy. It is something that the public likes to watch,
a back to the basics, with no material possessions or fancy living.
However, beyond being refreshing and entertaining, the television medium carries
great power. In a way, it sets the agenda for what we will and will not believe.
Although I had never been there, I had pre-conceived notions about the place.
I was using television as a confirmation for the life that went on around me.
For instance, when I was in the fifth grade I began to notice the "pride" and
love for their state that everyone talked about. I had heard that the people
in Texas were set in their ways, and although many of them were natives that
had never left, they did not want to leave. Something about Texas was enticing
and special. Something set it apart from all other places, and the people there
believed this to be true. I had lived in Dallas for five years, and I had heard
people talk about this pride. I even heard my parents discuss it at dinner
on several occasions. However, not until I recognized examples on TV did I
accept it as fact.
I remember sitting upstairs watching The Cosby Show with my two brothers, and
then the commercials came on. The one I loved (which I now realize was probably
the lowest of low-budget) came on, and "Mean Joe Green," in his white
suit and white pants with green dollar signs glued to every area of the suit
and wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat that engulfed his head and his body, began
his schpeel. "Come down to Southtown Ford and buy your new and used Fords
today. Today is the day," and he would point to the screen, "and
today only. . ." He would go on and on, but he talked so fast and with
such a heavy accent that I could barely make out what he was saying.
This, to me, was pride. How could anyone dress up in an outfit like that? How
could anyone wear that awful hat? Although this particular commercial was a
little on the sleazy side, he was promoting the cars for the dealership, and
this "cowboy look," was a pleasing image. I knew this because I had
seen it so many times on TV. Since coming to Texas, although not all the cowboys
I had seen looked like "Mean Joe Green," I had seen them on the streets,
in the city, and everywhere else. Because cowboy images were reinforced by
TV, I began to consider them favorably. I soon began to associate "the
cowboy" as a pleasing image.
Another example of this pride, aside from appearance, could be seen in a different
commercial, one that came out when I was slightly older. It had to do with
pride for the state, and land in general, in an anti-littering campaign.
Hank Williams Junior stood in the middle of a long, isolated stretch of highway,
guitar in hand, and the bright sun upon his back. He smiled as he sang, and
the song was so catchy I had it memorized in no time. And soon I also began
to see it on bumper stickers and t-shirts, "Don't you mess with Texas,
don't you mess with Texas."
The television had once again established the context and given greater importance
to the message I already knew. It also established a greater audience than
only me; in this way, it gave the message more clout. I already knew that I
was not supposed to litter. However, in seeing this message on television,
I realized that this message was meant for the entire population, or at least
for those that own TV's (which is close to the entire population). Also, I
realized that because the message was broadcast on TV, rather than in any other
media, it must be pretty important. Television, for me, mimicked reality in
a way. While there were shows intended for entertainment, intended for educational
purposes, intended to tell stories, I could take this away from the whole and
still manage to find some truth in everything I watched.
Not only did television shape the way I viewed my state, but it also shaped
the way others viewed me. I had always wanted to go to school on the east coast.
Everyone at my high school all went off to college together, staying with the
same groups of friends and boyfriends, just shifting locations to places like
University of Texas (Austin), Texas A&M University (College Station), Baylor
(Waco), and Abilene Christian University (Abilene). I wanted so much more than
this. In a way, I felt that I would be cheating myself if I settled on this
same routine. I had lived in Dallas for fifteen years, and I was ready to experience
something new. I even looked forward to leaving everything behind and establishing
a new group of friends. And luckily, my parents supported my decision.
I applied for several scholarships through my school, and with the help of
them and the financial aid that Syracuse University was supplying, I made my
selection. I had visited New York on three occasions, all on family vacations,
but I had never been north of the city.
My parents did not come with me when I first arrived at Syracuse (in fact,
surprisingly, they have never seen the campus), and so it was difficult starting
out in a foreign environment with unknown people. However, the one thing I
remember vividly as my dorm floor went around in a circle and introduced themselves,
was the reaction I got from just about everyone in the room as I told where
"Wow! You are so far. . .Texas, huh?" Some asked what it was like,
if I rode horses. One guy jokingly asked if I knew JR.
And while most people fully understand that the TV show Dallas is completely
fictional, some people understand this place they might have never visited
through what they know about the TV show. While the Dallas ranch is indeed
a real place. . .one, in which I had to parallel park along its fence for my
driving test in tenth grade,. . .the lives the characters lead are not necessarily
the way people live in Dallas.
I do believe that many people in Dallas are concerned with money and wealth.
It is always under construction to build a new building or renovate an old
home, and one of the big attractions to the city is its shopping. The malls
are the places to be seen wearing your latest clothes or jewelry, and many
women wear gobs of makeup and pouf their hair so that it stands tall on their
head. There is certainly more oil in Texas than in most states in America.
However, not every business man is into oil. Not every woman wears gobs of
makeup. We do not all own horses.
Television sets up stereotypes to explain foreign cultures. I believe Dallas
was entertaining because it did just that, it entertained. The stereotypes
were the epitomes of what people had heard Dallas was like. The people were
the extreme examples of different personalities. And yet, as when I was six
and had never been to this new city, to most people television is all they
know of a place they have never experienced. Television allows these unknown
experiences to become reality. It is possible to get to know a place and a
people through the characters on TV.
While I am not proud of many of the things my city represents, like the materialism,
the morals of the Dallas Cowboys, the gun law, the grandiosity, I am proud
to call myself a Texan. I do believe that the people in Dallas are some of
the friendliest in the world. In the grocery store, I can learn anything and
everything about the person in front of me and it is most likely sincere because
people are open and enjoy talking about their lives.
As I watch the Tennessee Nashville Network and see the couples in their tight
blue jeans and tacky colored shirts with tassels hanging down from them, I
am glad to call myself a Texan. I hear the music all the time, I know how to
dance like that, and I understand the people. Television, in turn, can reinforce
my attitudes about a culture. Although I do not go out to country dance bars
often or even wear the same clothing that I see on TV, I can in some way or
another relate to what goes on in the program. Especially when I was at school
and every so often (thank goodness not too often), missed hearing a "You
done real good on that test . . . ," I could turn on the TV to remind
myself of the different lifestyle of the South.
All I had to do was turn on the TV and listen to Ross Perot's presidential
agendas to remind myself of the twangy accent and strange anecdotes that are
common in conversations I have had with some of my own neighbors. I never used
to think that I would be proud to call myself a Texan. Before I left for college,
I often despised the broken English, the artificial materialism, and flat landscape.
However, once I removed myself from the state, I began to realize how accustomed
I had become to my way of life. I had become immersed in the southern culture
and whether I chose to admit it or not, I had become accepted here. I had developed
my own sense of Texas pride for the people and the land. Television reminded
me of this.
In my dorm I was often called "Tex," and when I see certain people
I still shoot them the guns. While I hope I do not conform to many of Texas's
stereotypes, I am proud that it is a state associated with friendly people
(who also like to line dance) and I hope to be viewed in this way. I have not
seen too many television programs where the accent and dress of the "Texas" characters
were not done to excess; however, I often remind myself that television is
not a direct link to reality but only the interpretations of how certain individuals
depict this reality.
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