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FACTS...

Gus Van Sant’s movie Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was released in 1994; it is based on Tom Robbins’ 1976 novel of the same title.

Uma Thurman stars as the protagonist Sissy Hankshaw, Rain Phoenix, sister of River - to whom the film is dedicated - is the leader of the cowgirls, John Hurt  plays the Countess, Keanu Reeves is the Native American Julian Gitche and Lorraine Bracco is the whipping artist/cowgirl Delores del Ruby.

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 There are additional appearances by Roseanne Arnold and such countercultural icons as Ken Kesey and William Burroughs.

The soundtrack is conducted by new country singer k.d. lang

 

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click to hear a clip

Tom Robbins himself does the voice-over narration. Robbins, born in 1936 in North Carolina and rendered an underground cult figure by his fans, worked at a traveling circus, as a journalist, as an Air Force meteorologist in Korea, as disk jockey, artist and art critic, and even as an actor. He was a friend of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg (this is the way  the bunch comes together...), with whom he took part in a "Legalize Marijuana Rally" in the 1960s . He hitchhiked himself in his youth, an experience that probably led to his writing of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

 

CONTENTS...

Set between the 1950s and 1970s, Robbins’s cultish novel Even Cowgirls get the Blues traces Sissy Hankshaw’s odyssey from her girlhood in Richmond, Virginia, to New York City and the Dakota Badlands. Equipped by nature with outsized thumbs, Sissy is a born hitchhiker and escapes home when she finds that she has no place in her traditional family. Zig-zagging across the country and transforming her gracious thumbs into roadside attractions, Sissy lives on the road and only occasionally visits her friend, the Countess, an eccentric, misogynist drag queen in New York for whom she works as a model for his female hygiene products.

 

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On one such occasion, the Countess sets her up with an old friend, Julian Gitche, whom Sissy eventually marries. Soon dissatisfied with her sedentary life in New York - her thumbs actually start to hurt if she does not move - the Countess sends Sissy off to film a commercial involving whooping cranes at the Rubber Rose Ranch, the Countess’s spa-cum-cattle ranch. This ranch is also the home of a merry group of bisexual, lesbian, eco-feminist cowgirls who threaten to revolt against the Countess and his capitalist maneuverings on the beauty farm.

Sissy becomes romantically involved with Bonanza Jellybean, but runs away from her and the ranch when the cowgirls kill the cattle and overthrow patriarchy in order to establish what they think is the natural state of equilibrium of cowgirls and nature. From there the cowgirls begin a fight against the FBI who claims that the women hold captive a flock of wooping cranes, whom the cowgirls have actually sedated with peyote. In the meantime, Sissy’s trajectory involves a sexual encounter with the Chink, a Japanese-American guru who lives in a cave overlooking the ranch, her return to New York where she gets into a fight with the Coutness and hits him with her thumb, so that he is seriously injured and her return to Richmond where she seeks help from a surgeon to get rid of one of her thumbs. Almost having lost her power to, as she says, direct traffic, she decides to return to the Rubber Rose Ranch in order to declare her solidarity with the cowgirls and to re-unite with Bonanza Jellybean.

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Most of Gus Van Sant’s adaption of Robbins’s novel focuses on the lesbian cowgirl scenario on the Rubber Rose Ranch. The film ends when Jellybean gets killed by the FBI and Sissy becomes the new leader of the cowgirls. The novel, in contrast, ends on a note of determined heterosexuality when the narrator of the story, a certain Dr. Robbins—undoubtedly the author’s alter ego—in the last chapter of the novel, actually awards himself a central role in the story and sets out to meet Sissy.

Van Sant’s script thus has turned Robbin’s novel into a psychedelic, lesbian Western/road movie and it is this movie that will be the focus of our analysis.

 

ON THE ROAD BETWEEN NATURE AND CULTURE...

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a road movie and Western at the same time, can be seen as set up along gendered lines. In our view it clearly draws on dichotomous distinctions between concepts of Nature vs. Culture, categories traditionally ascribed to female and male spheres respectively. There are various symbols that stand for nature, as for example wilderness, the whooping cranes, herds of cows, and uninhibited sexuality, as well as images that represent culture and its artificiality, such as the Countess. Yet the film does not simply act upon these categories but reinscribes their symbolic meanings and thus blurs their distinctive borders. The Countess, the prime example of this blurring of categories, crosses borders of gender through his transsexuality, and of social class through his pseudo-aristocratic self-conception when he is actually from a poor Southern family.

First of all it is the road that connects Nature and Culture, both understood as constructed categories in the movie. The road itself plays a major role in this respect because it is depicted as both part of American culture and nature - and since it symbolizes both it also symbolizes neither.

The "encultured" road is envisaged as "road culture", with Sissy Hankshaw and her oversized thumbs at its center. Already as a schoolgirl, Sissy learns about the possible function of her thumbs by making hitchhiking a daily ritual, and later acquires road culture by reciting her philosophy of movement repeatedly. She renders hitchhiking a cultural practice:

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"As I developed, however, I grew more concerned with subtleties and nuances of style. Time in terms of M.P.H. no longer interested me. I began to hitchhike in something akin to geological time: slow, ancient, vast. When I am really moving, stopping car after car after car, moving so freely, so clearly, so delicately that even the sex maniacs and the cops can only blink and let me pass, then I embody the rhythms of the universe. I am in a state of grace."

Even food has become part of Sissy’s "moving culture" when she offers a man who gives her a lift a slice of cheese, saying:

"American Cheese. The king of road food."

Sissy’s hitchhiking dance can also be read in this context. Instead of just lifting her thumbs, she enacts a dramatic choreography which consists of sublimated gestures used in order to stop cars, trucks, busses and even to direct planes. Her dance is a theatrical performance of power, movement and THUMBS. Her thumbs themselves are also both natural (because she has been born with them) and artificial because Sissy’s use of them becomes a cultural practice, brought to success by natural devices.

The film sets up a concept of a "natural" road in sequences of harmonious, calm pictures of landscape: the road running through them becomes part of nature in these shots. It does not disturb, oppose, or counterbalance the naturalness of forests and mountains, but rather has become just another constituent of American landscape. Properties of the road, such as color, texture, and shape, are depicted as in harmony with properties of natural countryside.

Nevertheless the numerous artificial and kitschy landscape shots in the film make clear that landscape itself can never be natural not only because man-built roads lead through it but also because people live in it. Encultured nature becomes obvious as soon as we are led into the Chink’s cave, a setting far from civilization. Yet the fact that it is inhabited by a human being - a cultural being - renders it both natural and cultural. The crossing of this dichotomy is symbolized by the stones around and inside the cave. They are encultured nature because they carry the Chink’s philosophy, inscribed in white paint. The stones read:

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"I believe in everything. Nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing. Everything is sacred."

or

"Be your own flying saucer. Rescue yourself!"

Hitchhiking is a philosophy incorporated by Sissy Hankshaw; nature and philosophy, then, are combined by the Chink. Both these aspects of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues set up relations and interrelations between nature and culture. As a result, these concepts cannot be separated anymore. Not only that

"Nature’s a hankering after experiments",

a quotation by the British adventurer Trader Horn, used by Robbins to entitle the first chapter of his novel, cultural artifacts and products also become naturalized just like the road, or are at least depicted in relation to nature.

The connection of dichotomous oppositions between nature and culture through the road is manifested in its function as Sissy’s vehicle that leads her from culture to nature and way back, from civilization to wilderness and freedom, from freedom to New York and from the Big Apple to the Rubber Rose Ranch, and on and on and on. But it is these physical movements that effect and affect her personal development. This is of course the traditional and central aspect of many American road narratives in which movement along the road symbolizes the moving character’s personal development.

However, in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Sissy Hankshaw’s development is not of a linear nature. She travels back and forth in her past and present, starting from her parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia, and ending at the cowgirls’ ranch in the Badlands of South Dakota.

       

SEXUAL SISSY ... or: MALE FANTASIES OF FEMALE DESIRES ...

The road in this movie signifies freedom from cultural constraints, also functioning as the adventurous space of Sissy’s discovery of her sexed body. One of the recurrent images in the genre of the Western, in which women traditionally figure as helpless embellishments to a masculine genre, is the figure of the prostitute. The figure of the hitchhiker reminds of that of a prostitute: Sissy hustles rides but in doing so, she threatens the very underpinnings of patriarchy as it is her who controls traffic, making cars stop. For a long time, Sissy is rendered as sexually naive (her tomboyish, androgynous outfits, however, hint at her potential lesbianism). The sign "THUMBS" does not have phallic associations yet and she derives pure (sexually innocent) pleasure from their power. It is only when she gets close to the Rubber Rose Ranch, that is precisely in front of the road sign "Entering Sisters" that she discovers the sexuality of her thumbs (that is when she masturbates). This sexuality is immediately linked with the awakening of her lesbian desire, which, in turn is connected with her fascination for the cowgirls. Cowgirls are not just the opposites of cowboys in this western; being a cowgirl is depicted as a counter culture philosophy, a different life style, constituting a utopian attempt at building alternative families outside the confines of patriarchy.

Van Sant’s explicit appropriation of Western iconography and the figure of the cowgirl for a lesbian love story picks up on the genre’s evident homoeroticism. The lesbianism depicted in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, however, is of a light-hearted nature, reflecting a male fantasy of female desire. As Gus Van Sant himself has stated, Sissy "is an object that you’re watching as opposed to someone you’re watching the world through".

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Sissy holds the look, playing to and signifying male desire. The dominance of the male gaze is apparent throughout the movie: e.g. the love-making scene of Jellybean and Sissy is subjected to a double male gaze: it is not only the spectator who watches them, but also the Chink who voyeuristically observes them from his mountain. The presence of the male gaze is also made explicit in the male voice-over narration that intervenes in the story. Sissy thus is a sexual object rather than a subject of desire, who is fetishized through the implicit male gaze. Fetishism is a strategy in films that is used to disavow sexual difference. It is an over-investment of certain body parts, usually breasts or hips, but in our case, it is the thumbs which are fetishized. In psychoanalytical terms, fetishism is adopted by the male to counter his fear of sexual difference (between himself and the female, sexual other) and the fear of castration which he feels as a result of that difference (the woman lacks a penis; the male assumes she has been castrated). The purpose of this over-investment is to make those parts figure as the missing phallus. The oversized thumb can therefore be seen as a phallic symbol which compensates for woman’s lack of phallus. Sissy is phallic and thus sexually not threatening for men.

 

CONCLUSION...

Much of the elusiveness of both novel and film is due to the impossibility of talking about the texts in serious, fixed categories as both novel and film seem to ridicule themselves most of the time, thus constantly eluding the terms of discussion. The movie positions itself as a road movie and as a western; yet it constantly plays with generic expectations, subversively undermining its own terms. This subversiveness is, however, used self-reflexively, as can be seen in a number of features, which—albeit seen by some critics as serious flaws - we consider evidence for the movie’s strategic parodying of set conventions, including the gendered constructions of road film:

The way the movie is edited in what one critic has referred to as "incoherent bursts of disconnected and arbitrary events".

The film’s parade of kitschy star cameos.

Camera movements of landscape shots: very often the yellow papermoon seems to speed by, or the clouds start to move rapidly.

Awkward, sometimes completely artifically sounding dialogues, a technique Van Sant already used in his My Own Private Idaho.

In the novel: the way the narrator poses as author and constantly interferes in the story, ridiculing his own story telling techniques, openly admitting that he wants to fool the reader.

All these features contribute to the film’s fantastically goofy flow and make the movie into, as feminist film theorist B. Ruby Rich describes it:

"the hippiest, most astounding and enjoyable, yes, the most utterly outrageous time-capsule of a hybrid western you’re even likely to see on the screen."

If the spectator is willing to join in the film’s postmodern game - and that’s the prerequisite - he or she will learn that even serious revolutionaries or radical feminists mustn’t take themselves too seriously, and that the only way to overcome patriarchy is by keeping the oppressors guessing and off balance. In this sense, the last sentence of the main narrative, which we also see incribed on Bonanza Jellybean’s tombstone in the movie, is emblematic of the ostensible lack of seriousness of the text but also contributes to the pleasure of the text:

"Ha ha ho ho and hee hee."

 

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Astrid M. Fellner & Alexandra Ganser

 


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