In Consumed: Wild West: The Prequel

Posted by Rob Walker on November 10, 2007
Posted Under: America,Consumed,Entertainment,Olde News,World News

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: How a marketing strategy turned into myth — and influenced filmmakers for more than a century

Generally I post the column without comment, but if you happen to be reading this one outside the context of the actual New York Times Magazine, you might wonder: Buffalo Bill? What’s that about?

Here’s what that’s about. Several times a year the Times Magazine has special, themed issues. One of these is the annual Hollywood issue. This year the sort of sub-theme of the Hollywood issue is “The West.” When we have these issues, I’m supposed to “write to theme” — meaning I have to come up with something that makes sense both for my column, and for the special issue.

This can be a challenge, especially for the Hollywood issues. But often what I try to do is use it as an opportunity to do something different with the column, something that pushes the boundary of what Consumed can be. Thus, for this issue, I wanted to write about the pre-Western Western: The Wild West shows presided over by Buffalo Bill, presenting a quasi-mythologized “west” to millions of people in the U.S. and Europe, well before Hollywood existed.

Here’s the column:

The western genre and the Hollywood mythmaking machine match up so nicely that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. But the hunger — and the market — for a reassuring romantic national creation story as a pop-culture staple did not wait for the movies to be invented. In the late 19th century, even while the frontier was still a place and not a memory, “Wild West” shows traversed the United States and even Europe, drawing millions of spectators who paid to witness the western idea acted out as entertainment. As Larry McMurtry once put it, “The selling of the West preceded the settling of it.” …

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site.

And after you’ve read it, you might be interested in the following bonus material that I didn’t have room to address in the column:

Clearly William Cody (Buffalo Bill) was a celebrity and a pop culture icon in the U.S. and Europe before the turn of the 20th century. But here’s another instance of how the pop version of Buffalo Bill bounced around the globe long ago.

A book called Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City, by Filip de Boeck and Marie-Francoise Plissart, describes a late 1950s youth-culture movement in Kinshasa (Congo, a Belgian colony at the time) called “Billism.” It came about as a result of the opening of a half-dozen movie theaters that became hangouts for young people from a part of the city called Léopoldville — “especially those youngsters at the margins of the colonial urban order.”

Hollywood westerns, in particular, had a tremendous impact on the way in which the urban youth subcultures of that time chose to express themselves …. In particular the image of the buffalo hunter and culture hero Buffalo Bill, alongside other cowboys such as Pecos Bill, left a deep impression.

An endnote mentions a few films in particular: Pony Express (1953, with Charlton Heston as Buffalo Bill), The Plainsmen (1936), and Buffalo Bill (1944). Youth “imitated [the cowboy] apperance,” sporting jeans, checked shirts, neckerchiefs, and “lassos,” the book continues. And after a film, “these young urban cowboys circulated on their ‘bicycle-horses’,” shouting slogans and whatnot. Many “Billism” participants — or “Bills,” as they were called — formed what were basically gangs, often led by “well known local delinquents,” and set up with elaborate hierarchies, initiation rites, and slang.

Or maybe slang is too mild a word for the mixture of French, English, and African languages known as “Hindubill.” The authors (academics) write:

In a counterhegomic inversion, “Hindu” refers to “Indian,” the cowboys’ natural enemies….. It also makes reference to the “Indian” marijuana the Bills smoked. “Hindu” possibly also betrays the influence of Hindi movies shown in the theaters of Léopoldville during that period….

As the language of youth, Hindubill formed the hidden transcript of the youthful underdogs of Kinshasa who were excluded from education and salaried jobs and thus from the world of “adults.” With Hindubill, the urban cowboys created their own modes of inclusion and exclusion. At the same time the persona of the Cowboy emerges as emancipatory figure, representing the spirit of the coming independence. The Bills played an important role in the lootings and the uprising that spread through Kinshasa in January 1959.

None of this really quite worked in the column, but I found it fascinating. We think of pop culture-inflected global subcultures as pretty recent. Not necessarily.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Rob, I find this absolutely fascinating for many reasons. Though you’d never know it from my professional or personal personas, I’m a Rockabilly fiend and fairly obsessed with the iconic fashions if not all of the music, my big dream for now is to visit the Rockabilly hall of fame….. That said, my mother is Romanian by birth though she grew up in an orphanage in Israel. A recent conversation about spaghetti westerns triggered her memories of huge groups of her teen contemporaries in Israel in the ’50s being literally obsessed with cowboy culture in everything from film choices, to wardrobe, slang and more. Separate continents, completely different cultures and outlooks and similar obsessions.

If I had an ounce of energy I’d explore it further.

Written By Rachel W. on November 11th, 2007 @ 11:22 am

fascinating about cowboy-obsessed teens in israel in the 50s. thanks for that…

Written By murketing on November 12th, 2007 @ 9:14 am

I thought you handled the theme issue really well, and remained similar in tone to your usual stuff. From your column, it seemed like Buffalo Bill was in a way the first “reality” star–the bleeding of his professional life onto his stage life was almost indistinguishable…except for the violence, of course.

Written By jspilker on November 12th, 2007 @ 5:37 pm