Whether we meet them in a pasture, at a burger joint, or in a comfortable kitchen, the women in Joan Burbick’s Rodeo Queens and the American Dream take us beyond the dust and glitter of the rodeo that for one season made them royal. Burbick, an American studies professor at Washington State University, began her engrossing study by wondering, Where are the former rodeo queens whose pictures appear annually in local newspapers? How have their lives turned out? Talking with the women yielded much tougher questions.
More than a series of interviews, Rodeo Queens explores rodeo as an American “cultural ritual.” Without losing sight of the women behind those daredevil charges into the arena, Burbick explores rodeo’s myriad connections—to fluctuations in the economy, to the dams that changed the face of farming and ranching, to shifting relationships between Indians and non-Indians, and more recently to corporate America.
For some of the older women—two are in their 80s—rodeo was just plain fun, a change from the daily hardships and pleasures of ranching. Other former queens describe how an early and deep connection with horses has spurred their commitment to their communities and to the land. Recent queens, those of the permed hair and expensive rhinestone-studded outfits, expose the commercial and deeply conservative strains of today’s rodeo. For these young women, rodeo delivers more stress than fun; for the audience, it performs a “make-believe West”—just what cheering fans appear to want.
Burbick, with her camera and microphone, is always present in this complicated story. She’s no stranger to the American West or to rodeo, yet she never hesitates to reveal her surprise, disappointment, even dismay. In the end, she is still wondering, Can we replace this worn-out parody with a “cultural ritual” that honestly engages all the people of our community, the tough truth of our history, and the beauty of our land?
– Patricia Keith, professor , English, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, Idaho