Romance fiction has frequently been described as nothing more than mindless, escapist, entertainment but it is a truth increasingly acknowledged that "popular culture is far more than an escape from everyday life, a brief respite from the reality in which ‘the political’ traditionally takes place" (Duncombe and Bleiker 36-7): it can, for instance, "both entrench and challenge prevailing identities" (37).
The ways in which this is so are probably more apparent in some texts than others, and an individual reader's identities may also make them more or less aware of which identities are being challenged or entrenched.
Olivia Ferrell's High Rider (1987) is just one of many category romance novels set in the US which features characters involved with rodeo. Where it differs from others, perhaps, is in its explicit statements about what rodeo symbolises in terms of American identity:
Rodeo represented a life-style that was the beginning of America. It was the independence of it, the necessity to depend upon yourself and no one else. You're either good or you don't make it. [...]
Rodeo was a life-style like no other. While the cowboys were supercompetitive, there was a spirit of camaraderie between men who traveled the rodeo circuit together. Cowboys with planes offered rides to others, and the favors were returned. They pushed as hard as they could, won as much as they could, but above all they made friends that were there when you needed them. That was the part Rama liked best. They were family. (Ferrell 20)
US identity, then, is defined as combining extreme individualism with community living. [I discuss community in Chapter 4 of Pursuing Happiness.] It also involves hard work (as I discuss in Chapter 2 of Pursuing Happiness).
It would also seem to be male-orientated. The group described above are "cowboys"; Rama, the heroine, is one of the few women travelling the rodeo circuit and "Her large brown eyes peered out from a face that was indistinguishable as either male or female" (9). She's a rodeo clown, which is an important role given that "A rodeo clown has rescued many a rider; kept him from serious injury" (17), but it is, nonetheless, one which places her on the margins of the main events. Her rival for the hero, Barc's, romantic attention is Kaye, "the reigning Miss Rodeo America. [...] Kaye had won her title the previous December [...] at the conclusion of the Miss Rodeo Pageant. She'd won in the horsemanship and personality categories [...]. She'd also been named most photogenic" (12-13). Her horsemanship is probably demonstrated in barrel races; "This was the women's event in a generally male-oriented circuit" (32). The representatives of US identity, then, are cowboys, not cowgirls but it is perhaps also significant that the woman who wins Barc's heart is the one who was once described as having "a face that was indistinguishable as either male or female". [I discuss gender identity in more detail in Chapter 1 of Pursuing Happiness and also, in Chapter 3, take a look at ideas about the strength required of Western women.]
US identity would also seem to be expressed more via some locations than others. [In Chapter 3 of Pursuing Happiness I focus on the US West.] Although romance novels have been set all over the US, some locations or types of locations do seem to be favoured over others. There are, for example, a lot of US romance novels set in small towns and I can't help but wonder if that's because some of the authors, like Sarah Palin, think that "the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America" (Leibovich).
High Rider's main setting is a ranch not far from a "town [that] wasn't that large" (Ferrell 100) in rural Texas where:
"[...] everything seems so big, so untamable you wonder how people can believe they're really in control of it all."
His smile was gentle and softened the harsh lines of his face. "There's nothing like a Texas prairie to do that for you. Can you imagine how the first people to cross this great expanse felt?"
Rama grinned at him. "Talk about intimidation!" She chuckled. "It's a good thing I was born in the twentieth century. I don't know if I would have had the courage to leave family and home to go off into something so unknown."
"Yeah. But the men and women who blazed these trails were a breed apart. Men and women who had faith and clung together. They had a dream, and they believed every day that it was within their grasp." (Ferrell 119)
I have a suspicion that when these protagonists are discussing "the first people to cross this vast expanse," they're not thinking of the "Paleo-Indians, [who] resided in small, nomadic bands" (Britten 92) and who, being nomads, wouldn't have had to "leave family and home" to "cross this great expanse". Instead I get the feeling that the people being praised here are White settlers venturing West in their covered wagons. [I discuss uprootedness and, in particular, White Americans' feelings about Native Americans in Chapter 5.] Similarly, when we're informed that
Barc wants rodeo to continue to grow, to be an exhibition of the more basic talents of life on the American plain, the heart of America (Ferrell 144)
while it's possible that Ferrell described "the American plain" as the "heart of America" merely as a way to indicate its geographical position between the two coasts, I get a sense that it is deemed to be the "heart" because it is from here that the ideological lifeblood of the US, embodied in rodeo and a White-centric vision of US history, is pumped to other parts of the US.
Where to buy Pursuing Happiness:
Ebook: ISBN 978-1-84760-359-3 PDF from Humanities-Ebooks
Britten, Thomas A. "Native Americans in West Texas." West Texas: A History of the Giant Side of the State. Ed. Paul H. Carlson and Bruce A. Glasrud. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2014. 91-106.
Duncombe, Constance and Roland Bleiker. "Popular Culture and Political Identity." Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, Pedagogies. Ed. Federica Caso and Caitlin Hamilton. Bristol, UK: E-International Relations, 2015. 35-44. [The whole of this volume is available online for free.]
Ferrell, Olivia. High Rider. New York: Silhouette, 1987.
Leibovich, Mark. "Palin Visits a ‘Pro-America’ Kind of Town." The Caucus: The Politics and Government blog of the New York Times. 17 October 2008.
Statue by Frederic Remington - The Bronco Buster. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.