July 12, 2023

Real cowboys do cry

Werklund research prof Michael Kehler wrangles with expressions of masculinity at Calgary Stampede
Michael Kehler
Not his first rodeo: Michael Kehler gets into the Stampede spirit at the UCalgary President's Stampede Barbecue last week Zoltan Varadi

Whether it’s the good, the bad, or the ugly, the gunslinger, the gambler, or the lone prairie rambler, popular notions of the classic cowboy tend to be bound by a few common threads: largely white, heterosexual, cis-gender and adhering to traditional concepts of how “real” men behave. 

Such archetypes have been on Werklund School of Education professor Dr. Michael Kehler’s mind as he considers our annual civic celebration of all things Western through the lens of his research practice, which focuses on Masculinities Studies in Education.

While many of us take advantage of these 10 days in July to swap our quotidian attire for boot-cut jeans or a pair of Daisy Dukes, he suggests we also take a moment to think about what this collective performance of the old West says about how we — men in particular — see ourselves and our culture. Is there room around the campfire for a more diverse gathering of cowpokes? 

“The whole thing about Stampede is it's an opportunity to showcase a diverse Western culture, and part of that Western culture is the narrative around the cowboy and what that represents in terms of toughness, in terms of stoicism, or in terms of riding the plains,” he says.

“I'm not suggesting it's all bad. I'm pointing to the fact that we need to be aware of how we purposefully demonstrate certain versions of masculinities in different contexts. If we're putting on a version of masculinity, we should also acknowledge that we can disrupt those ways of being in other contexts, that we don't have to subscribe to that version, and to acknowledge that there are different ways of being a man.” 

Kehler certainly isn’t alone in his thinking. Community organizer Charles MacMichael, for one, took a significant step in disrupting set narratives when he launched the inaugural Calgary Stampede Pride Day over a decade ago. “People thought, well I don’t belong in that area, I don’t belong in that macho, straight, pumped-up environment, and I said ‘No, we do,’” he told CTV in a 2019 interview. 

“If we're putting on a version of masculinity, we should also acknowledge that we can disrupt those ways of being in other contexts... and to acknowledge that there are different ways of being a man.” 
- Michael Kehler 

He was right. The once-small gathering of a few friends now sees hundreds of LGBTQ2S+ revellers and their allies gathering at Nashville North for the annual event. Kehler counts himself among the latter group, having turned up to show his support this past Saturday, as he has in the past. That said, he can’t help but wonder if we can do better than corralling a single dedicated safe space for a just a few hours over the entire course of the Stampede. 

“I don't think that you can just sort of bracket it and say, ‘Well, we're here for one day’,” he says. “I think you have to say, ‘We're inclusive across the whole 10 days.’” 

Navigating 'bro-culture'

In his research, which centres on the ways boys and men navigate spaces and learn what it means to be a man, Kehler has written and presented extensively on the concept of “bro-culture,” particularly as it relates to schools and organized sports. In doing so, he reveals how this particular social construction is ultimately antithetical to the kind of inclusivity he’s advocating for at Stampede. 

“When we think about bro-culture, it is really about a very exclusionary kind of culture around the ‘brotherhood.’ It’s about boys among boys, men among men,” he explains. “There's a shared sense of belonging, but there's a certain level of both inclusion and exclusion, in a sense, because you have to prove that you're one of the bros. So, that means demonstrating shared interests, a common language in terms of both how we talk about specific topics but also how we project ourselves.” 

Again, not all of this is inherently bad in and of itself, but it does create a very restrictive idea of group expressions of manliness, which in turn have a significant effect on shaping the culture in which they are performed. Returning to popular notions of the cowboy, about whom we tend to have some very fixed ideas, to herald that very specific model of masculinity as emblematic of Western identity excludes a good many voices.   

Addressing these issues, Kehler emphasizes, isn’t about condemning or detracting from the Stampede as it stands, but finding ways to continue building upon the tradition in ways that welcome the whole community. 

“It’s not about being thumbs down on the Stampede,” says Kehler. “It’s about being reflexive and acknowledging that it’s complicated. It’s about growing the Stampede and embracing the diversity of Western culture. This means broadening our scope on what we see and how we acknowledge those diverse identities and complex masculinities the next time we saddle up for the rodeo.”   

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