Urban Cowboy and the Tyranny of the Ideal

Like some doomed, mythological seafarer, humans are fated to forever ply the waters between the real and the ideal. How we do this– how we conceive the relationship between what is good and what is possible– goes to the very heart of ethics. Let’s turn to (the Sunday afternoon basic cable) canon to shine some light on this issue.

The characters in 1980’s Urban Cowboy labor under the sign of the “real cowboy.” This is the ideal which Bud (John Travolta) aspires to embody and Sissy (Debra Winger) aspires to sexually and romantically possess. What constitutes the real cowboy remains unformed; like all ideals it exists only as an opaque network of affect-laden signifiers (a real cowboy = large hat, masculine aggression, ability to two step and ride a mechanical bull, etc). Despite this vagueness though, the idea of the real cowboy exerts great sway over the characters’ lives. It in essence drives the plot of the movie.

As a pragmatist, my domain is lived reality, that which comes to us within the flux of embodied experience. The “real cowboy” doesn’t fit within this category. You can’t touch or taste him. That doesn’t mean he’s not real in a pragmatic sense though. Ideals, whether the real cowboy or freedom or justice or Jesus, provide reference points by which we determine value. Sissy, for example, judges Bud against this standard. This is of course not a rational or systematic process; again, affect is key. But by guiding our behavior, ideals do have material impact.

It’s important to keep in mind the relationship between the ideal and the real though. Every ideal contains what Slavoj Zizek would label an “irrational excess.” This emerges in the form of a colonizing impulse. In other words, every ideal is innately destructive, seeking to destroy and remake everyday existence.

In Urban Cowboy, the destructive nature of the ideal is vividly exemplified by the character of Wes. After Sissy, in pursuit of her real cowboy, marries Bud, Wes (Scott Glen) appears on the scene. He’s an ex-con, capable of riding a real bull and engaging in an exponentially greater degree of masculine violence than Bud. Wes, it appears, is the real cowboy Sissy has sought. Of course she takes up with him, making plans to run off to Mexico together.

Wes– with his intensity and scars and psychopathic behavior– perfectly embodies the ideal ideal. He is an agent of disruption, destruction. His desire knows no bounds and the extent to which he will go to fulfill that desire knows no limit. He is the caliphate or Marxist utopia or “greatness” Donald Trump wants America to achieve. He is pure excess.

So how should we deal with Wes? It seems that one way is by refusing to fetishize him. We need to recognize that the ideal is not, and cannot be, real in the sense that Bud and Sissy’s (awesomely sexy) bodies are real. He’s an affective abstraction– a bundle of desires– and those desires, we must recognize, can and should be constantly reworked in response to our everyday lives. We can’t let our psychopathic ideals push us over the cliff, in other words.

So do Sissy and Bud manage to rein in the tyrannical excess represented by Wes? Unfortunately, I would say that they do not. Toward the end of the film Bud wins Sissy back by proving himself more adept at riding the mechanical bull than Wes, in essence supplanting the latter’s position as the living embodiment of the real cowboy. The ideal itself remains unchallenged though. This, I would argue, represents an ethical failure on the part of Bud and Sissy. Though Wes as a man is defeated, the irrational excess he embodies is left free to terrorize the honky-tonk.

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