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Cowboys & TV

My parents sat me down on the couch in the middle of my two brothers. They started out by saying, "We have something important to tell you."

I knew it had to be big. And for a six year old who had finally established a group of friends at school, had found the best bike route to a creek filled with salamanders, and had just started a raisin colony with a neighbor using dried grapes, being told that her dad would be transferred to Dallas, Texas, was a big deal.

Although I was only six years old at the time, the word "Dallas" immediately brought an image to my head. I pictured broad, vast plains of wheat and grass surrounded by a wood and wire fence. Grazing cows stood among the wheat and grass. Every now and then, a man dressed in boots, spurs, tight jeans, a big belt buckle, a plaid shirt, and a cowboy hat would ride by atop his horse.

I pictured saloons dominating the towns and a sheriff with a star-pinned badge across his vest, moseying along the dirt roads. I pictured the people in Dallas to be extra friendly, with a "howdy" and a tilt of the hat or curtsy of the skirt to anyone and everyone they meet.

I visualized all this imagery from one media source: television. I obtained my images from a combination of several programs, rather than from a specific one.

My parents described this new city in comparison to what I knew, which was the small town just outside of San Francisco called Moraga. "There aren't as many trees, and it's much flatter. However, everything is new and big, with tall buildings, shopping centers, and even amusement parks. And the best part," they said, "is that we will have a pool."

And yet, with all they said, I could not get my images out of my head. I did not know pools or big shopping centers, but instead I knew John Wayne, and I knew the Lone Ranger. I had sat down on numerous occasions with my father in front of the television as we watched the black and white prairies and the God-like John Wayne ride his horse into the sunset.

I had even seen an episode of Sesame Street where the children, all dressed in jeans with bandannas around their necks, visited a ranch, and they all took turns riding a small pony around a square fence.

This, to me, was Texas. While some of these small towns, ranches, and prairie life still exist in several areas of the south and throughout Texas, why did television define my interpretations of Dallas? The shows I watched at age six always had the bad guys lose, with the cowboys saving the day, coming out on top, even more heroic than the lawmen. In a way, I guess this way of life is refreshing and healthy. It is something that the public likes to watch, a back to the basics, with no material possessions or fancy living.

However, beyond being refreshing and entertaining, the television medium carries great power. In a way, it sets the agenda for what we will and will not believe. Although I had never been there, I had pre-conceived notions about the place.

I was using television as a confirmation for the life that went on around me. For instance, when I was in the fifth grade I began to notice the "pride" and love for their state that everyone talked about. I had heard that the people in Texas were set in their ways, and although many of them were natives that had never left, they did not want to leave. Something about Texas was enticing and special. Something set it apart from all other places, and the people there believed this to be true. I had lived in Dallas for five years, and I had heard people talk about this pride. I even heard my parents discuss it at dinner on several occasions. However, not until I recognized examples on TV did I accept it as fact.

I remember sitting upstairs watching The Cosby Show with my two brothers, and then the commercials came on. The one I loved (which I now realize was probably the lowest of low-budget) came on, and "Mean Joe Green," in his white suit and white pants with green dollar signs glued to every area of the suit and wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat that engulfed his head and his body, began his schpeel. "Come down to Southtown Ford and buy your new and used Fords today. Today is the day," and he would point to the screen, "and today only. . ." He would go on and on, but he talked so fast and with such a heavy accent that I could barely make out what he was saying.

This, to me, was pride. How could anyone dress up in an outfit like that? How could anyone wear that awful hat? Although this particular commercial was a little on the sleazy side, he was promoting the cars for the dealership, and this "cowboy look," was a pleasing image. I knew this because I had seen it so many times on TV. Since coming to Texas, although not all the cowboys I had seen looked like "Mean Joe Green," I had seen them on the streets, in the city, and everywhere else. Because cowboy images were reinforced by TV, I began to consider them favorably. I soon began to associate "the cowboy" as a pleasing image.

Another example of this pride, aside from appearance, could be seen in a different commercial, one that came out when I was slightly older. It had to do with pride for the state, and land in general, in an anti-littering campaign.

Hank Williams Junior stood in the middle of a long, isolated stretch of highway, guitar in hand, and the bright sun upon his back. He smiled as he sang, and the song was so catchy I had it memorized in no time. And soon I also began to see it on bumper stickers and t-shirts, "Don't you mess with Texas, don't you mess with Texas."

The television had once again established the context and given greater importance to the message I already knew. It also established a greater audience than only me; in this way, it gave the message more clout. I already knew that I was not supposed to litter. However, in seeing this message on television, I realized that this message was meant for the entire population, or at least for those that own TV's (which is close to the entire population). Also, I realized that because the message was broadcast on TV, rather than in any other media, it must be pretty important. Television, for me, mimicked reality in a way. While there were shows intended for entertainment, intended for educational purposes, intended to tell stories, I could take this away from the whole and still manage to find some truth in everything I watched.

Not only did television shape the way I viewed my state, but it also shaped the way others viewed me. I had always wanted to go to school on the east coast. Everyone at my high school all went off to college together, staying with the same groups of friends and boyfriends, just shifting locations to places like University of Texas (Austin), Texas A&M University (College Station), Baylor (Waco), and Abilene Christian University (Abilene). I wanted so much more than this. In a way, I felt that I would be cheating myself if I settled on this same routine. I had lived in Dallas for fifteen years, and I was ready to experience something new. I even looked forward to leaving everything behind and establishing a new group of friends. And luckily, my parents supported my decision.

I applied for several scholarships through my school, and with the help of them and the financial aid that Syracuse University was supplying, I made my selection. I had visited New York on three occasions, all on family vacations, but I had never been north of the city.

My parents did not come with me when I first arrived at Syracuse (in fact, surprisingly, they have never seen the campus), and so it was difficult starting out in a foreign environment with unknown people. However, the one thing I remember vividly as my dorm floor went around in a circle and introduced themselves, was the reaction I got from just about everyone in the room as I told where I lived.

"Wow! You are so far. . .Texas, huh?" Some asked what it was like, if I rode horses. One guy jokingly asked if I knew JR.

And while most people fully understand that the TV show Dallas is completely fictional, some people understand this place they might have never visited through what they know about the TV show. While the Dallas ranch is indeed a real place. . .one, in which I had to parallel park along its fence for my driving test in tenth grade,. . .the lives the characters lead are not necessarily the way people live in Dallas.

I do believe that many people in Dallas are concerned with money and wealth. It is always under construction to build a new building or renovate an old home, and one of the big attractions to the city is its shopping. The malls are the places to be seen wearing your latest clothes or jewelry, and many women wear gobs of makeup and pouf their hair so that it stands tall on their head. There is certainly more oil in Texas than in most states in America. However, not every business man is into oil. Not every woman wears gobs of makeup. We do not all own horses.

Television sets up stereotypes to explain foreign cultures. I believe Dallas was entertaining because it did just that, it entertained. The stereotypes were the epitomes of what people had heard Dallas was like. The people were the extreme examples of different personalities. And yet, as when I was six and had never been to this new city, to most people television is all they know of a place they have never experienced. Television allows these unknown experiences to become reality. It is possible to get to know a place and a people through the characters on TV.

While I am not proud of many of the things my city represents, like the materialism, the morals of the Dallas Cowboys, the gun law, the grandiosity, I am proud to call myself a Texan. I do believe that the people in Dallas are some of the friendliest in the world. In the grocery store, I can learn anything and everything about the person in front of me and it is most likely sincere because people are open and enjoy talking about their lives.

As I watch the Tennessee Nashville Network and see the couples in their tight blue jeans and tacky colored shirts with tassels hanging down from them, I am glad to call myself a Texan. I hear the music all the time, I know how to dance like that, and I understand the people. Television, in turn, can reinforce my attitudes about a culture. Although I do not go out to country dance bars often or even wear the same clothing that I see on TV, I can in some way or another relate to what goes on in the program. Especially when I was at school and every so often (thank goodness not too often), missed hearing a "You done real good on that test . . . ," I could turn on the TV to remind myself of the different lifestyle of the South.

All I had to do was turn on the TV and listen to Ross Perot's presidential agendas to remind myself of the twangy accent and strange anecdotes that are common in conversations I have had with some of my own neighbors. I never used to think that I would be proud to call myself a Texan. Before I left for college, I often despised the broken English, the artificial materialism, and flat landscape. However, once I removed myself from the state, I began to realize how accustomed I had become to my way of life. I had become immersed in the southern culture and whether I chose to admit it or not, I had become accepted here. I had developed my own sense of Texas pride for the people and the land. Television reminded me of this.

In my dorm I was often called "Tex," and when I see certain people I still shoot them the guns. While I hope I do not conform to many of Texas's stereotypes, I am proud that it is a state associated with friendly people (who also like to line dance) and I hope to be viewed in this way. I have not seen too many television programs where the accent and dress of the "Texas" characters were not done to excess; however, I often remind myself that television is not a direct link to reality but only the interpretations of how certain individuals depict this reality.

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