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The Cowboy is the archetypical character of the Western, perhaps the quintessential American hero. In the simplest terms, a "cowboy" is someone whose primary job is tending a herd of cattle on a ranch. In more general terms, it can be any character that has the appearance and mannerisms of a cowboy. Thus, the term "cowboy" is often used as an inclusive term for any Western characters, regardless of whether they are actually ranchers or not.
Working Cowboy: A cowboy who actually has a job herding cattle and spends the majority of his time doing that job. Working cowboys tend to have more worn clothing, scruffier appearances and stronger odors than other types of cowboys. Stories about working cowboys usually focus on the nitty-gritty of ranch work and the dangers of the trail, culminating in the Cattle Drive, with a herd of cattle being led across often hazardous terrain to market. A common plotline is for the working cowboy to be a nice fellow at heart, but have his rough appearance attract a woman because All Girls Want Bad Boys. Expect the parents to initially object, despite older ranch hands, perhaps even the foreman, vouching for the young cowboy's good nature.
The common possessions of a Working Cowboy include: A saddle, a saddle blanket, a rope, some saddle bags and whatever personals he can fit in them (including his hat), as well as a rifle and a six-shooter. If he has his own horse he is well off (relatively) for a cowhand.
Rodeo Rider: This fellow is a working cowboy on the off-season, but whenever there's a rodeo, he's off to show off his riding and roping skills. Rodeo riders tend to be more boastful and concerned with winning trophies than other cowboys. Stories about rodeo riders often play up the difficulties their nomadic lifestyle causes with relationships.
Singing Cowboy: A cowboy who sings as his primary avocation. While it's true that some musical talent was always appreciated on the range, the singing cowboy was really a product of Hollywood. The standard formula for B-movies included at least one musical number, and a singing cowboy could slip one right in naturally while saving the ranch. "Saving the ranch" is the number one plotline for singing cowboy stories, closely followed by "clean up the lawless town." Top singing cowboys included Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, but even John Wayne was tested as one in an early movie! Now a Dead Horse Trope; nowadays if you see a singer in a cowboy hat, he's just a Country-Western musician.
Philosopher Cowboy: This is The Smart Guy who decides he prefers honest work amid the outdoors rather than the City Life. Plutarch was a big read for literate cowboys, along with the Bible, parts of Shakespeare and whatever small books would fit in a saddlebag. May be called upon to say a few words on portentious occasions. Can come very close to the Warrior Poet.
Lone Cowboy/Ranch Owner: This is the fellow who is running his own ranch often by himself on a rawhide (Cowboy shoestrings = rawhide) budget, perhaps aided by an old Indian friend or his young wife. Expect him to be the target of the Big Ranches who see him as easy prey. (He's the Cowboy equivalent of the Determined Homesteader.) Considered a good male love interest for Western-themed romance novels.
Dude Ranch Cowboy: Similar to the working cowboy, but whose job is to give "dudes" (tourists) a taste of The Theme Park Version of ranch life. Generally more careful of his appearance than the working cowboy, many in fiction being ruggedly handsome. Often has to rescue a tenderfoot who is Too Dumb to Live, and can be the Temporary Love Interest for a female character. More serious-minded cowboys may be embarrassed by having to work on a dude ranch.
Cowgirl: The Distaff Counterpart of the Cowboy. Generally a Plucky Girl in Western garb, who can ride and shoot as well as any man (except the protagonist), but who is seldom seen doing any of the filthier ranch chores. In fiction, almost always the love interest for the protagonist, or the young man the protagonist is helping this week. May be a plentiful source of Fetish Fuel (though to be fair, cowboys can be that too.)
Geography plays an important role in determining cowboy characters.
On the Plains, larger ranches based around the water holes are to be expected with a significant number of working cowboys, with a scattering of Rodeo Riders.
In the Mountains expect smaller ranches, with the result of more Lone Cowboys, Philosopher Cowboys (they like smaller operations where their intellect can be appreciated), and the ranches are more open to a Drifter Cowboy.
In the Desert/Badlands, expect cowboys to be closer to the Indians, with two or three characters referred to as Apache, or raised by Apache. A lot more emphasis on water scarcity, similar to the mountains in character composition, but expect more Outlaws, both as The Rustlers, but also among the legitimate Working Cowboys. This is a land for Hard Men and if you do the work people don't ask questions.
Singing Cowboys might be anywhere, but are less likely in the Badlands, although they appear there too, sometimes as a way of showing the softer side of men.
In fiction, black cowboys are much less common than they were in Real Life. After the American Civil War, a lot of freed slaves came west to make a living away from their former masters and the new "sharecropping" paradigm. Only in relatively recent times, however, has it become customary for visual media to reflect this.
Mexican and Mexican-American cowboys, called Vaqueros, tended to fare better in media presentations, known for their riding and roping skills. Vaqueros are in fact the precursors to what we consider cowboys. It's from them that we get the equipment and the word "rodeo" and many of the events included in it, after all. This used to be mixed with unfortunate negative stereotypes, however. Many early vaqueros were Indians who worked in missions colonial New Spain.
This character type often overlaps with:
- The Gunslinger. Most ranches were staffed by working cowboys, but usually at least a few were "good with a gun" despite not being professional gunfighters. All of them were expected to wield a gun if the ranch was attacked (known as "riding for the brand"), loyalty was highly prized, and drifter cowboys were often suspect for this reason. If a fight was expected the boss might go ahead and hire him some gunfighters.
- The Drifter. A fair amount of ranch work is seasonal, and a cowboy without a solid reputation often had to go where they needed extra hands, rather than hold down a steady position. And not a few had the wanderlust.
- Outlaw. The Evil Counterpart of the Cowboy is The Rustler, who uses the same skills to steal cattle and horses.
Also be aware that Cowboy, with a capital "C" has a very specific meaning when discussing Tombstone, Arizona and the shootout at the OK Corral. In Tombstone, the Cowboys were a violent gang of rustlers opposed by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. This is an example of how the term can be misused, as Doc would be insulted to be called a "cowboy" or a "Cowboy."
Some say that the Cowboy is the third faction in the war between the Pirate and the Ninja, but the Cowboys work for a living, thank you kindly. Besides, they're more concerned with their traditional enemies: Indians, farmers, sheepherders and rustlers.
- When Philip Morris decided to rebrand its Marlboro cigarettes from a hoity-toity "ladies' smoke" to a man's cigarette, they could think of no better symbol of rugged American manliness than the cowboy. This ad campaign was wildly successful, and the Marlboro Man ads ran for decades. And yes, "he" died of lung cancer.
- Being a Western, the manga Miriam has its share. Douglas and Miriam both work on a ranch, as do Douglas' friends Card and Joel.
- Ippei from Voltes V got his experience from being a cowboy. He even lived in a covered wagon as a kid.
- "Calico" Yorki of One Piece plays on the singing cowboy trope as the leader of a band of adventurous musical pirates.
- There have been numerous Western comic books over the years, naturally.
- "Le Cowboy" of Le Heroes des Paris in the Marvel Universe is a French appropriation of American stereotypes, in homage to The Wild West.
- Greg Saunders, the first Vigilante from The DCU, was a singing cowboy turned masked crimefighter.
- The first black character who headlined his own (short-lived) series was Lobo, a post-civil war cowboy who became a drifter.
- The Old Cowboy from Red Meat is the Ranch Owner type.
- Just about every Western ever made will have at least one, if only as a background character.
- Brokeback Mountain is about the doomed romance between a working cowboy and a rodeo rider—though they both started as sheepherders.
- Several characters in The Magnificent Seven are gunslingers working as drifter cowboys at the start of the movie.
- Toy Story has Woody, and the sequel introduces his Distaff Counterpart Jessie, the Yodeling Cowgirl.
- Joe in A Town Like Alice
- Again, nearly every Western-set television series ever.
- On Malcolm in the Middle Francis worked as a dude ranch cowboy for a while. One episode had Francis and Otto (the ranch's German owner) run afoul of a pair of working cowboys who kept tearing down the Grotto's fence to let their cattle through.
- Iron King, an Ultraman ripoff from the 1970s, has a singing cowboy as one of the characters.
- Nickelodeon show, Hey, Dude!, was set on a dude ranch.
- Horrible Histories had a musical number describing what the life of a working cowboy was actually like.
- There is an entire subgenre of "cowboy songs", many of which were created and sung by actual cowboys (some lost forever, now) while others have been made up from whole cloth in more recent times.
- Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" compares his attempts to become famous via his music to a rodeo rider.
- The Six-Shooter starred Jimmy Stewart as a drifter cowboy with superior shooting skills.
- Have Gun Will Travel often featured cowboys as guest characters. In one particularly memorable episode, Paladin befriends a lone cowboy who happens to be Native American—then accepts a fee from a big spread rancher to force the small rancher to sell his land. Paladin had spotted that metal deposits on the land were slowly poisoning the cattle, making the spread worthless for ranching.
- A cowboy appeared as a villain in the Lonelygirl15 episode "The Cowboy". He did not appear again, most likely because the rights to the character are owned by Glenn Rubenstein.
- Several of the characters in Zombie Ranch fit the working cowboy type—even if they're technically no longer wrangling cows.
- Cowboys are common in the wilder areas of Mars as depicted in Cwynhild's Loom.
- Applejack from My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic lassos wayward critters, herds stampeding cattle, eagerly gets into fights, runs the family farm, and is almost never caught without her hat. The only thing she doesn't do is ride horses, for obvious reasons.
- Cowboy Stackhouse from Jimmy Two-Shoes
- Quickstrike from Beast Wars, a villainous metal scorpion/cobra hybrid has the personality if not the looks, with a generous helping of Redneck added to the mix.
- Shocker/Montana from The Spectacular Spider-Man, the cowboy thing obviously stemming from the Montana part of his character.