Filmmaker Jingjing Tian releases her inner cowboy

From movies to music, artists of color are claiming Western mythology.

 

With inspiration from Jingjing Tian's personal experiences in her Texas hometown, Cowboy Joe pushes the norms of cowboy culture and who can be a part of it.
Film still courtesty of Jingjing Tian

Cowboy Joe (Conder Shou) dances through the streets of New York to a jazzy rendition of “Only In New York.” The camera sashays just a few feet ahead, capturing Joe as he weaves in and out of pedestrian traffic. He manages high kicks and smooth backwards gliding, even though he’s wearing clunky cowboy boots. Also sporting a bolero and slim-fit Levi’s, Joe appears to be at home in this getup. Only moments before, he’d confronted his disappointed immigrant Chinese father (Lei Zhou) about wanting to pursue his cowboy dreams.

Cowboy culture has long been rooted in settler colonialism and marked by images of white hypermasculinity. In Cowboy Joe, filmmaker Jingjing Tian joins a growing number of artists of color who are taking a whack at dismantling that image in favor of inclusivity. “You can be anyone, anything you want,” says Tian. “You embody that freedom within you.”

Through Joe, Tian introduces us to someone who takes on a problematic ideal, while turning that long-established image on its head. “I love Brokeback Mountain, but it’s about these cowboys and how they fit within their culture—they’re already in that culture, but they have this element that divides them,” says Tian of Ang Lee’s 2005 film about two white cowboys who fall for each other. With Cowboy Joe, she was looking to do something different. Tian says, “I wanted to take this guy who’s never been a part of that culture and ask, how can he enter that culture? Will he be able to do that?” By extension, the film asks if the country is ready to shake up the archetypal white cowboy found in classic Westerns. 

Tian understands Joe’s audacious desire to be a cowboy. “I think part of me has always wanted to be a cowboy, so it’s like wish-fulfillment,” she says about the moody six-minute short film. What separates her from Joe is that she also wanted to be an artist. While Tian’s immigrant Chinese parents allowed her to partake in cowboy activities like going to the rodeo, they weren’t exactly keen on her artistic ambitions. She says her parents had very specific ideas about what was “outlandish” and what was “acceptable” as far as lifepaths went, and artists were definitely “outlandish.” The idea of their daughter becoming an artist was as perplexing to them as Joe’s cowboy dreams were to his father.

At the same time that Tian’s parents grimaced at her self-expression, some members of her larger community marginalized Tian. Even teachers sometimes laughed at her Chinese name. Tian made Cowboy Joe in order to work through the exclusion and othering she dealt with in her Texas hometown. “It hurt a lot, so part of me was like I belong here,” she says. “That’s what I was trying to say.”

Tian grew up in Conroe, Texas, an oil and lumber town of 84,000 people north of Houston. Despite her Chinese upbringing in an environment where she often felt like an outsider, Tian idealized the pastimes of her rural town. She developed an early fascination with the cowboys both in her hometown and onscreen in films like Toy Story or Midnight Cowboy. To her, they personified the American identity that felt out of reach in her own childhood.

In popular culture, the cowboy represents free will, fortitude and thrilling discoveries of so-called uncharted land. When put that way, it’s hard for Tian and moviegovers alike to resist. There’s an inevitable disenchantment, though, that comes with the realization that the mythology of the cowboy is fraught with messy truths: in addition to excluding people of color — and, in the case of Native Americans, erasing them — the myth perpetuates toxic masculinity.

“The (text)book mythology is beautiful, right? But the reality of it was more painful,” says Tian.

Solange Knowles elevates Black cowboy culture in her latest album, "When I Get Home."
When I Get Home via Saint Records / Columbia and Apple Music

Tian doesn’t dismiss the troubling mythology of the cowboy, but she toys with its reinvention to offer more expansive, untold narratives. And judging from a recent resurgence of the cowboy aesthetic, she has a bit of company, such as musician Solange Knowles. If it wasn’t already clear to fans that Solange is a Houston native, her latest album, When I Get Home, makes it crystal. The accompanying short film of the same title serves up stunning visuals of Black cowboys—synchronized circles on horseback, hypnotic lassoing, riding in streetwear—being Black cowboys. “When Solange takes on the cowboy aesthetic,” Tian tells me, “she’s elevating it.”

She adds, “It’s like saying, I’m part of this country, I’m part of this history, and part of this world.”

Cowboy Joe is now available on Video on Demand and will screen at the Queens World Film Festival on Friday, March 29.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify Jingjing Tian's personal history.

Neyat Yohannes is an arts and culture writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in KQED Arts, the East Bay Express, Cleo Film Journal, Chicago Review of Books, Playboy, and Okayafrica, among other publications.  Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...