Forty years after its release, “Urban Cowboy” continues to resonate today.
However, those who are fixated on a mechanical bull, cowboy hats and two-step dancing, are looking for themes in all the wrong places, to loosely coin a song made famous by the movie.
Rather, the film’s cultural staying power is rooted in motifs such as gender roles, negotiating what it means to be married, the dawning of a new decade, a new look at cowboy life and westerns and a shift in country music’s popularity.
While we often say a good film is unrealistic, “Urban Cowboy” is all too real at times. And, it is not pretty. The truth is, one of the reasons we root for Bud (John Travolta) is because he beats Sissy (Debra Winger) less than Wes does. While that is disgusting, it is all too true. Fortunately, our perspective on domestic abuse has since evolved.
Growing up in the 1970s, many males did not know which way was up, and “Urban Cowboy” expresses that well. We see this with Bud and his litany of what a wife is supposed to be during his dinner table discussion with Sissy. Once he got married, Bud found this stereotype, which was based on his mom, did not fit with his wife. This is reflective of men of that era when wives of the previous generation were mainly homemakers. However, changing times and economic reality dictated more two-income families, and newly married men had a hard time dealing with it.
In fact, I often use this film as a soapbox for female students in the film course I teach. A good reason to attend college is to avoid being Sissy and to take control of their own futures.
Further, in “Urban Cowboy,” which was released in the summer of 1980, we also see the clear mark of a story that ushers in a new decade.
At that time, the nation was coming off the tumultuous times during the 1960s and ‘70s, with hippies, do what you want, Vietnam and Watergate. This downward spiral gave thought to new beginnings as the 1980s dawned. We were realizing that rejecting authority and hedonism had their limits, and there was a craving for a simpler time. We were looking for a new type of western, and “Urban Cowboy” delivered. It fit with the times, when “Dallas” was the biggest show on TV and Ronald Reagan was elected as the cowboy president.
“Urban Cowboy” also represented a cultural change in terms of geography. With Andy Warhol and other members of the Studio 54 club going to Houston for the premiere, it shed a light on the city and created a new look for Texas. No longer viewed as a backwater place, with the image of fast-paced life reserved for the East Coast, the Southwest was suddenly cool.
However, “Urban Cowboy”’s most lasting impact may be on music. Because of the popularity of the movie and its soundtrack, country music saw a shift from outlaw country to easy listening, which opened up country music to a whole new audience with stars like Kenny Rogers, Ann Murray and Dolly Parton. This new genre further paved the way for today’s country stars such as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and Brad Paisley.
Previously, it was hard to be a country music artist. Then, Urban Cowboy hit the big screen, and every place suddenly wanted to be Gilley’s.
The fact that Travolta was involved in a cultural phenom should not be a shocker. At that time, he seemed to be involved in several movies that involved dancing and cultural shifts, such as “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and “Pulp Fiction” beyond Urban Cowboy. Once a trend starts, it is difficult to stop it.
So, for those looking for trends in all the wrong places can find their footing with Bud, Sissy and the gang at Gilley’s. After 40 years, Urban Cowboy is not yet ready to ride into the sunset.
Jennifer Walton is a professor of communication studies at Ohio Northern University who teaches a course on movies and society.