Bucking Tradition: Cowgirls becoming Professional Bull Riders

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by: Katie Jones

 

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six Mississippi, seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi… The time it took you to read that is (roughly) the same amount of time it takes for a cowboy to become a Professional Bull Rider.  “PBR”- or Professional Bull Riding, has been named the fastest growing sport in the United States by Forbes financial expert, Mike Ozanian. The sport officially began in 1992, when 20 bull riders from the rodeo circuit joined together to form the “toughest sport on dirt.”

Professional Bull Riding is the battle between an approximately 150 pound human and a 2,000 pound bull. The bull rider is lowered on to the bull’s back and the time begins when the bull’s shoulder breaks the plane of the gate and is stopped when the rider’s hand comes out of the rope, the rider touches the ground or the rider’s free arm touches the bull. It’s a fight between man and beast for eight seconds, at which time if the rider is still mounted on the bull, they are considered a “professional bull rider.”

PBR is a tour consisting of the Top 35 bull riders in the world competing in the Built Ford Tough Series. PBR events combine the adrenaline of bull riding with loud music and fire throwers that have grown the industry that started with 20 riders and $1000 to a global sports sensation that has awarded $140 million in prize money in only two decades.

However, PBR is not a sport solely for cowboys. Maggie Parker became the only female professional bull rider after competing in nearly 200 rodeos at the age of 20.  Maggie grew up in small town, Shastburg, Michigan, and became interested in the sport when a family friend took her to the rodeo. She left home at the age of 17 in order to work on ranches in Texas and Oklahoma to raise money for her bull training. She weighs approximately 130 pounds, is 5’5” tall, and is blonde and beautiful. Maggie’s percentage of staying on bulls is 35- 40 percent– which is the normal average for professional bull riders. The one reason that she stands out in this sport is because she is a female.

Maggie Parker - America's Only Professional Female Bull Rider
Maggie Parker, Professional Bull Rider.

Hegemonic masculinity can be used to understand Maggie Parker’s role in sports because according to an article by Trujillo, hegemonic masculinity is “the culturally idealized form of masculine character.” This basically means that qualities such as being tough or competitive are associated with masculinity. Trujillo states, “such an idealized form of masculinity becomes hegemonic when it is widely accepted in a culture and when that acceptance reinforces the dominant gender ideology of the culture.” So in relation to professional bull riding, it’s widely accepted and reinforced for men to be the dominant participants in the sport.

There are five features of hegemonic masculinity in American culture and physical force/ control and occupational achievement are the features most related to Maggie Parker’s experience in the world of professional bull riding. The physical force and control feature describes the male body as being representational of power, and “power itself is masculinized as physical strength, force, speed, control, toughness, and domination.” The feature of occupational achievement can be applied in Parker’s case because Trujillo says that “hegemony closely involved the division of labor, the social definition of tasks as either ‘men’s work’ or women’s work,’ and the definition of some kinds of work as more masculine than others.” With Maggie being the only female in professional bull riding her physical differences were obvious compared to her opponents and as a result she has faced obstacles as she strives to achieve her goals in the professional field.

Since many viewers experience sports by watching them on the television, it is almost required for all information to be translated by the media. Trujillo noted that the way that the information is framed can influence the audiences’ perception of the sport by stating, “media representations of sport naturalize hegemonic masculinity when they depict its features as conventional or acceptable and depict alternatives to it as unconventional or deviant.” This basically means that if something does not fit the culturally idealized vision of being “masculine” then it is framed in the media as being abnormal or unusual.

Framing also exists when gender lines are drawn in respect to occupations. Trujillo points out that the women are often framed as the cheerleaders, spectators, or images used in advertising, as well as sports corporations providing far more opportunities for male athletes than female athletes. This feature is significant to analyze in relation to Parker’s experience in the world of professional bull riding because Trujillo believes that “perhaps no single institution in American culture has influenced our sense of masculinity more than sport.” This article uses hegemonic masculinity in an attempt to uncover how Maggie Parker is making a name for herself in a cowboy’s rodeo.

Occupational Achievement

Maggie Parker has a genuine appreciation and passion for bull riding and often faces criticism about her participation in a male dominated sport. She responds with, “I don’t do it because I want to prove anything. I just do it because it’s what I love to do… They think I do it for a lot of the wrong reasons. Most people don’t like me before they meet me just because they think I do it for attention and for guys and to be in the spotlight and that I don’t really care about it.” Maggie has accepted the idea that it’s going to take some time for her to be “accepted” in the “man’s world” of professional bull riding, but it has improved since she began. Parker adds, “I’m friends with a lot of the guys, but I still hear criticism and comments every day. It’s not as bad as when I first started riding. I just keep a good positive attitude and keep pushing towards my dreams.”

Parker realizes that she has the same skills as the men in PBR however she is not being viewed the same just yet because of hegemonic masculinity. She attempts to showcase her occupational achievement in the cage and let that boost her status on the circuit. Parker says, “you’re either a good bull rider or you’re not. It takes a long time to gain people’s respect and get treated the same as the men.” Even her trainer, Gary Leffew, recognized her drive to become a competitor in the sport and he states “that’s what I admire about her. She ain’t got no quit in her- she’s determined and she works long and hard on it.” And as expected, Maggie received comments about her participation in the male dominated sport, and Leffew responded, “she has her supporters, and she has people who go, ‘What is a woman doing in bull riding?’ Overall, most have accepted her pretty well. They admire her heart.”

Unfortunately, drive and determination was not enough to keep the cowgirl out of harm’s way. While competing in Wyoming at a rodeo in 2012, Maggie was thrown off of the bull and broke her spine for a second time. Recalling the incident, Maggie states, “I was making a good bull ride and I just lost my rope and he threw me up in the air pretty high and I landed on the back of my neck and my body crumpled.” However, even her reaction to getting hurt was an effort in maintaining her ability to compete against the boys. Maggie states, “when a guy gets hurt on a bull, it’s an everyday thing, but when a girl gets hurt, it’s ‘that’s why the girls shouldn’t ride bulls,’” Parker said, “This is the first time I’ve been carried out of the arena. Even with broken ribs, broken feet, broken whatever, broken vertebrae — I still had to climb over the fence. No one will help you. The crowd doesn’t want to see a girl get hurt and it makes the stock contractor look bad.” Because of this culturally idealized image of masculinity, Maggie, wanted to keep her image as being tough and competitive in order to save face. She said if she were to get hurt that the men would often say, “’this is why girls shouldn’t ride bulls’ and ‘girls aren’t made for this,'” she said, adding: “But it all depends on the person.” Luckily, she doesn’t let the opinions of other people cloud her involvement in the sport. Maggie states that “the important thing is how many girls and women I inspired. This shows that women can do anything they set their mind to.” Even though she’s a cowgirl in a cowboy’s rodeo, she continues to compete because of the enjoyment that she gets out of PBR, stating: “when you hear that buzzer and you know that all of your hard work is paying off, it’s the most gratifying feeling. And the whole lifestyle is addicting—the travel, the people, getting to do what you love. Not many people can say they live their life like that.”

Maggie Parker is often compared to Danica Patrick, the first female to win the IndyCar Series race, because they are both females in male-dominated sports. In the future, I would like to see females break the walls of hegemonic masculinity and participate in sports that they want to participate in, regardless of whether or not “gender lines have been drawn” by our culture. I would be interested in watching more women participate in NASCAR and PBR, as well as many other dangerous, and currently male dominated sports. I believe that just like Maggie, if they have the passion to train often and become competitive in the sport, then they succeed.

I do believe that it will take some time to see an increase in female participation in these sports still, but hopefully the rise will continue as it has in the past 10 years. It’s almost a double edged sword of women being afraid to delve into the world of a sport that’s male dominated, but in order for it to change more women need to participate. My message is that if someone wants to participate in a sport that is opposite of the main gender population of said sport, they should go for it!

 

 

 

 

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