The tantalizing style of “space cowboy” is not simply a mash-up of two aesthetics, but rather the rebirth of an old concept into a new framework. The quintessential western cowboy values — courage, charisma, independence — are worthy endeavors, but they carry with them darker undercurrents of violence, hubris and the knowledge that the mythological white cowboys often portrayed in classic films do not reflect history.
Space is associated with the future, not the past, with feelings of mysticism and hope; people have long looked up to the moon and the stars to dream of the unknown. A large part of space’s appeal is a desire to explore its mystery, leading to the popularized idea of space as “the final frontier.” Here, imagination comes into play: a limited understanding of space means its possibilities are boundless. Cowboy figures naturally pair with adventures into the unknown, but space’s creative freedom makes it the perfect medium to explore how the admirable aspects of cowboy lore can adapt to an inclusive future. The recent wave of space cowboys celebrates this fact, as they emulate the traditional cowboy but diverge majorly from its canon in favor of a feminine edge and embracing diverse identities.
So much of the space cowboy aesthetic relies on individuality that the physical style can elude definition. But more importantly than the visuals, the movement’s ideology calls for confident attitudes in sheer defiance of existing norms. The space cowboy’s swagger stems less from arrogance and more from a self-assurance that they belong in the spaces they occupy — even if those spaces have been historically inaccessible.
The space cowboy ideology sidelines the typical hypermasculine white cowboy figures of the American mythos, the John Waynes and the Han Solos. While Solo may be the first space cowboy example to come to mind, his successor Rey, from the recent trilogy, provides a better representation. The two characters certainly share a headstrong and reckless nature, but Rey has a softer edge, thanks to her open-hearted, generous spirit and lack of ego. At the start of the first film, “The Force Awakens,” Rey lives in the rugged outskirts of civilization on a desert planet as a true outsider. Her style is her own; her outfits neutral-toned and comfortable with details like her unique and iconic three overlapping buns. As she throws herself into increasingly unfamiliar situations, Rey continues to prove herself capable as she grows into her power.
But while Rey provides one blueprint for a space cowboy, the individuality that grounds the concept gives room for other cultural figures to provide their own interpretation of the style.
In the electric accompanying film for her recent album, “When I Get Home,” Solange Knowles, known eponymously as Solange, captures the spirit of the space cowboy even if her feet remain firmly planted on earth. She playfully twirls around a black cowboy hat and shoots finger guns to the sound of guns cocking. At one moment, she dances with a glimmering shadow-like figure in the darkness. To the viewer, the figure, cloaked completely in silver, feels ominous and scrutinizing. But Solange shines iridescently as she dances freely and gracefully, comfortable in her skin and unbothered by who’s watching her.
Throughout, Solange’s style toes the line between glamour and simplicity. However, even when dressed plainly, Solange commands attention with her bravado. In one scene, she and her accompanying dancers, dressed respectively in all-black and all-white, stand out starkly in a muted western landscape. Solange leads the group in dance with a eye-grabbing charisma and a refusal to blend in, showcasing the interactions between power and femininity.
Images of black cowboys interject throughout the film, their horses galloping through city and countryside alike. Other scenes show a black woman dragging a large computer monitor system down an airplane runway, cut with shots of technological lights flashing across her face in the darkness. The juxtaposition of Afrofuturistic and western influences culminates in the final minutes with artist Jacolby Satterwhite’s animation sequence: a naked black man flies off into the air atop a robotic pegasus, reconciling the two ideas.
Solange pays homage to the black cowboys who have been seemingly erased from history. “All of the first cowboys I saw were black,” she said at a screening in Houston for the film. “I don’t know who John Wayne is, I don’t know what his story is.”
But, at the same time, her visuals go beyond a solely western aesthetic and look to the future as she presents herself as a black woman who belongs in the spaces she exists in. Whether she’s dancing with laughter on a grainy laptop camera video or sensually spinning with total control on a pole, Solange knows who she is.
Similarly, Japanese-American singer Mitski Miyawaki, who performs as Mitski, embraces the space cowboy attitude in her critically-acclaimed fifth album, 2018’s “Be The Cowboy.” In an interview with Outline, she discusses her inspiration behind the album name, saying “I was thinking more of the Marlboro commercial cowboy, that incredibly exaggerated myth of the western cowboy … every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself, ‘Well, what would a cowboy do?’”
Mitski’s thesis encourages anyone to capture the swaggering confidence of a cowboy — not just the white hyper-masculine male cowboys typically portrayed in the past. She leads by example, illustrating the power that one can find in allowing vulnerability throughout “Be The Cowboy.” Her masterful control of lyricism shines as she dissects feelings of loneliness with razor-sharp precision through fictional vignettes. Mitski looks loneliness in the face and comes out on the other side self-assured in her identity.
Over the past year, “yeehaw” aesthetics have captured the imaginations of many as artists like Solange and Mitski have re-popularized (and re-formulated) a space cowboy ideology. The style’s emphasis on inclusivity and individuality especially appeals to teens and 20-somethings, who have taken to donning fluorescent pink rhinestone cowboy hats with their apparel. There’s an inherent playfulness to the style that only has one demand: the wearer needs to truly own the look. People can freely adapt the aesthetic to suit their own self-expression, imagining a world where anyone can be a cowboy, adventuring among the stars. •