As both a modern-day feminist and a nineteenth-century historical scholar, I find myself oddly compromised now that the Texas Ranch House has ended. Should I have rooted for the women of the ranch to turn the clock forward and stick it to the patriarchy where it attempted to re-implant -- as the rancher\'s wife and her maid of all work wanted to do? I\'ll admit I didn\'t. Instead, I carped about how they failed to commit to the demanding lives of real historical women, given their imposed (and internalized) limitations.
Over the eight episodes, Mrs. Cooke, the rancher\'s wife, comes off as the least effective member of the ranch. She has failed to accept her 1867 womanly role, despite that she was the family member most interested in the historical dimension of the re-enactment. As a member of the sort of egalitarian, modern marriage I usually applaud (and live in myself), she finds herself unable to accept that a rancher\'s wife in the period did not have authority of decision and over business.
When the cowboy hands, and foreman, expect that she should maintain an authentic role, she bucks the trend -- hard. She demands she and her husband make all ranch decisions together, and that he not speak to the men outside of her presence. He accedes, somehow also turning a blind eye to the social dimension of the historical re-enactment (granting that in 1867 such an arrangement would have surely undermined his authority with his men). When Mr. Cooke (a modern-day hospital administrator) breaks the agreement in order to seem more independent and authoritative, Mrs. Cooke accuses him of succumbing to sexist peer pressure. She pressures him to go back on his word with the men, and he becomes untrustworthy and, on some occasions, overly critical of their efforts in order to appease her and save face with the men by appearing strong (he only comes off as hen-pecked). Indeed, Mr. Cooke seems surprised to find himself in a position of such authority and, given that he can\'t avoid it, is continually tormented by his inability to assume it without betraying his wife.
Mrs. Cooke\'s rebellion undermines her husband\'s governance of the ranch in other ways, too. Feeling drawn to the house because of his wife\'s needs and influence, Mr. Cooke rarely rides with the ranch hands to share their work and supervise the real business of the ranch. He develops into the sort of soft, housebound man who would not have survived as a ranch owner, one who would have been mocked by the locals. He asks too few questions about cattle handling or marketing, and remains hands-off: a white collar manager of a blood and guts agro business. Granted, he is capable of winning a good deal on his 131 head of cattle, due in part to the artificial circumstances (I found myself doubting whether the Army would really have bought the mothers and calves) and due in part to an ability to drive bargains from his real world management experience. This capability shows he might have had other potentials, too, which go untapped.
The conflicts need not have played out on gendered lines as they did. Had Mrs. Cooke a more generous spirit and the best interests of the cowboys at heart, they might not have been so hostile to her interventions, even if they had seemed inauthentic along gender lines. Not only does Mrs. Cooke disable her husband, but she also fails to fulfill the accepted possibilities of her own position, which is meant to contribute to the success of the ranch through good household management in the house and at the cowboy camp -- as well as to bind together the community through a civilizing, softening influence. In being so concerned about whether she and Mr. Cooke were properly respected as ranch owners, and whether she is personally slighted as a second-class citizen, Mrs. Cooke perhaps inadvertently shoves down and out the men who should have most benefited from her presence.
The ranch hands\' denigrated standing is communicated from early on in a number of ways. Rather than greeting the hands and asking for introductions, Mrs. Cooke complains that it\'s she and her family taht have been slighted (this, despite the fact that the men namelessly and wordlessly were made to haul the family\'s goods up the road to the house). She clearly does not understand nineteenth-century etiquette, which demands that the superior party introduce himself and give the inferior party permission to be known. The worst way, however, is through the Mrs. Cooke\'s lack of supervision of and generosity to Nacho and the cowboy kitchen. The cowboys are starved for vegetation (when the garden, as we find, produces more than the daughters harvest), eggs (kept for the family only when these were scarce), and sweets (also kept, in the form of preserves, just for the family), not to mention exposed to filthy conditions that make them sick, sometimes too sick to work. Although Mrs. Cooke later finds she doesn\'t need a maid of all work, she never offers to supplement the cowboy\'s kitchen with extra help (there, the period limitations serve her and the standing of women in her charge, so she observes them scrupulously, despite the harm they do). Another cutting blow is Mrs. Cooke\'s demand that her husband seize the bunkhouse whiskey, simply because it causes the men to become noisy in the evenings (the noise isn\'t brawling, either -- these hands are likely a good bit more genteel than those back in the day). That the whiskey is sold without further discussion or compromise is a direct insult. Granted the hard life as these men are living, taking away such a basic comfort is an even more aggravated act than it would be in our comfortable, modern world.
So, too, later on is Mr. Cooke\'s anachronistic refusal to trade the Comanches for Jared when he is kidnapped for ransom, and his demand that Jared pay twice for his also captured horse. Although a ranch owner might have made the last demand in the period, he would likely have been perceived as a grubbing sort of man, one who valued money over loyalty, and who did not sufficiently appreciate his ranch hand\'s having risked his life. Of course, the viewer holds Mr. Cooke accountable, too, for this tone -- but it\'s undeniably at Mrs. Cooke\'s instigation.
Also under Mrs. Cooke\'s influence, as well as out of her own needs, the maid of all work, Maura furthers ranch tensions by demanding to be a ranch hand and to participate in the cattle drive. Given Maura\'s real life experience as a rider, this would have made sense if the project were merely to staff a cattle ranch with greenhorns. But, since that\'s not the project, she was given the role suited to an extra-family female in the day. She finds little immediate pleasure in having stepped outside expected gender roles, as the men refuse to bond with her perhaps because she is a woman, but also because she has been foisted on them without regard for their input, especially that of their foreman, Robby. As a result of Maura\'s anachronistic promotion, Shaun\'s sacrifice for the ranch\'s benefit, when he steps up to serve as camp cook, goes unrewarded. Rather than being allowed to cowboy again as he had requested, as Maura\'s help becomes available, he is relegated to the kitchen for the remainder of the drive.
I do not blame Maura (now a Stanford anthro grad student focusing on gender constructs) for wanting to take a more active role in ranch life. Were I in her place, with her skills and drive, I would want the same. The question becomes whether it is appropriate for historical re-enactors in such projects to cast off the social limitations (here, gendered) of the period in order to satisfy their modern psychological needs and experiential desires. Is part of the goal of such a project to watch modern women suffer and rebel, so that we can see how far we\'ve come? (BTW: Are there any pleasures -- personal or domestic -- to be found in such a life?) Might the same be said for those accorded low labor status (masked in so many ways in our supposedly \"classless\" society)?
In both re-enactment and interpersonal terms, Robby is the most effective figure on the ranch -- perhaps in part because he wisely steers wide of Mrs. Cooke. Promoted to foreman when the first candidate, the Colonel, fails to gain the respect of his crew or Mr. Cooke (and slugs it out with Nacho), Robby demonstrates dignity, restraint, and crackerjack knowledge of horse and cattle handling. He leads gently, by example and quiet direction. He is not simply obeyed, but also admired -- and he deserves to be. Robby\'s vaquero heritage (in which, to his credit, he takes great pride) does not detract from his standing with the men (who are, each of them, decent, hard-working, well-meaning fellows, except when provoked by the house). Neither this, nor his decision to continue to live with his men, proves a barrier to his strength of advocacy for them with the house. Confronted with insult and ineffective management, Robby keeps himself and the men focused on ranching and the pride they (justifiably) take in their work. The final expert report affirms that Robbie has succeeded in bringing the men together, training them, and conducting a successful cattle drive -- and this without loss of cattle or injury to the men, despite extreme conditions (with temperatures in the 100s). For this, he receives little thanks from the Cookes -- in fact, one of his men is fired during pay negotiations, again without consulting him, as if this would be no insult. The whole crew walks (or, rather, rides), in a show of solidarity, to which we can\'t help but feel sympathetic.
To the end, Mr. and Mrs. Cooke show themselves high in their consideration of their own standing and low in their generosity to the laborers who promise to make their ranch a viable enterprise. Never did the owners attempt to make it a good home for all, something that would have ensured the ranch would be more than just a profitable business -- and perhaps that as well, since the ranch was deemed a failure. What it wanted wasn\'t harder work, or better cattle management, but more fellow feeling, and most especially from the ranch owners to their hands. On this, experts and viewers will also almost certainly agree.moreless