When Navied Mahdavian, a cartoonist, and his wife, Emelie, a filmmaker, moved from San Francisco to Mackay, Idaho (population 473), they fixated on their new hometown’s theater. Or, rather, the ghost of a theater.
A red and white marquee for the Mackay Main Theater dominated part of Main Street, and Mr. and Ms. Mahdavian, who had moved in pursuit of a cheaper and less frantic way of life, resolved with other community members to reopen the cinema, which had been defunct for years.
Before the big reopening, one longtime town resident seemed less than enthusiastic about the plan, Mr. Mahdavian recalled, accusing the theater boosters of trying to import an “artsy-fartsy, social-justice-warrior” sensibility to the Idaho mountains.
“We’re actually showing a western,” Mr. Mahdavian said.
To which the resident replied: “John Wayne?”
Instead, the Mahdavians chose “Damsel,” a new-age western from 2018 featuring a heroine played by Mia Wasikowska, a wimpy male character and a masturbation scene. It didn’t go over all that well.
“We probably should’ve anticipated that the reaction in town would be mixed,” said Mr. Mahdavian, 38, who has chronicled his move to a rural area in the forthcoming book “This Country.”
By taking an active interest in the West of the American imagination — and the ever-evolving notions about what a western story can, or should, be — the Mahdavians are part of a larger movement.
Cowboys ride in and out of popular culture every few years, propelled by a hunger for stories that are wild, tumultuous and unvarnished. Now, as western style spreads across fashion and entertainment once more, that spirit of reinvention is being applied to reinvent the western itself, inflecting an old genre with new viewpoints.
Two cultural stars of the summer, Beyoncé and Barbie, have invoked western tropes. Beyoncé wore a disco cowboy hat tilted over her face and sat atop a silver horse in portraits promoting her Renaissance World Tour, the imagery reminiscent of an extraterrestrial cowgirl. Re-creations of the hat, for fans trying to mimic the look, have sold for over $100 on Etsy. “Barbie,” which has climbed to more than $1 billion at the box office, included a lengthy sequence of Margot Robbie venturing deep into the Wild West of Los Angeles while wearing a white cowboy hat, a pink bandanna and a western-cut pink ensemble. And Taylor Swift may no longer wear western gear in public, as she did early in her career, but there were plenty of cowboy boots and cowboy hats to be seen among her fans headed to the Eras Tour shows this summer.
History rhymes, fusty fashions turn trendy and cult classics become newly beloved — so it’s no surprise that cowboys keep cycling back into the popular imagination.
“There’s a longstanding tradition in American history of looking West,” said Andrew Patrick Nelson, a historian of American cinema and culture at University of Utah. “Part of the appeal is the idea you can live a more authentic, exciting and rugged life.”
Coming out of a period of pandemic malaise, millions of people have gone that-a-way — in their clothing choices, social media posts, and selections of TV shows and movies. In fashion, high-end brands, including Prada, unveiled spring collections comprising get-ups that smacked of the Old West. On TikTok, thousands of women have posted videos of themselves modeling outfits billed as “coastal cowgirl” — linen shirts, boots, hats and well-worn denim shorts. The #CoastalCowgirl hashtag has racked up tens of thousands of views.
“Glam western is probably the No. 1 trending thing in fashion right now,” said Taylor Johnson, 36, who owns the concert wear boutique Hazel & Olive.
Brunello Cucinelli, the fashion designer, said the “ease and sportiness” of western style lent itself to perennial cycles of popularity. “As a younger man, I watched many Sergio Leone movies and listened to Johnny Cash,” Mr. Cucinelli said in an email interview. “While visiting America for the first time, I remember vividly my trips to Texas and how men dressed with their tapered jackets and those great belts with large buckles.”
“Yellowstone,” the soapy “red state” rancher television series, was ranked by Nielsen as the top scripted program last year. In interviews, several TikTok users said their #CoastalCowgirl posts represented their efforts to mimic Beth Dutton, the ruthless main daughter of the show played by Kelly Reilly.
Kimberly Johnson, 39, a stay-at-home mother in Delaware, said the series offered a reprieve from the Covid-era divorce drama of her own life. When she saw the #CoastalCowgirl trend, she said the thought that crossed her mind was: “Now I have an excuse to dress like I’m from ‘Yellowstone’!”
“Yellowstone,” which is filmed and based in Montana, pumped some $700 million in tourism spending into the state’s economy, on top of $72 million in production spending from Paramount, according to a study from the University of Montana (which was sponsored by the Media Coalition of Montana and Paramount). Nearly 20 percent of visitors to the state in 2021 attributed their travel in part to watching the series, in what economists called “‘Yellowstone’-induced” tourism.
Jordan Calhoun, a writer in New York who edits the how-to site Lifehacker, was one of the fans who went West because of the show. He said his affection for the series came about in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, when he was locked down in his Harlem apartment and felt the need for a landscape that looked different from what he was seeing out his window. He longed for rows of pines, big stretches of sky. And he wanted to experience the Dutton family’s way of life.
“I don’t know how to fix a fence or ride a horse or grow crops,” Mr. Calhoun, 38, said. “Self-reliance, or country living, is something that got really appealing during the pandemic.”
He spent five days on a Colorado ranch in 2022. Although the trip confirmed for him that it wasn’t what he wanted full time, it taught Mr. Calhoun, who is Black, that the western landscapes he loved on TV were something he could go and enjoy. That was a realization far afield from what he had felt watching westerns when he was growing up.
“I watched ‘Young Guns’ a thousand times,” he said. “There wasn’t much of me in it.”
But as much as it is a place on the map, the West is also an idea, one that changes over time. And amid the latest round of fascination with cowboy culture, the western, a staple film genre since the early days of cinema, is being reimagined for a growing audience.
From 2000 to 2009, Hollywood made 23 movies categorized as westerns, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. That number shot up to 42 from 2010 to 2019. Some of these new films feature Black cowboys, Native American protagonists, queer heroes and damsels far from distress. Some are directed by female filmmakers, like Jane Campion, whose 2021 movie “The Power of the Dog,” which features a most likely closeted rancher, received more Academy Award nominations than any other film last year.
Alaina Roberts, an American historian who wrote “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” was raised with all the classic images of what a western film looked like: Davy Crockett wrestling a bear, John Wayne squinting through the Texas dust. Her mother loved those films.
But when Dr. Roberts started her own career as a scholar, those weren’t the visions of the West that captured her imagination. Instead, she wanted to research stories of her own Black family members, who were enslaved by the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in what is now Ardmore, Okla. She also grew fascinated by the Buffalo Soldiers, all-Black regiments who policed the plains.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of complexity,” said Ms. Roberts, 32, who consulted on the recent documentary series “The Real Wild West,” which focuses on Black and Hispanic cowboys, Buffalo Soldiers, Native leaders and women on the plains. “It doesn’t mean we’re trying to rewrite history.”