The Real Cowboy, the Real Feminist

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The week after the release of her new book extolling their relationship, Alisa Valdes reveals that her cowboy abused her.

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Alicia Valdes

Earlier this week, I reviewed Alisa Valdes' memoir The Feminist and The Cowboy, in which she rhapsodized about her relationship with a manly, traditional, conservative ranch manager who had taught her to submit and renounce anti-male feminism. Yesterday, Valdes published a post on her website (subsequently removed) updating readers on her relationship with the cowboy. In earlier public statements, she had mentioned that she and the cowboy had broken up. What she hadn't said until now is that she left him because he abused her.

For readers of The Feminist and The Cowboy, this is not exactly a shock. Despite Valdes's enthusiasm for the man, it seems fairly clear in the book that he is a liar, a bully, and a creep. At one point Valdes discovers that he has been texting the exact same flirtatious sexual fantasies to her and another woman at the same time, changing nothing but the name of the girlfriend in question. When she confronts him, he bullies her until she decides it's all her fault for contacting the other woman.

Still, even though all the signs were there, Valdes's post is shocking in a numb, inevitable way. As in many relationships, the cowboy's escalation from controlling assholery to actual physical violence was triggered when Valdes accidentally became pregnant. When she said she wanted to have the child, the cowboy walked out on her. She lost the baby through a miscarriage, and foolishly went back to him...and then the violence escalated. Mostly he stuck to verbal abuse, with occasional physical threats, but there is at least one incident which she doesn't call rape, but which sure sounds like something close to it. Finally, Valdes realized that "this man did not love me. He could not love anyone," and she left him for good—though, obviously, something of the terror remains. She notes that writing the post puts her "in danger—real physical danger": by which I presume she means danger from the cowboy. (She was also worried that the post might damage her relationship with her publisher.)

In my review, I argued that The Feminist and the Cowboy idealizes masculinity and power. Valdes talks incessantly about the beauty of discovering her feminine, submissive side, but the real energy of the book seems to be directed not towards validating the submission, but towards idolizing the discipliner and his bullying. She says that dating the cowboy taught her to reject second-wave feminism's disdain for the feminine...but in fact, the book reads as if she had simply found someone who embodied that disdain for the feminine. And he embodied that disdain most obviously through his disdain for her.

I don't think Valdes' post really changes my reading of the book—though it does make that reading significantly more depressing. The fact that the abused often identify with their abusers isn't news, of course. Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman in Father-Daughter Incest (one of those second-wave feminist treatises Valdes says she's moved beyond) talk about how victims of incest often admire the "competence and power" of their fathers. The identification is part of the abuse—and, of course, enables it.

In comments on her post, Valdes insists that she still rejects the feminist ideology that prevented her from trusting men. She insists she still stands by her claim that "feminism stole my womanhood."

As I admitted in my review, there is something to the argument that feminism doesn't sufficiently respect femininity. But...good lord. Surely the answer to that is not abusive relationship as growth experience. Valdes's stereotype of feminism may not be right that all men can't be trusted, but clearly this asshole shouldn't have been. Can't there be some kind of reconciliation between feminism and femininity that doesn't involve women being terrorized by controlling, violent cowboys?

Perhaps it might be helpful, in this respect, to take our eyes off Valdes for a moment, and look instead at the cowboy himself. Valdes attached a brief video of him explaining himself to the end of her post. In it, he says that he is 53, that he has never been married, and that he's very comfortable being alone. As a result, he says, he doesn't need to be dating. At the conclusion of the video, he says of his relationship with Valdes:

If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. It doesn't have to work. So consequently maybe I wasn't willing to put up with as much.

On Twitter, writer Isaac Butler described these words as "terrifying," and I wouldn't disagree with that. Part of what is so unsettling about it, I think, is the way that it comes across as so adult and rational; so non-co-dependent, so reassuringly, normally, stereotypically male. He sounds independent, grown-up, and sure of himself—he doesn't need a relationship, but he knows what he wants in one. He's strong. He's a man. He's a cowboy.

And yet, as it turns out, the independence and reassuring manliness turns out to be a prelude to, and an excuse for, cruelty, and violence. For him, independence and empowerment mean not protection and equality, but sadism. His preferred method of emotional abuse—freezing her out and refusing to contact her or speak to her, or (in the book) locking himself in his room—is almost a parody of the stereotypical manly cowboy ethic. It would be funny, except that it isn't at all.

The point being that, if Valdes, is going to insist on the virtues of femininity, one place she might try to think about encouraging, or celebrating, those feminine virtues, is in men. The cowboy's lack of neediness, his strong independence, starts to look suspiciously like pathology—not least since Valdes reveals that the cowboy was abused as a child himself.

Normal people need other people. If that's feminine, then everybody should be feminine—just like if standing up for yourself is masculine, then everyone should be masculine. Valdes complains about emasculated modern men and manly women in The Feminist and the Cowboy...but of course, as it turns out, those weren't the problems in her relationship at all. On the contrary, a bit more manliness in her, and a bit more womanliness in him, seems like it would have left them both in a much better place overall.

That's a reductive shorthand, of course. In truth, masculinity doesn't have to mean abuser, and femininity doesn't have to mean abused. But maybe one way to make sure they don't mean those things is to see them less as norms particular people have to fulfill, and more as potential possibilities we all need, both for ourselves and for those we love.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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