“I don’t want to be in the Annie Oakley skit! I want to be in the Calamity Jane skit! Calamity Jane! I want to BE Calamity Jane.”
As a kid in grade school, I was always well-behaved. Comments on my report cards often read like: “Works well with others. Team-player. Needs to pay closer attention to her spelling. ” But in the 4th grade, I gave my teacher a bit of a shock when I threw a tantrum of epic proportions over the end of the year grade musical.
Apparently, I thought Annie Oakley was a sissy because she wore a dress and was an exhibition sharp-shooter. Calamity Jane was a real cowgirl! A frontierswoman. A daredevil… She could out stalk, out draw, out ride any many in Deadwood City. She also had a really tiny waist and a fabulous buck-skin outfit.
I really liked her outfit.
I should mention that I got most of my education on Calamity from the Doris Day and Howard Keel movie, which I must have watched about 1,000 times.
Despite being the class’s Calamity Jane expert, my teacher refused to yield. The Annie Oakley skit needed someone who could “fiddle” and I was the only violinist in my grade who could read music. She appealed to my “take one for the team! We need you!” better side.
It helped that we were singing “Anything You Can Do” — the whole reason why I wanted to be a cowgirl was because only boys were supposed to grow up to be cow-people. I took the battle of the sexes seriously, even in the sandbox. #BornFeminist
My mother had bought me the Calamity Jane musical on VHS because it had been one of her favorite movies, but also because she liked that I wanted to be a cowgirl when I grew up (so did she… in many ways, she was a kind of frontierswoman, but her Wild West was the wild, untamed, male-dominated land of finance.) Where most kids would want to be doctors or lawyers, teachers or nurses (if you were a girl,) I wanted to heard cattle and shoot cans off fence posts. I took riding lessons and imagined one day moving west to run a dude ranch. Not surprisingly, my favorite Nickelodeon show was “Hey Dude” and I was almost always a cowgirl for Halloween. I have about 5 pairs of cowboy boots, and a stetson. Somethings, you just don’t outgrow…
My parents never discouraged me, which I appreciate. Because wanting to grow up to be a cowgirl was about more than building a home on the range…
Flash forward 20 years later, and I’m writing a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts, requesting funds to support an exhibition about female identity. The whole exhibition is held together by one large central piece, “Dust-Up” by New York artist Nancy Davidson.
Nancy is witty and whip-smart. We’d meet several months later, after I won the grant, to talk installation. There’s a generation between us, yet as we swapped Calamity Jane stories, it was clear how much a little girl in the 1950s shared with a girl in the 1980s. Every generation will have its glass ceiling, and the cowgirl will always be a symbol for how, with a little gumption and a good straight shot, we can kick up a little dust up and shatter any barrier.