‘Cowboys’ Offers a Compassionate, Timely, and Necessary Portrait of Both U.S. Trans Identity and Mental Illness

A still from 'Cowboys'. Troy (Steve Zahn) is pictured right, with his son, Joe (Sasha Knight) amongst a tree-filled wilderness background. Troy wears a tan open jacket with a plair shirt underneath, he is in his 40s and has chin-length dirty blonde hair and a full beard. Joe is a pre-teen, curly blonde hair and wearing a denim jacket with a padded gilet over, carrying a large green backpack.
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The American West has always captivated the camera lens in U.S. cinema, but over the years, film has also worked to dismantle and remake what it means to be a cowboy, and the 2021 film Cowboys is the newest installment in this tradition of revision. Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, the film follows a young trans boy named Joe (Sasha Knight) who finds support and affirmation from his father, Troy (Steve Zahn), but unacceptance and constant misgendering from his mother, Sally (Jillian Bell). The film starts in media res after Troy, who does not have custody, abducts Joe to take him through the Montana wilderness and across the border to Canada. Most of the film cuts back and forth between the journey narrative and flashbacks that reveal what lead up to Troy taking Joe. As one may guess, Troy’s choice has a lot to do with him wanting to help Joe escape transphobia.

Although the transgender community has gained much more visibility in the last few years, that visibility has met with a mix of acceptance and rejection in broader culture. Knowledge of important aspects of trans life such as pronoun-usage and medical transitioning, are more common now than ever before, but along with support has come attempts to further oppress and restrict trans people. In the U.S., trans folks continue to face legislation designed to deny access to correct bathrooms, life-affirming health care, and sports involvement (and by extension, sports scholarships). Last year, Elliot Page became one of the most famous celebrities to transition after already achieving success in Hollywood, but J. K. Rowling continues to perpetuate a rhetoric of transphobia. Despite conversations around trans people coming more to the forefront, there has been a lack of trans people on screen, particularly trans children despite them being one of the most vulnerable trans populations. Cowboys, then, becomes a crucial text for the emerging body of cinema telling the stories of trans people.

And the film does succeed in being crucial in its timeliness and commitment to affirming trans life. By casting Sasha Knight, a trans boy himself, Kerrigan commits to avoiding what some critics call “transface,” or casting a cisgender person to play a trans character. Knight gives a pensive performance, lending to Joe a position of keen observation as he watches and listens to what others do and say around him. Knight’s performance serves as a testament to how children must often process what adults say about them, not just to them, and how the political environments parents create have very personal repercussions on kids. Joe works to not only know himself as he is, but also understand the negative context he’s in—and one he shouldn’t have to be in. His father recognises the toxicity of this context, too, and takes radical steps to remove his son from it. Although the film does not draw explicit parallels to this, the fact that Troy and Joe are crossing the border to Canada echoes the Vietnam-era act of “draft-dodging.” If Joe is an unwilling child soldier conscripted into the cultural war over trans rights, Troy is trying his best to free his son from it. Cowboys, then, is a depiction of the complicated and seemingly-futile attempt to escape both a physical nation and the systemic oppression still rampant in it.

A still from 'Cowboys'. Troy (Steve Zahn) and his son Joe (Sasha Knight) are standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down over a lush, mountainous landscape, with a cloudy sky.
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Although Cowboys’ representation of a trans boy is necessary in our cultural moment, it’s important to remember that this is one story, one portrait of trans masculine identity, and not the only one. Cowboys leans into a gender presentation binary, suggesting that boys don’t wear pink, play with dolls, have long hair, or wear dresses. Although boys can and often do in fact do those things, it’s valid that Joe’s preferred and empowering gender presentation rejects these things in favor of more traditionally-masculine ways of presenting. This choice may be common for trans boys, but it shouldn’t be concretized as the only way to be a boy, trans or cis. This is Joe’s story, and a powerful one, but this film (and no one single film) can tell the story of every trans person—a fact that reveals how many more films we need about trans people in order to best represent the complexities and vibrancy of these communities. This is true, also, because Joe and the supporting cast of characters are all white and represent a U.S. working-class rural identity that does deserve consideration, but cannot fully reflect the intersectional experiences Black, Indigenous, or other trans boys of colour might face. Cowboys, then, shouldn’t be viewed as an educational tool to “explain” the U.S. trans experience in total, but it is a beautiful story about one boy’s process of striving to live in the world the way he wants to.

In addition to being a compelling portrait of U.S. trans identity, Cowboys presents a rare and sympathetic depiction of bipolar I disorder. As someone familiar with bipolar, I’m often disappointed with how film and television harshly depict the ways their bipolar characters interact socially (I was particularly disturbed by the opening of Midsommar in this regard). Because of this, I’m always looking for media texts that offer a complex representation of the illness that isn’t used as a vehicle for shock or suspense. Because Cowboys advertises itself as a film about trans identity, I was not at all expecting it to cover bipolar with such depth and sensitivity. Even as the film illustrates some of the possible painful struggles of bipolar and the social repercussions they can cause, it never demonises the person as inherently bad or undeserving of love. This film has the best representation of bipolar I’ve ever seen, and I was very moved by the empathetic care Kerrigan put into her script and the excellent, soulful performance she helped craft with the performer who plays this role.

Cowboys is truly one of the most compassionate, life-affirming films I’ve seen, and one that will benefit transgender and mentally ill people and allies alike. Kerrigan seems to deftly understand an important truth: we need to recognise and make visible the dangers and very real violence transphobia and ableism bring (and the film deserves a content warning for transphobia and violence against mentally ill people). Likewise, though, we need representations of trans and disabled joy, freedom, and self-actualisation. Instead of dooming trans and disabled communities to a future of perpetual misunderstanding and neglect and using their pain as pure spectacle, the film fosters a productive mood that invites us to engage with it in future-building. Premiering during a particularly difficult year for many trans and mentally ill people, Cowboys is a stubborn hand reaching out toward a piece of utopia and taking hold. This hopeful act of world-making, even more than the cinematography or careful editing, makes it a beautiful and worthwhile film.

Cowboys is available on Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download now

by Bishop V. Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

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