Backdrop addresses cowboy by Margaret Atwood
The male hero could be said to be portrayed in Atwood’s poem “Backdrop addresses cowboy” by the cowboy. The cowboy is a clichéd symbol of masculinity made famous by the Western film industry of America. One can immediately conjure him up, square-jawed and handsomely rugged in Stetson and spurred boots, galloping around on his trusty steed rescuing damsels in distress with whom he intends on riding off romantically into the sunset with. This is however not the cowboy that we are confronted with in the poem.
In the first stanza he is described as “starspangled” and “porcelain” which are both terms for decoration or ornament. That his grin is porcelain in line 4 shows fixedness, like a doll with a forever empty smile. This fakeness of his smile is encouraged by the assonance in “porcelain” and “grin” which seems to make the statement sound ironic which in turn makes the reader doubt the validity of that smile. This irony is enforced in the whole first stanza with the repetition of the “s” sound which begins with the alliteration on the words starspangled, sauntering, silly and continues with the words west, porcelain, cactus, wheels and string. It also brings to mind a child’s toys or games, making the cowboy seem childish, the opposite of manly which is what one would expect a hero to be. The reader is made aware that he is not a real cowboy by the title as a backdrop is a fake background for use in movies and theatre. Further theatre or movie contrivances are mentioned such as “papier-mâché cactus” in line 5 and “cardboard storefront” in line 21 which could be stage props. If his world is a stage then his existence too is fictional.
However he, or the idea of him, no matter how superficial, still seems dangerous and wildly violent. Lines 7 and 8 stand on their own and are quite different from the childlike image of the decorative cowboy who tows his fake cactus behind him on a string in stanza one. Here he is...
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