Saturday, January 3, 2009

Texas Ranch House

While catching up on writing, I listened in on some of the tapes I had. One tape I watched was the Texas Ranch House, one of many of what I call 'history reality series' that were popular in the mid-2000s. As I watched this unfold, I am always astonished at the delusions of the participants, especially the women. What did they think it was going to be?

Life in the past was TOUGH. People had a little fun, but life was always about work. I think for many of us in the 20th and 21st centuries, our only concept of history is what we see in tv and in movies-usually fictionalized. 'Bonanza,' the popular tv western series that aired from 1959-1973, was notable for not having women as regulars on the show. I am guessing because it would have had to show the actual work these women had to do, which was routine and necessary, but not as cool as the Cartwright boys taking down cattle thieves or traveling to San Francisco for fun. 'Big Valley,' which aired from 1965-1969 wasn't that that much better, though at times Victoria Barkley showed that she did not mind getting her hands dirty when she needed to.

I thought is was interesting when one of the assessors who judged the progress of the group at the Texas Ranch House, noted that the women spent more time at the more interesting crafts, but not at the routine, unglamorous and necessary chores. A running theme I keep find as I watch many of these shows is that people underestimate how much work that went into simple living and when it came to household management, that was the exclusive domain of women. I often found it funny that there were men in those periods writing on how fragile women were, though they failed to consider how much muscle it takes to haul water, to get up and cook and clean and watch over gardens and keep accounts and be on hand to help out when needed-in addition to making home comfortable and welcoming AND raising the children.

I was really disgusted with the way the men treated the women on this show. Not so much because of the gender roles, but because the men seemed to treated the women in a way that not even the hierarchical, chauvinistic men of that era would have treated the women. I also felt that while the cowboys were correct in that they were essential to the ranch, they still worked for the ranch owner and his family. They were still hired help. The behaviour of the colonel in the early minutes of the series, was actually not that far off from how they would have been bossed. And sure, these are 21st century people essentially bringing 21st century experience to the project. However, they sign on to at least try to authentically portray life in a certain period and they needed to accept certain truths. One of them was that it was hard work all the time and the questioning orders thing so common to 21st century life did not exist in that period. You knew your place on the totem pole and if you didn't like it, you could leave, but there wasn't always a job waiting around the bend. Also word of mouth was quite strong and if you developed a reputation as someone who couldn't follow orders and was a troublemaker, your prospects were slimmer still.

The owner of the ranch made some key mistakes in judgment. The two largest ones having to do with his handling of two major incidents that dealt with the hired hands.

The first was the firing of the colonel. Granted if you make certain rules and establish consequences once they are broken, you must be prepared to follow through if the situation arises. I felt that Mr. Cooke, in haste to establish his authority, clearly fired the wrong man as subsequent episodes in this series showed. He let go of a man, who will he was not everyon'e pal, got things done and dealt fairly with the hired hands. He also knew where he was in the hierarchy and acted accordingly. I was surprised that he got into a fist fight with Nacho as I thought he was smarter than that. However, the more I saw of Nacho, the more I could understand how even someone with discipline, could be driven to take a poke at him. Nacho went onto make everyone miserable, even serving rancid food and no food to the hired hands. He also maintained unsanitary conditions in his kitchen. There was one exchange between Mrs. Cooke and Nacho concerning the kitchen, where if I had been there, Mr. Cooke would have had to break up another fight. I know that while he was talking over me, I would have made clear-he works for us and if I need to know what the cookhouse is like or need to assess their food stores, the only words out of his mouth I would want to hear are, "This way, ma'am." If, it was not appropriate for me to as a 19th century married woman to confront Nacho in this way, you better believe Mr. Cooke better be done there and let him know that it was his way or the high way. While hired hands and cooks could be hard to come by, they were not impossible to get. Mr. Cooke waited too long to dispense with Nacho and as a result allowed him to cause considerable damage to the running of the ranch.

The second mistake was in not trading the cattle for his hired hand. As the assessors concurred, Mr. Cooke should have given the head of cattle (the Comanche chief was actually not negotiating hard at all) and had them go out and find new cattle, which though tough was not impossible. By not trading for the hired hand, Cooke sent the message loud and clear to the others whose respect for him was already shaky, that they did not matter. The issue concerning this hired hand's horse was ridiculous. Another example of Cooke fighting the wrong battle. As I understood it, the hired hand, who happened to be the hostage of the Comanche, had already paid for his horse outright, so it belonged to him. When Mr. Cooke traded horses for his release, he had to understand that this situation happened more often than not and to say to a person, "well I'm going to take your horse as payment for your life" was really stupid and thoughtless. Then he threatens to beat this guy up if he takes the horse. I wondered where this vinegar was when other situations that required that came up. He not only lost the battle, but the war since the rest of the hired hands left in solidarity.

I've noticed that except for the 'Jane Austen dating club' show, there have not been any more reality shows produced or at least that have aired on PBS. Maybe many people realize that the past is the past and while it's good to know it and learn from it, going back to it knowing what we know now is often times a mistake.

I was not surprised when the assessors determined that the ranch would have failed.

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