The American West through Representations of the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup

Date

2019-05

Authors

Wilson, Sylvia

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Abstract

The Sweetwater Jaycees’ World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup includes a pageant; a carnival; community dances; guided hunts; bus tours of rattlesnake dens; a gun, coin and knife show; cook-offs; and a flea market, all in addition to the main event—the rattlesnake pits. As the rattlesnakes cycle through the coliseum, they are weighed, milked of their venom, draped over participants’ shoulders for photographs, and finally slaughtered. The Roundup is known globally for its provocative handling of rattlesnakes and resulting imagery which has positioned the event as a captivating subject for photography, film, and television. This project seeks to analyze the ways in which three media representations of the Roundup uphold, construct, and challenge myths of the American West. First, I examine Richard Avedon’s In the American West photography series which tells a story of American isolation, hopelessness, and frightening beauty as depicted in the faces of individuals he encountered at the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup. Next, I investigate the Simpsons’ “Whacking Day” episode, which was inspired by the Roundup in Sweetwater and uses parody to comment on issues of virility, groupthink, education, religion, and environmental justice in the West, and more broadly, rural, working-class America. Finally, I analyze the Miss Snake Charmer documentary, directed by Rachael Waxler and EmaLee Arroyo, as it depicts coming of age as a woman in the American West. In primarily focusing the film on the preparatory process for the pageant, rather than competition night itself, the documentary emphasizes the ways in which girls are molded into the “ideal” Western woman. Through this work, I investigate how a single event comes to serve as a tool for artists wishing to uphold, build upon, or challenge myths of the American West. Furthermore, as myths of the American West have come to define parts of American national identity, representations of the Rattlesnake Roundup not only sustain or dispute heritage narratives of the West, but of the United States more broadly.

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