The cowboy is having a moment. He’s spent the year defining our fashion, our film, our music, and most quietly, our online conversations. But it’s not because of Lil Nas X’s chart-dominating “Old Town Road,” Red Dead Redemption II, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Kasey Musgraves or because my Instagram was filled with girls with fat asses in sparkling cowboy hats on Halloween.
No, we’re having a cowboy moment because of Japanese digital interface designer Shigetaka Kurita.
In 1999, Kurita developed the first set of emojis for Japanese mobile phone operator NTT Docomo — tiny images comprised of pixels on a grid for communicating expressions with limited space. Like the emoticons that preceded them, emoji could express concepts beyond simply the emotions they were designed to represent, and the language and usage of emojis evolved rapidly in the chatrooms of the era in which they were incorporated. But it wouldn’t be until nine years later, with their inclusion on the original iPhone, that they’d become, essentially, a new universal language — one whose meaning and context was constantly in flux.
We’ve now come to a point where emoji dictate contemporary discourse. Ninety-two percent of people online use emoji, and a third of them utilize emoji daily. Together, we’ve learned to express an astonishingly wide range of concepts and emotions through the limited range of symbols available to us, and one of those symbols — in the form of a smiling yellow face framed by a brown, wide-brimmed hat — is “cowboy.” And whether we consciously recognize it or not, it’s this beloved cowboy emoji — released in 2016 — that’s the signifier behind our contemporary yeehaw agenda.
What’s notable about this is that in America’s idealized vision of the cowboy, he’s never been much of a smiler. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to the Marlboro Man, the cowboy is an aggressive loner, his lined, scowling face a testament to the hardships he’s overcome through sheer grit and determination. So why, then, is the cowboy emoji such an exuberant figure? Why make this icon of Americana so distant to the actual pop culture of 20th-century America?
In all likelihood, because this version of the cowboy isn’t American at all. Although the cowboy emoji was only recently developed, Japanese subcultures have held a decades-long relationship with the mythic figure. After filming his documentary on how Japan re-imagines American pop culture, The Japanese Version, director Louis Alvarez wrote in a 1992 New York Times op-ed of his encounters with Japanese businessmen who dressed as American cowboys and rode horses they could catch with lassos. He told the men that it seemed unusual for Japanese culture, typically so group-centric, to be enamored with an archetype of solitude. Their response was surprising:
“‘You’re wrong,’ said the group’s leader, who went by the name of Doc Suzuki. ‘For us, the cowboy myth is all about working together. Cowboys are the people who worked the cattle drives. They got together around the campfire to solve problems. It’s all about teamwork.’”
Thus, it’s this group chat-friendly version of the cowboy that currently camps cheerily in our iPhone’s visual keyboard. The cowboy emoji, as the product of a Japanese vision of the American cowboy, is inherently social. He cannot possibly represent a lone ranger; his very existence depends upon being shared with others.
Because of this, the emoji has come to mean far more than just a literal cowboy. “Thanks to the cowboy hat’s popular associations with ‘yee-haw’ exuberance and Wild West sheriffs, the emoji can also express whimsy, confidence or adventure,” remarks emoji dictionary Emojipedia. And as per Dictionary.com, “More playfully, it can suggest someone is having a root-tootin’ good time or feels empowered, like a new sheriff in town.” It’s a symbol of excitement, one appropriate both in text conversations with your partner’s mom and in your group chat as you discuss your plans to get blackout drunk over the weekend together.
In some cases, of course, the cowboy emoji also refers ironically to sadness or regret. The “sad cowboy emoji” — which doesn’t actually exist in Unicode, but is frequently shared as an image, rather than an emoji proper — embodies this in the most obvious manner, but even the real, smiling cowboy is often used as a tongue-in-cheek indication of one’s disappointment. The top definition for the cowboy emoji on Urban Dictionary, in fact, states that it’s “used to describe your feeling when you’re happy on the outside but dying and over it on the inside.”
But it’s more versatile still. Other definitions from Urban Dictionary claim you can use the emoji for anything:
- the cowboy emoji is just like the best emoji. u can make it whatever u want.
- ‘hey sis ?’
- ‘ugh sister sad ?’
- ‘u look ugly ?’
- ‘how are you? ?’
- ‘i hate you ?’
- ‘i failed all my tests but it’s fine ?’
Given the ubiquity of the emoji across social discourse, it’s no surprise that its iconography has had such a strong impact on recent pop culture. In some ways, the popularity of “Old Town Road” and Western-themed fashion are simply reflections of the fact that the cowboy is constantly on our minds.
Plus, the cowboy has always been an icon of multitudinous meanings, and the cowboy emoji is the manifestation of them all: born in Japan as the representation of an American concept, dispersed through the world as an incarnation of the spirits we imagine upon it. When we use the emoji, we’re all participating in the group-centric ideology revered by Doc Suzuki and Japan’s homegrown herdsmen. The cowboy of today isn’t stoic and mysterious, a spectre of rugged individualism –– he just looks happy to be here.