Leigh Clemons introduces her book, Branding Texas: Performing Culture in the Lone Star State, by asserting that she is “a Texan, born and raised” (xii). If posed the same question, most Texans would answer similarly. We, like Clemons, know that “being Texan” implies more than the geographic location of our birth. Branding Texas seeks to uncover exactly what this fervor-inducing Texan identity means, and as a proud citizen of the Lone Star State, I am drawn to Clemons’ research and compelled to comment.
Branding Texas concerns itself with the performance of Texan identity and the ways in which that identity is marketed for consumption. By interpreting the creation of cultural memory and performance-based pedagogy through “architectural, historical, behavioral, and political aspects” of Texan identity (121), the argument presented by Clemens is well grounded and accessible. Clemons “examines how theatre and other representational practices have helped to create and maintain a sense of ‘Texas’ as a distinct national and cultural identity more than 150 years after it ceased to be a separate nation” (vii). Several but not all of Clemons’ examples are historically rooted in the years Texas won its independence and survived as a nation (1836-45). These historical examples range from common tropes representational memory, like battle reenactments, to those in which more interpretation is needed, like the modern Tuna performances. She successfully explains how idealized notions of the revolutionary era, like bravery, sacrifice, and freedom (as well as “white” and “male”) became attached to the Texan identity and the Texas brand. Clemons, aware of the selective nature of a regional identity, airs the negative aspects of the Texan identity, particularly its exclusions based on race and gender, as well as the positive, such as pride in their superiority over an outsider that only selectivity can allow. She contends that it is the historically based significance of the state that creates a unified identity to be shared among its citizens and characterized repeatedly through media and theatrical representations. In her book, Clemons effectively analyzes the modern interpretation of the Texas Revolution myths by interrogating how they are performative of Texan cultural identity and regionality.
Chapter One begins its mapping of the Texan identity with the importance of “cultural memory… and its relationship to specific places” (14), literally the intersection of memory and monuments. Texas cultural memory is exemplified in the construction and care-taking of historical monuments. These tangible markers of history function to unify contemporary Texans by celebrating their heroic shared pasts. Clemons uses a variety of examples, from the Alamo to a cliff face in Palo Duro Canyon State Park to illustrate how these marked places become “geographic repositories” for the ceremonies, reenactments, and validations of shared histories that “become part of the performance of Texan-ness” (15). She argues that though these historical sites seem only to corroborate the one-sided narrative of Texan identity, they also authorize “performative engagement” and discussion about the connotation of their place in the Texan cultural identity. Unfortunately, Clemons ignores the importance that this engagement of historical interpretation, particularly the negative aspects of it, could mean for altering the Texan identity now or in the future. Instead, she pushes the reader towards the next chapter in which more historical performances are discussed.
Clemons builds on the construction of Texan cultural memory by examining performances of the Texas Revolution in historical ceremonies and contemporary battle reenactments. Noting the performances’ deliberately didactic approaches to history, her argument (that the construction of Texan identity is a purposeful one perpetuated and added to by each performance) becomes clearer. Heritage plays a part in many types of these revolutionary performances, particularly in historical pageants and dramas. The term Texan, usually associated with white male heroes like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, becomes a troubled issue in these historical event performances. These battle-based presentations cast the Mexicans as evil and/or stupid and exalt the white male Texans to mythic proportions, completely trampling over the complex situations and circumstances of the Tejanos, African-Americans, and women who contribute to the revolution.
Clemons tries to expand her argument by propelling the reader to the present, giving modern paradigms of Texan identity, insisting that is has, in some cases, maintained its exclusionary practices but also expelled them. However, most of Clemons examples of “authentic” Texans, like Preston Jones’ three plays in his Texas Trilogy, include performances of characters who only re-present Texas as “male” and “white.” The best example of her argument in this chapter is that of Hank Hill from the animated series King of the Hill, who though being white and male, is decidedly neither racist nor sexist. Clemons, having defined the role history played in the creation of the cultural identity of Texans and the performances associated with it, next highlights the edification of authentic Texan identity in representations of small-town Texas. From Texas Centennial Celebration to the plays of Horton Foote, Clemons finds “a matrix of complex behaviors that signifies something uniquely Texan” (90). These behaviors draw on an understood, historically-based Texan identity, and are forced to confront the difficulties of that identity (race, gender, freedom) or become trapped by the nostalgia of it.
The final chapter of Clemons’ book discusses how the “Texan brand” is used in current daily life. She states that the Texan brand is “a means by which the idea of Lone Star- the mainstream white male Texan- is created as a commodity” (95). Her most illuminating example of the use of the Texan brand in politics is that of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, specifically, how the conspicuous use of his Crawford ranch, costume, and drawl align him with the ideologies inherent in the Texan identity. Her thesis in this chapter legitimates the idea that the intended use of the Texan brand is to attribute the prodigies of the Texas Revolution, of the historical bravery and sacrifice of famous Texans, to a product, be it person or property. The use of this branding is not only restricted to selling votes and souvenirs; Texas repeatedly brands or is branded itself, by the actions of its own residents or opinions of outsiders, creating a palimpsest of national and cultural identity. Echoing this in the present she references the many cinematic and theatrical representations which sell “Texan.” These can be seen in the characterizations of Davy Crockett, good ol’ boy Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and, of course, 1990s television characters Walker, Texas Ranger and J.R. Ewing of Dallas. Though established in revolutionary myth, the Texan brand has evolved and been transformed to accommodate a myriad of products.
Leigh Clemons’ Branding Texas, though specific to one regional identity, adroitly maps the performance of identity that many scholars will find useful and Texas enthusiasts will find enlightening. Clemons book is not intended for the new scholar, but is a good resource for the academic pursuing regional, performance, or cultural studies. Though the specifics of her research may involve a lot of cowboys and cattle, the theories she engages to validate her argument are easily seen in these Texas examples. Clemons successfully explains the genesis of the Texan brand, its presence in historical sites and the performances that re-present and authenticate it.
— Emily Piepenbrink, Texas A&M University
Branding Texas: Performing Culture in the Lone Star State. By Leigh Clemons.
[Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008 | pp. viii + 173 | $40 (c)]