We’re Having a Cowboy Moment

When Navied Mahdavian, a cartoonist, and his wife, Emelie, a filmmaker, moved from San Francisco to Mackay, Idaho (population 473), they fixated on their new hometown’s theater. Or, rather, the ghost of a theater.

A red and white marquee for the Mackay Main Theater dominated part of Main Street, and Mr. and Ms. Mahdavian, who had moved in pursuit of a cheaper and less frantic way of life, resolved with other community members to reopen the cinema, which had been defunct for years.

Before the big reopening, one longtime town resident seemed less than enthusiastic about the plan, Mr. Mahdavian recalled, accusing the theater boosters of trying to import an “artsy-fartsy, social-justice-warrior” sensibility to the Idaho mountains.

“We’re actually showing a western,” Mr. Mahdavian said.

To which the resident replied: “John Wayne?”

Instead, the Mahdavians chose “Damsel,” a new-age western from 2018 featuring a heroine played by Mia Wasikowska, a wimpy male character and a masturbation scene. It didn’t go over all that well.

“We probably should’ve anticipated that the reaction in town would be mixed,” said Mr. Mahdavian, 38, who has chronicled his move to a rural area in the forthcoming book “This Country.”

By taking an active interest in the West of the American imagination — and the ever-evolving notions about what a western story can, or should, be — the Mahdavians are part of a larger movement.

“Every generation is going to interpret differently what it sees in the West,” said Richard Aquila, a historian and author of “The Sagebrush Trail.”Credit…Photo Illustration by Kim Hoeckele for The New York Times

Cowboys ride in and out of popular culture every few years, propelled by a hunger for stories that are wild, tumultuous and unvarnished. Now, as western style spreads across fashion and entertainment once more, that spirit of reinvention is being applied to reinvent the western itself, inflecting an old genre with new viewpoints.

Two cultural stars of the summer, Beyoncé and Barbie, have invoked western tropes. Beyoncé wore a disco cowboy hat tilted over her face and sat atop a silver horse in portraits promoting her Renaissance World Tour, the imagery reminiscent of an extraterrestrial cowgirl. Re-creations of the hat, for fans trying to mimic the look, have sold for over $100 on Etsy. “Barbie,” which has climbed to more than

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