Rodeo Girls is built on a shaky foundation. The premise of the show, and most of its drama, rests on the shoulders of Darcy La Pier, who is introduced as one of the titular rodeo girls, coming to the sport of barrel-racing as a way to cope with her husband’s death.
But La Pier is not just a woman coming to rodeo—she’s an aging starlet of sorts, the kind Kim Kardashian might grow to be. She used to be married to the founder of Hawaiian Tropic, and after that, to Jean-Claude Van Damme, and after that, to the founder of another billion-dollar company, Herbalife. Her life, when she alludes to it in this show, sounds an artifact from VH1’s Behind The Music or E!’s True Hollywood Story—saturated with wealth, punctuated with tumultuous relationships, augmented with plastic surgery, derailed by recreational drug use. (Darcy’s last husband dies of cardiac arrest, the result of an accidental overdose.)
Throughout the first episode of Rodeo Girls, it’s increasingly obvious that this show was modeled around La Pier, though it’s never explicitly stated. She’s presented as just another character, the Hollywood racer with a lot of money and an attitude. A&E’s official site for Rodeo Girls doesn’t credit her as a producer or creator of the show. But IMDB has a comprehensive biography of La Pier, written by a New York PR firm, that names her as an executive producer of the show. Obviously. Because this isn’t really a show about rodeo girls—this is a show about Darcy La Pier launching a reality-television career for herself.
Ostensibly, Rodeo Girls is about five women who compete on the professional barrel-racing circuit, the only rodeo sport that women exclusively compete in. It’s a competitive, fascinating sport. The riders compete one at a time, racing around two standing barrels twice each (two figure-eights, essentially). Convincing the horses to pivot quickly and tightly, without knocking over the barrels, is hard enough; staying on the horse looks incredibly difficult. And never mind the arduous process of training these horses, which many of these women do themselves.
In fact, the only woman who doesn’t train her own horse is Darcy. Much is made of this. Much is made of almost everything in Darcy’s life, from her age to her romantic status to her children to her fabulous wealth. She bought the fastest horse on the market, Dash, to race in barrel-racing season—a horse so well known the other riders who are traveling with her recognize its name. Darcy is at the center of passive-aggressive sniping with the other characters, right from the start. It’s about the horse, mostly, but also about her shoddy riding skills. And about how long she takes to dress in the morning, with all her mascara and eyeliner. And about how the guy who asked her on a date is turned off by her when he discovers she has a 22-year-old daughter. (That guy immediately goes to hit on not one, but two of the other girls in the caravan. Bad form, bro.)
But here are the facts: The characters are piling on Darcy for her reprehensible, “Hollywood” ways—but she is their boss. No one is telling us she’s their boss, quite deliberately, which means that the other women on the show are piling on Darcy La Pier on her orders, or at least, with her tacit approval. La Pier’s performance on this “reality” show is designed to pigeonhole her into the type of woman audiences love to hate—the Kardashians and Real Housewives of the world. She is deliberately tearing herself down in a television show so she can achieve the dubious reward of notoriety.
To be fair, it’s not just her. This is a savvy media operation. She’s been packaged, and now she’s waiting to be bought, if audiences fall for it. She’s clearly not the only wealthy person to attempt to create fame for herself through such calculation. But it is remarkable that the way she’s choosing to pursue fame is not by rehabilitating her public image, but by tearing it down—in the hopes that it will draw more attention.
In short, a woman attempts to find fame by making herself look terrible on television. There is a sad story about feminism, here; not the least of which centers on the sexy, glamorous lives of the “rodeo girls” who wear bikinis to ride and make much of getting into bed with “cowboys.” It’s only a six-part series, but the drama is already good and hot; the script throws the characters into immediate friction with one another. Though ostensibly friends, the women on-screen have very few kind words to say about each other. Barb, Darcy’s “frenemy,” might have the strongest rooting in reality—she’s a former champion getting back into the circuit. The other women seem to be cast for their looks and how enthusiastically they’ll get into a screaming match. This is not sisterhood; this is proof that there are many women in the world who still don’t know how to be friends with other women. Darcy La Pier gives the distinct impression that she has never had a friend who is a woman in her life.
If we must contend with a genre of TV shows that are just vehicles for D-list fame—can’t we at least do it without the trappings of stereotyping and exploiting yet another American subculture? Rodeo girls aren’t well-served by Rodeo Girls, though to the show’s credit, it tries to demonstrate how difficult the sport can be. The culture of women in the American West has been reduced to cowboy hats and pink spurs. And while they’re all real pretty, there’s nothing nearly so simple about the rodeo circuit, an incredibly taxing, minimally rewarding endeavor for everyone except the biggest stars.
The problem is that, as far as the rules of reality television go, Rodeo Girls hits all the right notes. It sits at the intersection of just enough sincerity and just enough script, which made shows like Laguna Beach famous. But clearly, the show hasn’t done enough to hide its PR tracks. We’re Americans. We can take fame-whoring celebrities, but we do expect them to be honest about it.
Debuts: Wednesday, December 11, at 11 p.m. Eastern on A&E
Format: Hour-long reality series
Pilot watched for review