I first became aware of my own Texanness in 1991, just a week shy of my thirteenth birthday. The present from my parents that year was a big one: a trip to the newly opened Space Camp in Florida, where I could fulfill my lifelong dream of pretending I had the fortitude to be an astronaut. Even more significantly, it would be the first week I’d ever spent away from home totally on my own. Launched into the loneliest reaches of the cosmos—a.k.a. a room at the Titusville Howard Johnson’s—I would be set adrift alongside other privileged nerds recruited from all across the country. I would return from this mission as a man.
It wasn’t that big a deal, as it turns out. The other campers I shared a room with also liked space, at least in theory. And we all loved TV, video games, and being disgusting, like most adolescent boys. We quickly formed the usual tenuous camp alliances, based on light pranking and constant mockery, and I settled in just fine—not the most popular kid, but also not the one whose luggage kept ending up on the balcony. I skirted under the radar, just happy to be included, until one night, right before lights out, when that teasing turned suddenly and mercilessly toward me.
“Do you live on a ranch?” the other boys wanted to know as they crowded around my bed. “Do you ride a horse to school?” “How many guns do you have?” They laughed, not even waiting for answers as they dredged up every Texas cliché they could recall. I found myself getting defensive, my face reddening. No, I didn’t ride a horse to school, I said. We owned two cars, and we lived in a normal house right outside of Dallas, one of the biggest cities in America. I mean, okay, my grandparents owned a ranch, and sure, we’d spend weekends down there sometimes. And yeah, we had some guns around—what else were you supposed to do on the ranch? But that didn’t mean I was some uncivilized hick. I tried playing it off, adopting an aloof disregard: the steely-eyed cowboy staring down the city slickers. But at that moment, I realized that these guys didn’t see me as particularly rugged or cool. My Texanness was just a joke to them. I felt like a cartoon.
Growing up in Texas, you’re taught by your community and by truck commercials to take inordinate pride in your heritage—to believe that Texans are inherently “Texas tough,” wild, and free. But eventually, you realize that your Texanness connotes certain other things to the larger world, and that these presumptions are not always flattering. Two years after my Space Camp awakening, I got another wake-up call when my favorite TV show at the time, The Simpsons, started taking its own digs at the people from my home state with a new recurring character in the town of Springfield. He was a boisterous, beer-bellied loudmouth, clad in a tan suit, a bolo tie, and a twenty-gallon white cowboy hat. The first word out of his mouth, as it would be in nearly all his appearances thereafter, was a lusty “Yeeehaw!” Usually he’d punctuate this by firing two guns indiscriminately into the air, doing a gleeful shuffle in his boots. His name was the Rich Texan, and across the next thirty-odd seasons of the show, he has remained pop culture’s most consistent, if most grotesque, reflection of how outsiders tend to see us.
Played by Chicagoan Dan Castellaneta, who also voices Homer, the Rich Texan is boorish, arrogant, and utterly shameless. In fact, the license plate on his white Cadillac Eldorado, which also sports Longhorn horns on the hood, reads “NO SHAME.” He believes seat belts are for “cowards,” and he breaks in a newly transplanted liver by ordering up a bottle of bourbon. To the Rich Texan, hundred dollar bills are mere “Texas pennies.” He’s got his meaty hands in all sorts of industries—logging, copper tubing, myriad “slums,” professional basketball teams—but most of his inexhaustible billions come, naturally, from drilling oil. Still, as he tells Bart and Lisa, the Rich Texan didn’t get into oil for the money. He genuinely loves the stuff, even keeping a miniature derrick in his office just so he can dance beneath the blowout. He also carries some around in a little can, which he uses to drench people while whooping, “Down in Houston, we call that a Fort Worth shampoo!”
The character is a little bit of T. Boone Pickens with a dash of Yosemite Sam, a good ol’ boy golem formed out of every sneering Texas stereotype ever bandied about in the popular imagination. But he’s also come to represent more than just our state’s particular cornpone quirks. The Rich Texan is an avatar for greed, a stand-in for all the most callous and self-serving extremes of American capitalism. In perhaps his most emblematic outing, the Rich Texan buys the rights to cut down Springfield’s oldest redwood tree, just so he can finally realize his dream of creating the world’s first drive-in humidor. Aside from oil and his guns, there is nothing the Rich Texan loves more than the destruction of natural resources or the suffering of others. “Goldarn it!” the Rich Texan once exclaimed. “I worked hard to ill-get those gains!”
There’s obviously some of Dallas’s J. R. Ewing in the Rich Texan, too, not to mention every ruthless, disgraceful Texas oilman character since Edna Ferber published Giant. Yet that venerable caricature took on a decidedly more political bent on The Simpsons. It’s worth noting that the Rich Texan debuted in 1993, not long after the premiere of Oliver Stone’s JFK. That film heavily implicated Lyndon Johnson as part of a secret coup to assassinate John F. Kennedy; it suggested that Texas was a sinister place, where wealthy, well-connected men not so secretly controlled the world through their cronyism and self-interested dealings. The Rich Texan was the merry apotheosis of that notion. In the character’s very first appearance, he offers Homer his hat, saying “I wore it the day Kennedy was shot, and it always brings me good luck.”
In 1994, not long after the Rich Texan’s arrival, George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards to become Texas governor, an election that heralded the GOP’s dominance here for decades to come. Texas became, almost irrevocably, a red state. To more liberal quarters, Texas also became the embodiment of every radically right-wing, anti-progressive attitude in the country. The year that Bush won the governorship, the Rich Texan officially settled into The Simpsons as a recurring character—this time as a prominent member of Springfield’s Republican Party Headquarters committee. Inside that shadowy cabal, the Rich Texan can be seen sitting alongside fellow conservatives like Dracula, dreaming up the next “act of unmitigated evil.” “What about this dang environment?” the Rich Texan offered in one typical meeting. “Back in Texas, we got rid of it, and it made everyone a lot happier!”
After Bush took the White House in 2000, the Rich Texan became overtly entwined with his presidency, the various controversies over which seemed to bring all those negative perceptions of Texans onto the world stage. The Simpsons used the Rich Texan to not so subtly satirize the goofier aspects of Bush’s persona, like his mangled pronunciation of the word “nuc-u-lar” and his secret origins in Connecticut. But even more broadly, the Rich Texan captured the growing perception that Bush and his team of oil-rich strongmen were a bunch of cartoon super-villains, recklessly firing their own guns into the ozone.
As Bush launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, threatening the Middle East with a lot of tough cowboy talk, it was all too easy to picture the Rich Texan as the joyful homunculus dancing and yeehaw-ing deep inside of his brain. His fossil fuel–protecting environmental record; the scandals swirling around Enron and Halliburton; a gubernatorial successor who made Bush look like William F. Buckley Jr.—the 2000s proved to be a boom time for anti-Texas sentiment, and the Rich Texan served as a convenient cartoon proxy for it all. He was stubborn, proud, and blithely unconcerned about the damage he caused. “You’re not listening!” Lisa, the show’s perpetually aggrieved progressive voice, once told him. “I never do!” the Rich Texan replied. “Yeeehaw!”
Was this a fair characterization of Texans? Not entirely. But then, Texas has, somewhat uniquely, often been made to answer for every ill that has plagued this country. As former Texas Monthly editor Erica Grieder suggests in her 2013 book Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas, this attitude took root in the 2000s, when coastal journalists who were sent here to make sense of the “Texas Miracle” of our supposedly recession-proof economy did so with great skepticism, filing reports that dripped with barely concealed contempt. Ultimately, their misgivings about Texas as an economic model for the nation might have been a little justified. But as Grieder points out, Texans have since been held accountable for everything from religious fanatics to gun violence to “stupidity in general” by those commentators. Meanwhile, the often-sneering tone of their reportage created “a widespread impression that Texas is corrupt, callous, racist, theocratic, stupid, belligerent, and, most of all, dangerous,” in a way that few other states have ever been smeared.
Let’s face it: that image hasn’t really changed much. Today, whenever Greg Abbott or Ted Cruz cowboy it up along the Mexican border, or Louie Gohmert waxes romantic about how oil pipelines are pure aphrodisiacs to Alaskan caribou, or Dan Patrick, you know, exists, the Rich Texan is probably the image that pops into the mind of your average New York Times subscriber. We’re routinely portrayed as egotistical and ignorant, blustering and backward—and frankly, Texas hasn’t done much to counter those negative stereotypes lately, what with its increasingly lenient gun laws, its Russian roulette gambles with fracking, or our lawmakers’ championing of some of the most radically far-right legislation in America. Still, even the reddest-blooded Texans among us would probably take umbrage at being reduced to just our politics, much like I didn’t love being painted as a horsefly-bitten hick all those years ago.
That said, I don’t believe the Rich Texan is due for his own The Problem With Apu–style reckoning anytime soon. For one thing, as a work of satire, the character is largely punching up. He paints us Texans as arrogant fools, yes, but at least he gets things done. You also can’t say the Rich Texan isn’t sort of ingratiating. Contrasted against Springfield’s far crustier billionaire, Mr. Burns, the Rich Texan is admirably, joyously alive. He believes in the twin Texas tenets of taking big risks and getting your hands dirty in a way that his “dried-up old apricot” foil doesn’t. Over time, The Simpsons has also allowed the Rich Texan to reveal himself to be far more sophisticated and sensitive than he appears. He loves a good book and long walks on the beach, he’s said. He collects Rembrandt (“No one knows art like a Texan with too much money!”), and he gives generously to charity. And when the Rich Texan finds out that his grandson is gay, he resolves to call and let him know that he still loves him. Even the Rich Texan’s manic gunplay, he once admitted, is just the unfortunate by-product of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Rich Texan has layers, just like you.
Those complexities are part of the joke, and it’s funny just to hear the Rich Texan wax suddenly philosophic in Dan Castellaneta’s snarling Southern drawl. But they also suggest that the Rich Texan is, for all his outsized evil, a decent guy at heart. He’s an apocalyptic force, sure, but one you’d love to grab a beer with sometime. In this, his character mirrors the duality of the modern, more self-conscious Texan in an unexpectedly profound way: we all have to contend with the cartoon versions of ourselves to square our unique individualities with these caricatures to which we’re so often reduced by the larger world. But the Rich Texan also gets it right in that, yeah, maybe we Texans are a little self-aggrandizing and shameless, but we don’t particularly dwell on what other people might think of us.
After all, once you become aware of your Texanness as something other people foist on you, that’s when you learn to accept it, to ignore it, and even to dial it up and down to your benefit. (How else do you think Bush and Perry got elected?) Most importantly, though, you learn to laugh at it. In 1997, I went to college in Boston, where my classmates were all predominantly East Coast art-school types. During our late-night dorm-room conversations, I sometimes faced those same joking inquiries from them that I got back when I was thirteen. Maybe they were updated slightly, with more references to King of the Hill, but they were still largely about guns, ranches, and regressive attitudes—still about seeing me as a two-dimensional sketch rather than as a person.
But this time, I didn’t get defensive. I laughed. I accepted the stereotypes, refuting my culpability in some, while also feeling secretly proud that my Texanness could evoke such strong feelings in others. Not every state can lay claim to this; a lot of people come from anonymous nowheres. What’s more, just as so many Texans have discovered throughout history, I realized there are advantages to being underestimated. So when it came time to choose an avatar for my university’s chat network, I chose a still of the Rich Texan—grin wide, pistols cocked. It didn’t represent me per se. But it spoke to some part of who I, as a Texan, will always be: misunderstood, often maligned, but ready to take on the world with both barrels blasting. Yeehaw.