Entertainment

'Coyote Ugly': Come for the Cowgirl Fashion, Leave for the Slut-Shaming Men

The biggest takeaways from the 2000 rom-com are dump your idiot boyfriend and dance on bars with your hot friends.
February 4, 2020, 3:03pm
Coyote Ugly
Credit: Getty
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You Had Me At Hell No dissects the toxic tropes and ridiculous relationship models of some of the most beloved rom-coms.

Every rom com aspires to have a moral—a big lesson the protagonist learns in the process of finding love, happiness, and, of course, him or herself. In the case of Coyote Ugly, our heroine Violet Sanford discovers that no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot fight the moonlight.

Released in the blessed year 2000, Coyote Ugly is based on the real East Village dive and its owner Liliana "Lil" Lovell. In 2012, Coyote bartender Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an essay in GQ about her experience working at the famed establishment alongside some of the hottest, meanest women in Manhattan, known to force men to suck tequila off their boots and encouraged to beat the living daylights out of anyone who dared order anything but whiskey. That story led to what would become Coyote Ugly the movie, and after that, 26 locations of Coyote Ugly Saloons worldwide.

The fictionalized plot of the film is a tale as old as time: A small town girl leaves home to chase her dream in the Big City. Here, it's guileless Violet (Piper Perabo) who leaves her sweet lug of a dad Bill (John Goodman) in New Jersey, to head a whole hour away to New York City, where she braves the chaotic, dangerous metropolis to fulfill her lifelong ambition of becoming a professional songwriter—if she can overcome her debilitating stage fright! Of course, there's a cute guy: the boyish Australian line cook Kevin (Adam Garcia), who pushes her to reach for the stars. But to survive in Manhattan, broke-as-hell Violet has to bartend at a raucous dive bar called Coyote Ugly. This requires a hoochie Western makeover montage (cowboy boots and bedazzled crop tops that say "Oklahoma" in rhinestones? Yes, bitch!) and shaking what the white people of South Amboy gave her while dancing on the bar to Don Henley records for a bunch of drunks. Innocent Violet's transformation into an "empowered" "bad girl"—to the chagrin of her disappointed dad and boyfriend—helps her realize that she has the chops to make it in the music industry. It all hits a happy crescendo when Violet overcomes her fears and performs her song "Can't Fight the Moonlight" at the famed Bowery Ballroom. And of course, when Violet achieves musical success, she and Kevin kiss.

Directed by David McNally and written by Gina Wendkos (The Princess Diaries, The Perfect Man) and Todd Graff ( Camp, Joyful Noise), Coyote Ugly was catnip for a teen like me, dreaming of the moment I could leave my hometown and do big things with my life. I blame Coyote Ugly for a rash of girls at my high school suddenly heading to homeroom in cowboy boots, super low-rise boot cut jeans, and embellished crop tops, (also coinciding with Madonna's cowgirl reinvention in her music video for "Don't Tell Me" that same year) . As a culture, we were unknowingly preparing for the brash patriotism of a post-9/11 world.

While Coyote Ugly celebrates the power women can gain in unleashing their sexuality, bright red sirens go off when it comes to the messaging from the men in Violet's life, who degrade her and lay the slut-shaming and body-policing on thick, giving the film an underlying message that women ultimately demean themselves through the choices they make with their bodies; these repercussions include costing them the affections of a "good guy," and imply that they must change their behavior in order to be worthy of love and respect.

Kevin is a sly rom-com love interest in his insidiousness. He's incredibly supportive of Violet's songwriting career, and initially finds it enticing that she works as a "coyote." Violet's a lady in the streets and a freak on the bar—a Madonna and whore in one. Sweet! That impression doesn't last long, though. He becomes frustrated by Violet relying too much on Coyote Ugly as a safe space that keeps her from leaving her comfort zone and performing as a singer—or so he says. When he gives away his prized possession (a rare copy of The Amazing Spider-Man issue #129—LOL) to get her a slot on an important songwriter's showcase and she doesn't show up because of work, Kevin comes to Coyote Ugly and punches a customer he perceives as getting too close to Violet. "They don't come to watch you sing. They come to watch girls shake it on a bar," he screams at her after he gets kicked out. Kevin implies that Violet has no dignity, and tells her she should "just unbutton the blouse a little, and unzip the pants, show a little flesh—I think you can figure it out," when she pushes back. The fight gets her fired.

If a man truly supports you and your work, he probably shouldn't also call you a hoe after getting you fired from your job, especially when he had no problem watching you work that butt before he locked it down. And after that nasty scene that leads to their breakup, she essentially has to win him back in the end. Him! The sexist, controlling, and condescending guy who got her fired from her job! Why have a woman gain confidence in herself through a sisterhood of scantily clad, tough-as-nails babes if we're going to reward her crap boyfriend for tearing her down?

Of course, there are some positive, vaguely feminist aspects that help Coyote Ugly stand out among its peers. It upends several tropes of the genre—Violet is a bartender and not, say, a magazine writer or baker; she's not "quirky" so much as she is painfully earnest; she finds power in her sexiness, though in true rom-com form, that bites her in the ass. There's an entire scene where former coyote Zöe (played with the campy dedication only Tyra Banks can deliver) visits the bar and leads a group-grinding to Kid Rock's "Cowboy," complete with a PG wet-T-shirt contest. The girls ostensibly have to work the rest of their shift while sopping wet, which can't be comfortable and would probably give you rashes, but they're having a killer time (and probably raking in the tips). When Violet's dad shows up and witnesses the whole scene, however, it sends her down a shame spiral.

Career girls on screen generally get punished for being too ambitious, once it becomes detrimental to their romantic relationships. For other examples, look no further than Reese Witherspoon's fashion designer Melanie in Sweet Home Alabama, Anne Hathaway's editorial assistant Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, or Sanaa Lathan's perfectionist accountant Kenya in Something New. But Violet finds support for her goals within her circle. In the end, it's not her winning Kevin's heart that makes us all cheer; it's that she made her dreams come true on her own terms. But because this is a romantic comedy, it's sold as her getting it all—the career and the guy. The road, however, is marked with ugly misogynist tropes. Kevin sucks. Violet should have let him and his little comic book kick rocks and celebrated her triumph by getting doused in Jack Daniels by all her hot friends while Detroit-based rap-rock plays.

Coyote Ugly can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE.com. She has been unsuccessful in fighting the moonlight.

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