Why does Gretel Ehrlich choose to use quotation marks when refuting the labels often given to cowboys?
"In our hellbent earnestness to romanticize the cowboy we've ironically disesteemed his true character. If he's "strong and silent" it's because there's probably no one to talk to. If he "rides away into the sunset" it's because he's been on horseback since four in the morning moving cattle and he's trying, fifteen hours later, to get home to his family. If he's "a rugged individualist" he's also part of a team: ranch work is teamwork and even the glorified open-range cowboys of the 1880s rode up and down the Chisholm Trail in the company of twenty or thirty other riders. Instead of the macho, trigger-happy man our culture has perversely wanted him to be, the cowboy is more apt to be convivial, quirky, and soft-hearted. To be "tough" on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power. More often than not, circumstances - like the colt he's riding or an unexpected blizzard - are overpowering him. It's not toughness but "toughing it out" that counts."
The use of quotation marks in a passage is normally to separate speech or quoted material from the narration or narrative proper. In fiction, dialogue is usually placed in quotation marks; in non-fiction, it is to differentiate between subject matter or keep individual points in context.
In this essay, Gretel Ehrlich, famous travel writer, explains how cliches and colloquial sayings are used out of context to give a romantic view of a certain type of person. To show how each expression can be taken in different ways, she places the expression itself in quotation marks, and uses it to begin the new contextual remark. For example:
If he "rides away into the sunset" it's because he's been on horseback since four in the morning moving cattle and he's trying, fifteen hours later, to get home to his family.
The expression "riding into the sunset" is usually used to show how a character returns to mystery or finishes his or her story. In reality, though, Ehrlich shows that the expression may have its origins in the hard and brutal life of cowhands in the Old West, who often had no help in their work. Waking up at dawn to feed and check out the animals, driving cattle to new grazing grounds, and generally keeping track of huge herds with so few people was exhausting, and "riding into the sunset" would be less of a romantic prospect than a relief that the day is over. The quotation marks in this sentence serve to highlight the expression, the cliche with which we are familiar with, and separate it from Ehrlich's more pragmatic explanation. This way, we can read the expression, understand the typical meaning, and then place it in context with the remainder of the explanation.