MLaTPW Part II: Reference Groups

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

[Here are links to The Intro to and Part I of the My Life and The Pioneer Woman series. Which will be over soon, I promise.]

Aside from the fact that Ree Drummond talks about “Keepin’ It Real” then does nothing of the sort, a second problem I have with The Pioneer Woman relates to the concept of reference groups.

One of the books I read that changed how I look at the world is The Overspent American, by sociologist Juliet Schor (chapter one is posted on the New York Times Books page). The book was published in 1998, and much has changed with the economy since then, but I think the book remains valuable. One of the most important parts for me was her explanation of how people judge their level of success not in absolute terms but in relative terms — how am I doing in relation to the people I interact with. In sociological circles, this is called a person’s reference group.

She notes that in the past, people generally compared themselves to people they knew directly — friends, relatives, neighbors. But in recent years, reference groups have expanded to encompass not just real-life acquaintances and friends but also media figures. (In 1998, she was talking about characters in TV shows, though if she were to update it, I suspect she would include bloggers and other internet figures as well.) Most people are unaware of this dynamic, and if you ask them, they will deny feeling pressure to keep up with anyone. But in a comprehensive study on which much of the book is based, the effects are fairly clear.

The problem is that lifestyles presented on most television shows far exceed what is within the grasp of the average American. Hardly any shows portray typical American households — nor do advertisements, for even the most pedestrian of products. Practically every image you see is of an upper-middle-class household with a large house, new car, nice furniture, and fashionable clothes. Even in ads for toothpaste, or light bulbs.

Schor notes, “My research shows that the more TV a person watches, the more he or she spends. The likely explanation for the link between television and spending is that what we see on TV inflates our sense of what’s normal.”

Blogs have elements in common with tv shows — they have “characters” you follow, and you tune in on a regular basis to see what’s new. The Pioneer Woman is probably more like a television show than many blogs, because the life she portrays is so far removed from most readers’ everyday lives. It’s also romanticized. As Amanda Fortini notes in her May 2011 article in the New Yorker, the blog is “aspirational” — it’s designed to make people think about what it would be like to have a life like that. Or, as Fortini writes, Ree Drummond “is who her readers would be if they had more time, more money, a quiet life in the country, a professional teeth-bleaching, or the support of a laconic cowboy husband.”

Ree, in her guise as The Pioneer Woman, focuses almost entirely on the positive in her blog. She might complain about piles of laundry and having to get up in the wee hours of the morning to “rustle cows,” but even those elements are presented as part of what her detractors refer to as a “rainbows and unicorns” world. Fortini sums it up succinctly: “Whole continents of contemporary worry go unmentioned: this is a universe free from credit-card debt, toxins, ‘work-life balance,’ and marital strife.”

At the same time, with the lil ol’ ranch wife/keepin’ it real angle, The Pioneer Woman is working to plant herself firmly as part of the average American’s reference group, in a much more direct and personal way than TV shows do — she is literally presenting herself as “one of us.” She also uses product giveaways as a means of driving traffic to her website, which provides an even more direct link between her blog, her lifestyle, and consumption.

In the same way that Friends set out the idea that you could work in a coffee shop and live in a killer apartment in Manhattan with great clothes and fabulous hair; and that Sex and the City sent the message that you could support a lifestyle filled with restaurant meals, late-night clubbing, and really expensive shoes by writing the occasional newspaper column; The Pioneer Woman sends the message you can work all day taking care of your family, write chirpy blog posts and Photoshop images to within an inch of their lives, while at the same time maintaining spotless Le Creuset cookware, a commercial-grade kitchen, and a closet filled with endless flowy tops.

The difference is that Friends and Sex and the City didn’t present themselves as documentaries. And the characters didn’t tell you that they got where they did by starting a little project in their spare time, in between homeschooling the kids and cooking dinner for their chaps-clad husband who makes their hiney tingle.

So in that way, I think The Pioneer Woman is actually more dangerous than Friends or Sex and the City. It makes people compare their actual life — filled with problems and frustrations and tedium and not enough money and recipes that don’t turn out right — to a life where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and the skies are not cloudy all day.

But unless you married into a family of wealthy landowners, have a guest house that you remodeled to include a TV studio kitchen, and make a million dollars a year from advertising on your blog, The Pioneer Woman is not part of your reference group.

Escapism is fine, but don’t compare your life to those you see or read about — your life is yours. For better or for worse.

Next up, advice on what do when you find yourself thinking about what your life lacks. (There’s an answer, really, there is! And it doesn’t involve getting leftover flowy tops from Ree Drummond’s closet.)

MLaTPW Part I: Keepin’ it Real

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

[Note: For anyone who missed the first installment, MLaTPW stands for My Life and The Pioneer Woman.]

A friend of mine was housesitting over Labor Day weekend for someone whose apartment building has a rooftop patio; the friend that she was housesitting for told her she should have people over and use it, so my friend had a little dinner party on the rooftop. It was lovely.

This was right when PWS had gone offline, and I was in the midst of my Pioneer Woman obsession. I was trying to explain the phenomenon to my friend and she totally wasn’t getting it. I would try to explain what the deal was but she just kept saying, “Right, I see that, but who cares?”

So we were sitting on the lovely rooftop drinking lovely cocktails and getting into this very heated discussion, me trying to explain what the problem was and my friend saying over and over again, who cares, WHO CARES.

In the passion of the discussion, I managed to lose sight of the fact that I wasn’t actually obsessed with The Pioneer Woman, I was obsessed with the people making fun of The Pioneer Woman, and the reason I had become obsessed with that was because it made me laugh.

Once we got that cleared up, I tried to see if I could come up with a better explanation of why I thought it mattered. Because I do actually think it matters.

The Pioneer Woman phenomenon is interesting to me from a number of different angles, including feminism/homemaking (feminist food studies), the corporate commodification of homemaking, and consumerism. Some of which are touched on in an interesting way in this essay which I ran across at some point when I was indulging my obsession. These are all things I’ve been reading about and thinking about for a while now, and it all kind of comes together in The Pioneer Woman.

(There’s also the million-dollar a year blog angle, which is what got me looking at it in the first place, as well as the cult phenomenon, and something of a “Queen Bees and Wannabees” element that I also find intriguing. So just generally a lot going on.)

A little background, for any of you out there who have missed the Pioneer Woman bandwagon and who don’t want to have to go look at her site to figure out what the deal is.

The Pioneer Woman is the online blogging persona of Ree Drummond, a ranch wife in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, who takes photos of and writes about her day-to-day life caring for her husband and four children, including cooking, housekeeping, working the ranch, and homeschooling the kids. She likes to talk about “Keepin’ It Real.” She has had at least three books on the Amazon and/or New York Times bestseller lists, including a children’s book (Charlie the Ranch Dog), a cookbook (The Pioneer Woman Cooks), and a memoir (Black Heels to Tractor Wheels).

She began blogging in 2006, purportedly as a way to keep in touch with her family and to talk about her life, showing pictures of her kids and telling stories about them and the things going on at the ranch. (In other words, for all of the reasons that every other so-called Mommy Blogger started blogging.)

She writes in a down-home style, with catch phrases like “Help me, Rhonda!” (random aside: on one of the anti-PW sites, I saw a comment posted under the name “I’m Rhonda and I’m here to help” – love it!) and “Love you more than my luggage” scattered throughout her posts. She has a cult-like following — and I mean that in the most literal sense — and her blog reportedly generates upwards of a million dollars a year in advertising revenue. In September, The Pioneer Woman show debuted on the Food Network.

The “hater” sites like Pioneer Woman Sux, The Marlboro Woman, and Pie Near Woman seek to show the “truth” behind TPW, highlight the inconsistencies in the brand (she homeschools her kids and works cattle while travelling around the country doing book tours and staying in luxury hotels? she serves Krispy Kreme doughnuts that were heated at 300 degrees for 10 minutes? Really?), and parody her writing (which honestly sometimes almost parodies itself, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel). They in turn have developed their own cult-like followings.

For the premier of the FN show, there were dueling Tweetchats between #teamree and #pioneerwomansux.

Okay, so there’s the background.

I am definitely not on #teamree. I spent about five minutes on the site and could sort of see why some people might like it, but it didn’t do much for me personally. I did however find the anti- sites oddly compelling.

This is what led to the many conversations about The Pioneer Woman, which led people to ask me who cares, what does it matter, which I am now attempting to answer in this series of blog posts.

I started by saying it matters because she presents herself as something she’s not. She has a tagline of “keepin’ it real” but it’s not real — she’s not just a ranch wife who homeschools her kids and runs a little ol’ blog on the side. She’s a Brand, a carefully constructed corporate image designed specifically to sell advertising.

They said so what, welcome to America. Who cares? It’s like Martha Stewart, do you think she does that all herself?

I said it’s not the same. Martha Stewart didn’t create a media empire pretending to be just like you and me. Martha Stewart has always been aspirational, and Martha Stewart is clearly a Brand, she is clearly selling an idea of a lifestyle — buy my products and you can be like me.

Like Martha Stewart, The Pioneer Woman is a Brand, but her blog continues to be written as if it were by a person writing about her life. This is inherently deceptive. It’s like Lonely Girl — it was a good story, interesting and entertaining, but it wasn’t what it said it was.

Some people have continued to argue that this doesn’t matter, that constructing an ongoing, elaborate fantasy and calling it reality is harmless. But the reason I think it’s bad is because it makes people feel bad about themselves, about their lives, about what they can accomplish in the hours they have available. And it’s true that people who feel bad can just stop reading — which certainly many have done. But one of the things that inspires such passion in the anti- sites is that they are filled with people who used to follow TPW but eventually realized that something wasn’t right. They want to make sure other people have all of the information they need to come to that conclusion, possibly a little sooner than they did. The same way that if you had been in a cult, you would want other people to know that it was a cult.

Here’s one of my favorite comments from PWS:

Thank fracking God — I’m not crazy. For months I kept wondering, “Doesn’t anyone else smell something weird here? Am I just some jaded bitch while everyone around me is as perfect as this blogging megastar? Page after page, post after post, there’s never a whiff of a negative comment. WTF’s wrong with me??” There may indeed be many things wrong with me, but at least I’m not crazy. Thanks to PWS, MW, and PNW for loudly demonstrating that.

This is why there are so many searches along the lines of “Pioneer Woman not what she appears.” And why I think there is value in the sites that expose the reality behind the fantasy.

In the end, the bottom line for me is this: I feel like it is dangerous in the way that presenting Photoshopped images of supermodels in magazines is dangerous — it makes people want to be something that not only could they not be, but that no one could ever be, because it isn’t real.

If you want to read The Pioneer Woman and participate in the product giveaways, and imagine your life as an Oklahoma ranch wife, and think about how wonderful Ree Drummond is for doing everything she does in the same 24 hours a day that you have, that’s totally fine, as long as you recognize that reading The Pioneer Woman is like reading the Pottery Barn catalog.

It’s not real.

Next up: The Pioneer Woman as Reference Group.

My Life and The Pioneer Woman

Monday, November 14, 2011

[Ed. note: this is an intro piece I wrote which turned into a short series on My Life and the Pioneer Woman. Here are direct links to Part I: Keepin’ It Real, Part II: Reference Groups, and Part III: Gratitude.]


So I wrote a post in May after reading about The Pioneer Woman in the New Yorker. It was not a thoughtful, considered post, it was a hmm what can I do right now instead of doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now kind of post. Less than a week later, the roof came down and my life was chaos for a while.

Eventually I got back to my regular work and was looking for procrastination options and got sucked into checking on Pioneer Woman Sux every night. I really couldn’t have cared less about The Pioneer Woman, but I do love me some good parody, and PWS was often hilarious, and even when the post didn’t do much for me, the comments were almost always entertaining.

PWS went offline in September and I had a moment of panic, and then it came back but not really, it looks like they’ve gone underground and are handling things through the forums, which I am really trying to avoid getting sucked into.

Some time around when all of this was happening, a new little graph appeared in my WordPress header. My general strategy on this blog is to pretend that no one actually reads it (except my mom, who often comments on things I’ve written, and it’s probably best that I not forget that my mom reads my blog) and I’d like to not be disabused of that notion, so anything involving statistics or tips on how to get more readers is really something I try to avoid. So I ignored the little graph for a few days but it kept changing and it started to bug me not knowing what it was. So I went to my dashboard to see if there was anything there that would tell me what was going on and there’s all kinds of stuff on the dashboard that really I’d prefer to be ignoring.

But while I was there looking at the dashboard, I saw the list of search terms that led people to my blog, and was struck by the fact that a substantial number of them were related to Pioneer Woman. This seemed very odd to me as at that point I had written exactly one (1) post relating to The Pioneer Woman.

Eventually I figured out what the little graph was and moved on to other things and didn’t think about it much more, until Pioneer Woman Sux went offline and I was doing some searches to figure out what was going on and when I searched for Pioneer Woman Sux, I discovered that my post from May was the fourth hit on Google, after two links to the actual Pioneer Woman Sux site and one to a post from The Marlboro Woman.

I have no idea how this is possible. I think I must be some kind of SEO savant.

And I realized that would explain the many people ending up on my site with Pioneer Woman-related searches. Which I will actually include here because I think it’s kind of funny to see what people were searching for.

pioneer woman sux
the pioneer woman sux
pioneer woman
new yorker pioneer woman
pioneer woman sux blog
the marlboro woman and the pioneer woman sux
pioneer woman not as appears
pioneerwoman sux
pioneer woman
who is pioneer woman sux
pioneer woman cooking show sucks
pioneer woman new yorker
how the pioneer woman got started
pioneer woman new yorker magazine
what happened to pioneer woman sux
pioneer woman sux forum
comments on pioneer woamn sux
pioneer women sux author
why pioneer woman sux
pioneer woman too much oil
wordpress theme which looks like pioneer woman
pioneer womand sux

(My favorite is definitely “pioneer woman too much oil” — I think this post might be what you’re looking for, whoever searched for that. And “pioneer woman not as appears” is also a winner.)

Of the views resulting from searches for the time period reviewed (I don’t remember what the time period was, 7 days? 30 days? I have no idea), 140 of them were from searches relating to Pioneer Woman and 80 were for every other search term anyone used to find anything on my site. That means that the one Pioneer Woman post I wrote resulted in almost twice as many hits as everything else I’ve ever written here.

I was like dang, I should be writing about the Pioneer Woman every day. (But then I remembered that I would like to pretend that no one actually reads this so I decided that was a bad idea.)

Because I was spending so much time on Pioneer Woman Sux, and because I found the whole thing interesting for a bunch of different reasons, I was talking about it a lot. None of my friends read blogs, no one I talked to had ever heard of The Pioneer Woman, and no one could figure out why in the world I was at all interested in it. And let me tell you, they all got pretty sick of it pretty quickly. But do I ever let a little thing like what people are interested in talking about get in the way of my talking about what I want to talk about? No. I do not.

As a result of some of those conversations, I ended up writing some extended expositions on, as one of my friends wondered, where the vitriol comes from, and also on why I thought it mattered. And I was going to wrap them up and post them but then I had Scrap fundraising and then my work recurred, so all of it went back into the box.

This past Friday, I was out with some friends and they were talking about something on the Food Network so I asked if they’d seen the Pioneer Woman show (I have not seen it and have yet to find anyone who has, most of the reviews I read were pretty brutal) and my friend said she had never heard of the Pioneer Woman until she bought a book for her three-year old that turned out to be by Ree Drummond, who the book said was The Pioneer Woman, and my friend said she wondered who that even was and what the deal was.

I’m pretty sure they regretted getting me started on that topic.

And all of that made me look at the post I wrote earlier about why I think it matters and I had a short version of this intro with that longer post, but then I decided to write the intro as its own post to say where it all came from and I’ll put up the part that actually says something separately.

So there you have it. Exposition on The Pioneer Woman coming up this week, betcha can’t wait.

Food Stamp Challenge Clarification

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Okay I just want to clarify that the Food Stamp Challenge posts that I’m writing are not geared towards people who are actually in the SNAP program. People who are in the SNAP program have many challenges in their lives and generally have a tough hill to climb. They are doing the best they can in the midst of difficult circumstances.

The posts I’m writing about shopping for less are for the people who were pretending for a week to be part of the program, in an effort to experience what poverty is like.

I believe that the amount of money they had to work with ($31.50 for the week) is perfectly adequate for a healthy, gainfully employed person with a functioning kitchen and a car to eat well without much effort.

Not everyone in the SNAP program is healthy or has reliable transportation or a functioning kitchen. I recognize that and, as I just said, that’s not who I’m writing for.

I don’t think it’s possible to experience poverty by trying to eat for $31.50 a week. No matter what happens with your food this week, you are not poor. You have an education and an income and a safe place to live.

For whatever reason, these kinds of projects get under my skin. And I feel compelled to explain how you can eat for $31.50 a week.

So that’s what I’m doing.

For My Food Stamp Challenge Friends

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hey! I heard you’re having a tough time trying to get food for the week with $31.50, thought I’d send some love and a little recipe to see if this helps.

You can do it, I know you can!

I’m not going to do your whole week for you, you should plan on going to the store more than usual this week. You don’t want to spend all your money at once. I’ll send some other suggestions later, but for now here’s what you can buy for dinner for two nights, with a little left over for later.

1 lb pasta ($0.99)
8 oz mushrooms ($1.99)
1 green pepper ($0.84)
1 onion ($0.75) [est. – I already had an onion, not sure what the going rate is these days]
1 can crushed tomatoes ($1.99)

(Those prices are from Whole Foods, and the tomatoes were organic; you might be able to get things for less where you are.)

If you are allowed to use oils and spices from home, then you will be using olive oil and basil and oregano that you already have.

If you are not allowed to use oils and spices from home, then you should buy tomatoes with Italian spices already in them and either buy some olive oil, if you can get a small bottle for not very much, or buy some bacon. If you’re somewhere with a butcher counter where you can get a quarter pound of bacon, that’s probably going to be cheaper. (At the Whole Foods where I shop, you can get a quarter pound of bacon for $1.50).

Total cost (excluding fat): $6.56

When you’re ready to eat, chop up the onion and heat a saucepan with olive oil (two tablespoons or so), or cook a couple pieces of bacon to get some fat.

Put most of the chopped onion (three-quarters or so) in the pan with the heated fat, along with some oregano and basil. When it’s soft and translucent, add the crushed tomatoes along with some pepper and (if needed) salt — if you used low-sodium tomatoes you’ll have to add salt, otherwise they’re probably plenty salty without adding anything. (You can also add garlic if you have it, and you might want to put in a little bit of sugar depending on how acidic the tomatoes are; I didn’t use any, but you should taste it and see.) Let the sauce come to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer.

Put on some water to boil for cooking the pasta.

Chop the green pepper and slice up half of the mushrooms. Put some fat into a frying pan, then add the remaining quarter of the chopped onion. When that’s soft and translucent, add the green peppers, cook for a minute or two until they’re softened, then add the mushrooms. When that seems about right, soft but not mushy, take it off the heat.

When your water is boiling, add a few ounces of pasta — the amount depends on how big you are, how hungry you are, if you’re trying to lose weight, and/or if you’re trying to ration pasta. I cooked three ounces last night and that was just right for me.

When the pasta is cooked to your liking, put it in a dish with half of the green pepper/mushroom mixture on top, and half a cup of the tomato sauce on top of that.

Mix it all up and eat.


Tomorrow, cook another round of pasta, and heat up the leftover green pepper/mushroom mixture along with half a cup of tomato sauce. Same meal, no muss no fuss. Still yummy.

After you’re done with those two meals, you’ll have maybe a cup and a half of pasta sauce remaining, along with 8+ ounces of pasta and half a pound of mushrooms. You can use those later in the week, or you can save for later. (Don’t worry, I’ll send some more ideas if you’re still stuck.)

Hope that helps. Let me know if you have any questions.

Food Stamp Challenge 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

$4.50 a day … come on people, you can do this!

Here are a few links for this year’s challenge:

San Jose Mercury News
Washington Post Faith
CBS San Francisco

(I’ll try to look for better links on that, I think some of those are lame, was trying to get something up quickly.)

I will be interested to see if it seems like anyone learns anything. I’m afraid that usually they don’t.

Best of luck to all participants!

(And coming soon … a reward for your patience … what one of my friends referred to as “the best thing I’ve ever eaten” after taking a bite. Not cheap, not easy, but how can I not post? Recipe coming up soon.)