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.

5 Responses to “MLaTPW Part I: Keepin’ it Real”

  1. Sharon Says:

    And another strategy to go along with this would be to carefully consider the projects she presents and think about if you’d like to do something similar. If so, where would it go in your personal priority list?

    As a heads up for people who like the clothes version of LessIsEnough, the SixItemsOrLess challenge is running again from mid November to Mid December. The idea is to wear six versatile items of clothing mixed and matched for a month.

    Exceptions are: undergarments, socks, shoes, swimwear, accessories, workout clothes, work issued uniforms, outerwear, pajamas.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    I always laugh at the clothes challenges, people trying to not spend money on clothes, because I really only have about six things to wear and almost all of them I got free at the Swap. That is really no challenge for me.

  3. Carrie Says:

    I recently found your site here and I am looking forward to “learning” some new tricks from some of the challenges you have. I really am interested in the dollar a day challenge and has had me thinking for a few days now on how to reduce my grocery expenses. Look forward to reading a lot more of the posts and catching up!

  4. Oldnovice Says:

    Sounds like The Pioneer Woman, as well as the sites that mock her, take the place of television soap operas, which seem to be dying now that most of the folks who watched them have the internet as asides in their lives.

    I understand the phenomenon as you’ve spelled it out. The sites critical of the “cult” site are just as “addictive” as the original. They can really turn into a time-suck, even worse than Facebook. Only way to break the habit is to stop visiting the sites and delete the bookmarks for them.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    When I was in line at the grocery store and saw a row of magazines at the checkout with headlines involving seemingly random series of verbs and first names (none of which I can remember right now, things like Jessica dumps Brad, you know what I’m talking about) and thought, “Am I supposed to know who these people are?” and then finally figured out that they were celebrities and reality TV stars, I realized that scripted daytime soap operas may be on their way out, but “soap operas” are hardly over, they’ve simply been replaced by celebrity life and “reality” shows.

    Definitely for me blogs are like tv shows, with storylines and characters and wanting to see what happens next. And for the most part the blogs themselves aren’t enough to hold my interest, unless there’s some kind of upstairs/downstairs thing. Like for instance there’s one blog I got sucked into because there was a very popular front end and also a personal blog on the back end that had a much smaller readership and provided interesting insight (for me at least) into what’s involved in running a successful blog. Or else if there’s some really compelling drama. (But not too much drama — train wrecks are all well and good, but not if you feel like the blogger is going out of his/her way to draw attention to his/her train wreck in an effort to attract readers. Then you just start to feel complicit in dysfunction, which feels icky.)

    The Pioneer Woman by itself wouldn’t be interesting to me, but the dueling pro-/anti- camps has its own drama that combines elements of team sports, soap operas, and reality shows. As well as looking in windows in the evening as you walk down the street, seeing people put dinner on the table and open the mail. Which is actually what I liked about reading blogs in the first place. Though there’s not a lot of that with Pioneer Woman, because it’s so staged — but sometimes when I’d be surfing following links I would end up in front of someone’s house like that, and would find it intriguing.

    Blogs that are written as a personal project, without much of a readership, can be fascinating, I think — like reading someone’s diary. But again, that’s definitely not what The Pioneer Woman is, so that’s not what’s interesting to me about that. Just the whole thing was interesting, but in a way that’s really hard to say why.

    I think she’s just a love-her or hate-her person — you think she’s a fun, funny writer who seems like a great person or you think she’s a fraud who is manipulating a gullible public and laughing all the way to the bank. She gets under your skin or she doesn’t. I don’t think it can be explained to someone who doesn’t see it.

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