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.)

8 Responses to “MLaTPW Part II: Reference Groups”

  1. JennNY Says:

    Great Post!! Exactly on target in regards to PW! :)
    Thank you!!

  2. Susan Says:

    Very thoughtful, insightful and well written. Yes, I came from the PWSux Forum. I’m glad that the individual posted your link. I had a good friend who said, “Americans constantly and consistently believe that they can always rise farther, get richer and achieve more when the reality is 90% never will.” Is it no wonder we don’t want to raise taxes on the rich? We might one day be rich. It seems that our culture of supposed self-sufficiency and achievement has created a people doomed to be unhappy because there will always be someone that has more or is better than us. Pioneer Woman’s management team didn’t just fall off the turnip truck yesterday, they have the American public pegged. It’s just a shame that our masses are so easy to predict and seem to display no depth or understanding of reality.
    Thank you for a good read. It gave me a break from cracking the whip over the heads of my staff – oh wait, I forgot that’s the Kardashians, Housewives of….., Pioneer Woman. I’m my staff and boy am I failing at getting anything done!!

  3. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, the Pioneer Woman and her team definitely hit the nail on the head — they’ve been able to make readers aspire to her life without making it seem out of reach. Though it sounds like the Lodge remodel went just a little bit too far, at that point a lot of people started to say “Hey, wait a minute…”. And then with the anti- sites, it just spread.

    It didn’t sound to me like the tv show went all that well (though I believe it’s coming back for more episodes in the spring?), so I’ll be interested to see how far this goes, if the empire can keep spreading or if it’s Napoleon heading into Russia.

    You’d like to think it wil be over soon, but at the same time, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. So who’s to say.

  4. Nancy G. Says:

    Great post.

    I read the Pioneer Woman for years and also felt betrayed when she finally “jumped the shark” with the lodge remodel and four star hotel tour. I continue to read it on occasion, but it honestly has become fairly boring due to all of the give-aways and contests.

    As a successful small business owner who blogs in her “spare” time, I found it incredible that she could do everything she portrays herself as doing. As you mentioned in the article above, to the point of feeling bad about myself. I don’t think that is her intention, nor do I think she is some sort of evil genius.

    Eventually I found my way over to PWS as well and was fascinated by the parody, which I found funny, but eventually this too lost its glow.

    The problem with the reference group you mention is that now it is much larger than it has ever been with the advent of bloggers, facebook & twitter. Even following twitter can be depressing at times because of the false level of perfection.

    I don’t know about the rest of the bloggers, but sometimes I have a bad day, a recipe fails or I feel fat. It would be nice to know that others feel the same way.

    Someone really needs to start “keeping it real” without the hate.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    @Nancy G

    I think one of the problems with “keepin it real” is how to do that without being whiny. Or talking about things that involve other people that they may or may not want everyone who has access to the internet to know about.

    It seems like one of the problems with blogging if you’re blogging about your life is that if you get really successful, your life becomes the blog, and then it is no longer interesting to blog about. Because the only thing you have time for is blogging, and that’s not what people come to read. So I think that’s sort of where P-Dub ended up, but instead of rolling with it and seeing how it plays out, she has tried to pretend that everything else in her life is just the same, and she’s still doing all these things herself, homeschooling and writing blog posts and cooking dinner. And that just doesn’t ring true.

    If you’re going to turn yourself into a Brand, you have to own it. You can’t do it an pretend it’s not happening, it just doesn’t work.

  6. Nancy G. Says:

    It is definitely a fine line. The general public doesn’t need to know about private or sensitive issues, but blogging CAN be done in a genuine way.

    Success brings its own set of challenges! How do you juggle, work, parenting, cooking, friends and husband?? Write about that!

    I read her blog because it was a pleasant diversion. Now it is just annoying because of the level of pretense.

  7. Sarah Says:

    Haven’t seen the PW blog and, well, don’t want to now. Growing up in a family that was just one generation away from a real farm and the UNromanticism of that (let me tell you about when my grandmother’s double wide didn’t have heat and the snowstorm of the century hit. . . ) I am not so easily fooled. I am, though, fooled by the middle class reference group without constant reminders to myself that it’s not all real. My husband sees the real balance sheets of those lives that look like the 90% but aren’t. We remind ourselves all the time that we are, in fact, rich because we have choices that don’t involve giving up necessities.

    BUT–I’m really posting this to remind you that next up was “what do when you find yourself thinking about what your life lacks” Was it really “make eggnog???”

    Happy New Year!

  8. lessisenough Says:

    Well egg nog will definitely make up for many things that are lacking in your life, it’s pretty darn good, but that wasn’t actually the post I was planning. The post I was planning will be worth the wait (hopefully…), but has not made it out of my head yet.

    The problem with not having an actual job and doing 18 different things all the time is that it’s really hard to get everything to stop at the same time, usually the best you can do is rotate around so you can try to focus on just one thing for at least a little while. But eventually the other things need your attention so you have to get back to it all and start juggling again.

    Christmas and New Year’s is the only time that pretty much everything stops at the same time. And I was enjoying the peace and quiet so much that I couldn’t bring myself to try to figure out a blog post. (Also I was working on a website project that needed my full attention, and I decided the post on gratitude would be a nice way to start the new year so I would hold off on it and start fresh for 2012.)

    So anyway… that’s what happened. Hope to be back in the swing of things soon.

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