MLaTPW Part II: Reference Groups
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
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.)