By Wil Forbis
Discerning readers know that there’s a television program called “Portlandia” out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the city of Portland (duh!) and stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group, Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.
Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived for a short period in the town of Olympia, Washington. Olympia is where Sleater-Kinney formed. (I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk-rock activism generally associated with antiestablishmentarianism, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The music scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and thus was my enemy.
Actually, that’s not completely true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community and went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week. That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. This might seem a broad and unfair statement, but all I can say is you had to be there. If you take the current college campus culture of micro-aggressions and trigger warnings and put it on on steroids you might have a taste of Olympia in the 90s. So when I heard that Brownstein, an icon of that scene, was involved in a comedy show, I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.
Eventually, I did watch “Portlandia” and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL. Not only is “Portlandia” funny, it often seems to target the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals* that I detested in Olympia for comedic humiliation.
* I should note here that I’ve softened my hatred of these types and now concede that they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another article.
All that said, as I’ve continued to watch the show, I’ve had a harder time discerning what lies at “Portlandia’s” core. Is it mocking Portland’s uber-hipsters, or is it offering some kind of moral support? This thought was percolating in my head when I stumbled across the following article.
Feminist bookstore from ““Portlandia”” cuts ties with show
The bookstore In Other Words, featured on ““Portlandia”,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports.
The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”
The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.
“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN.
If you’ve seen the "Portlandia", you're familiar with the “feminist bookstore” sketches in which Armisen and Brownstein portray a pair of tightly wound and goofy feminists. When I heard that the real world store was rejecting the show, my first thought was, “What took them so long?” In my mind, the purpose of those sketches has always been to lampoon the ultra-stringent ethics of the feminist characters (and the super-politically correct subculture in Portland in general.)
However, I also thought that it was unlikely that Brownstein, one of the loudest voices for feminist rock, would engage simple caricature. Surely, I presumed, she had a different take on things. And, in fact, in an interview a few years ago with feminist magazine Bust, she talked about the feminist bookstore sketches.
“I think of those characters as superheroes,” she says. “Like, we somehow managed to make two feminists the most popular characters on our show.”
Later, when talking about “Portlandia” in general, she states:
So even though there’s a silliness to [our sketches] and it’s very pop culture, we also express a multidimensionality that feminism has always embraced, even though people have often tried to make the movement seem less than multidimensional. We show that humor can be part of it, and always has been.”
So how does one reconcile the view expressed by the real feminist bookstore owners (that the show is mocking them) with Brownstein’s take (that something more complex is going on?) Well, hold onto that thought.
With a bit more Google research I learned that the nature of “Portlandia’s” ethics had challenged further when Armisen and Brownstein appeared in an ad for clothing manufacturer Old Navy. To those committed to anti-corporate, progressive politics, this was high treason. Comments from this article on the subject, and this collection of Twitter reactions include such gems as…
Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.
Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, “Portlandia” wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein doing ads for Old Navy would be the exact antithesis of “Portlandia”, would it not?
Carrie Brownstein doing an ad for Old Navy is like seeing Bernie Sanders doing a Lehman Brothers commercial.
So we’re at a point where some portion of the punk movement from which Brownstein rose has turned its back on her. And, even though these are the very people I developed a distaste for in Olympia, I have to concede they may be right. The show has always, to my eye, mocked the PC-punkers, and the ad for Old Navy does seem a crassly commercial move.
Yet, there’s something about that assessment that doesn’t feel quite right. I do think “Portlandia” mocks the feminist bookstore characters, but, as Brownstein intimates in the Bust interview, the term “lovingly mocks” might be a better description. You don’t get the sense that there’s a real antagonism at work here.
The whole topic reminds me of an interview I read years ago with a Hawaiian comedian (who’s name I’ve forgotten.) I grew up in Hawaii and am aware that the comedy of the islands is very focused on race and ethnicity, in a way that most sensitive, mainland types would call racist. Native Hawaiians make fun of the Portuguese who make fun of the Vietnamese who make fun of the Japanese, etc. And everyone makes fun of haoles (white people.) The point the comedian interviewed made was that there are different ways of approaching ethic humor. One is simple-minded caricature wherein you dehumanize your target. Another way shows that the joke teller knows quite a bit about the culture of his target, and even has a certain affection for it. My sense is that this is where “Portlandia” is coming from with its feminist sketches. It’s saying, “we can make fun of this because we know this world; this is where we come from.”
Now, is that valid excuse? Clearly the real feminist bookstore owners don’t think so. And while I think there is something to this defense, I also admit there’s no clear line here. “Affectionate” humor can easily cross over and become real antagonism. It’s a bit like making fun of your crazy uncle on Thanksgiving. He might forgive a few insults, but if you carry it too far he’ll get rightfully angry.
It would be helpful if there were some commentary from Armisen or Brownstein on this subject. While I could understand if they felt hurt or disappointed by the negative reaction, I don’t see how they could be surprised. What was so frustrating about the ultra-PC hipsters in Olympia was their unsparing categorization, their quick placement of ideas and people (and entertainment products) into silos of good and bad with no room for nuance. That behavior is part and parcel of how such people operate and Brownstein must know this better than most.
Let’s also consider the complaint that Brownstein and Armisen have become “corporate shills” by appearing in the Old Navy ad. One obvious retort is that the pair is already enriching the pockets of corporations by having a television show. (Specifically The Independent Film Channel which airs the show and Netflix where I watch it.) The interwebs are filled with debates between punk rockers about the ethics of this sort of thing. Some demand total purity (which basically means working only for non-profit food co-ops), others acknowledge that one has to choose from available options. Since a socialist revolution isn’t happening anytime soon it could be argued that Armisen and Brownstein are simply doing the latter.
As it is, it’s difficult to arrive at a conclusion about all this. My ethics tend to be pretty forgiving: I never had a problem with “Portlandia” to begin with. But when one judges the through the eyes of a punk rock purist (as I would suspect Brownstein, if not Armisen, would) some fair questions are raised.