Having grown up on a farm and now living in a cosmopolitan urban area, I am sensitive to media images depicting both rural and urban life. As a child, I always felt a certain mistrust of urban life, a certain sense of disdain for what I perceived to be a lack of responsibility on the part of urban dwellers. A very clear us/them dichotomy existed in my mind and I am not sure if that was an organic creation of my own brain because of my lack of experience or because it was an embedded part of my family and community culture. Regardless, I knew from a young age that the way I grew up was different from most people in the state and the country. In fact, that way of life is for fewer and fewer families and children as the number of family farms continues to decline in the face of competition from large-scale operations, commercial farming, and corporate interests. After moving from tiny Alden, MN, population 652, to Sioux Falls, SD, population 142,396, to the Twin Cities metro, population 2.82 million, I have grown extremely interested in the way rural and urban life are portrayed in the popular media. For this assignment, I will explore specifically the way farm/rural life is portrayed.
The first time I remember noticing a media portrayal of farm life was about 5 years ago in an allergy medication commercial. The ad portrayed a young, urban professional and his equally young, urban, and professional significant other visiting the man’s parents at his childhood home—which happened to be a farm. The young adults were dressed in contemporary, stylish clothes, while the man’s parents—the farmer and his wife—were in faded, well-worn, decades-old clothing. The farmer wore a plaid flannel shirt with denim overalls and a mesh farmer’s cap while the wife was in an old polyester dress with nylons, a cardigan, and homespun apron. The ad went on to portray a very pastoral, quaint, simple, uncomplicated, even unsophisticated, way of life: chickens pecking the ground in the barnyard, an old red open-cab tractor (circa 1930s), people sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs shucking fresh garden peas. Similarly, the 2006 film adaptation of the book Charlotte’s Web portrays a similarly simple, wholesome, slow-paced way of living. Other depictions show farmers and rural ways of living as backwards, unsophisticated, red-necked, kitschy, or frozen in time with a 50’s-era sentimentality.
In the Pixar movie Cars, several residents in the small town of Radiator Springs are depicted with character flaws: Mater is an uncivilized redneck, Sarge is a hard-lined, rule-abiding militant, Fillmore is a drugged-out hippie, Red is socially anxious and phobic, and Lizzie is amnesic and odd. The characters portrayed most positively, Doc Hudson, a mechanic/doctor and judge, and Sally, an attorney, are also the same two characters who have lived outside the small town of Radiator Springs and who have had education and life experience. Two other characters, Guido and Luigi, from Italy, are portrayed positively. (Could this be because they are outsiders with supposed broad life experiences? American media has a way of portraying Europeans as sophisticated, novel, and almost exotic.)
The depictions about rural/farm life are quite varied, as are the value assumptions connected with them. In the pastoral, quaint, simple view of farm life, the value assumption is the family time and wholesomeness are important. The impression given is often of a simpler, less complicated time, where people know their neighbors and have Founder’s Day picnics. In Cars, the town’s slow demise is regrettable, as though the world is passing by and does not value the wholesomeness of days of old. Unfortunately, depicting farm and rural life in such a sentimental way also falsifies the truth and leads non-farm, non-rural residents to have a misunderstanding of the way life happens in rural communities. I have met many people in my lifetime whose only exposure to farming is at the MN State Fair or through media depictions. My sister-in-law, who also grew up on a farm, came home from college a few years ago with 2 of her roommates, who are from the Twin Cities. When my sister-in-law took them outside to show them the commercial hog operation her father owns, the roommates were shocked. They told her they thought pigs were raised in little pens, in large open-air barns with cute little fences, like in the state fair’s swine barn.
Some less pleasant underlying assumptions are at work in the depiction of rural life as unsophisticated. The depictions imply that people living on farms or in rural communities are less intelligent, less civilized, or less educated than people living in urban centers. These portrayals can also make it seem as though people in small communities care less about the larger world and are more concerned with making babies and keeping up with town gossip than experiencing the world, getting an education, or keeping up with modern times.
Here are some images of farm/rural life that serve to perpetuate media depictions described above.