February 2th, 2014
Portlanders in Popular Culture
Over the past fourteen years I have lived in Seattle and Portland, in the heart of the Pacific Northwest. I have spent most of my adult life in Portland and as a visual artist I spend a lot of time observing other people and places. Portland was much different when I moved here in 2005, or at least it appeared that way to me. Over the past eight years I have explored the city and really gotten to know its nooks and crannies, as well as the culture of Portland. I have noticed how much Portland has grown, not just physically with the sheer number of construction sites around town but also in it’s “weirdness,” and popularity. I notice new things daily but I suppose each year there is a general trend that I see forming in this city. Most people I see tend to follow the trends of Portland, whereas I see myself as an outsider to this. I suppose people would stereotype me as an outdoor enthusiast and artist. I am sure there have been several episodes of Portlandia about people like me. However I see myself outside of what is considered “popular culture” here in Portland.
Of course one of the popular culture artifacts I am using is Portlandia and other such representations of Portlanders in the media. Before this show really came together in 2005 I believe that people who lived outside the Pacific Northwest probably had no idea what Portlanders were like. I had no idea what Portlanders were like and I lived only three hours away. Since then Portland has become a buzz word with young people across the United States and the place to move to if you are young and interested in being free, pursuing your passion and living an “alternative lifestyle.” Portlandia takes such a satirical angle of how it describes the people and places here that it’s no wonder that many people all over the country became intrigued with Portland. The show describes the people here as weird, hip and full of youth.. I can’t help but ask myself...are the majority of the people who live in Portland really young hipsters?
Another artifact I used is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ video for Thrift Shop, which was filmed in Portland. Many people think the video was filmed in their hometown of Seattle, however, the pair chose to venture to Portland to shoot this particular video. Why might this be? The video is about taking the power away from expensive, new clothing and going out to search for one of a kind clothing items from local thrift shops. They shoot this video in one of our local thrift shops and around town. I thought this was a telling sign of what the two artists, as well as the rest of the Pacific Northwest think of Portland. According to these representations I should really care about how I look, so much so that I should put effort into my appearance to make it seem as though I don’t care. Tangled hair, ripped or high-water pants, fur coats, sequins and a fixed gear bicycle are just a few of the quirks that should define a young Portlander according to this media reprentation. I should try to be as “vintage” as possible, be dating a man with a large beard or mustache and only go to dive bars. I should own an old car instead of a new one and when it comes down to it I believe that the media describes Portland as a place where you can find alternativesto what is popular in the rest of the country.
Alternatives can be anything from food choices to transportation decisions but they are meant to push back at what’s popular. Portland is strange this way because it’s popular to be against what’s popular. Sounds like a silly concept but that’s the way Portland’s culture is. One of my major artifacts is a clip from Portlandia in which the two main characters are planning their wedding. I found it hilarious because the create an altar made of bicycle parts and hire a “priestess” to perform the ceremony. They determine that no one should have to sit next to each other in the ceremony to be politically correct. Though this clip is over the top, as all Portlandia episodes are, it does touch upon some hilarious phenomenons of Portland popular culture. In this way it makes me look at myself. When I was married last year I insisted on having a woman marry us. It was not a “priestess” and we did not have an altar made of bicycle parts but still, some of the ideas and concepts that were presented in this clip rang true for me. I wanted a woman to marry us because I grew up in the Catholic faith and I found (and still find) it ridiculous that women can’t be priests. I intentionally wanted to go against the norm, which is exactly what the characters on the show did.
I have also seen Pemco advertisements on the side of the buses in town which read, “Profile of a Pacific Northwesterner #103,” then show a photograph of a man wearing Birkenstock sandals with white socks. How accurate is this advertisement? I can’t say I have never seen a man wearing white socks and sandals but do I see them as often as the ad may suggest. How are these representations of Portland true and how are they false? What do these ads say about the people from our side of the country? When I was very young growing up I had the privilege of living both in middle America (Kansas) and on the east coast (Pennsylvania). Though I was young I do remember asking people about Seattle and hearing people say, “Everyone is so laid back and casual there.” I didn’t know what this meant but I finally understood it after taking a trip to Boston one year. Everyone there was in their finest business clothing or evening wear, you didn’t see a pair of jeans anywhere. In Portland it is strange to see someone dressed to the nines, even in business wear. As a female I noticed that every woman I saw on the east coast was wearing heels. I determined I was much more fond of the casual nature of Portland and Seattle. Even the most well dressed business people here are often dressed in a more practical manner.
Another artifact I looked into was a play I saw last year called Portland, I love you (I think that was the name). I was in stitches laughing the entire time. The show was a monologue by a comedian/actress, originally from LA, who describes coming to Portland for the first time to visit. It was absolutely hilarious listening to her describe trying to make friends with the barista and his cavalier attitude towards her, sitting outside the coffee shop seeing tall bicycles or unicycles ride by and going to a “freedom dance.” It must have been a huge change from the culture of Los Angeles, which she describes as quite a shock at first and very alluring. She fantasized about moving her family here because she wanted her son to have the fun, playful and weird freedoms that so many people in Portland have. I loved this play because it touched upon many of the issues I have already brought up from the perspective of an outsider to the Pacific Northwest.
I think it’s important to realize that just because we live in a place where people ride tall bikes or dress up in strange attire doesn’t mean that we all do. It does accurately describe some of the scenes in Portland but it’s important for people from other places to know that Portland is not just full of young, strange hipsters but that there are many diverse populations here. Sometimes I laugh at myself when I find that there is something about me that is being over-dramatized in a show like Portlandia because I feel that I would still have that trait if I lived elsewhere. For example, as an outdoor enthusiast and outdoor educator I love to “nerd-out” over gear. There was one episode that showed people going to hike in Forest Park and instead they end up talking about in great lengths the gear they should bring. If I lived in Boston or some other city outside the Pacific Northwest, I feel I would still appreciate talking about gear with other people. It’s important to remember that people from other cities are viewing these episodes of Portlandia and making judgments of people from Portland based on them. Being aware that the media exaggerates is a good step but also coming to some understanding of what the trends in Portland are can help to clarify what is a part of the popular culture here and what is not.