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I’ve been hearing the claims ever since I moved here 10 years ago; Portlanders are weird, Portlanders are crazy, they have no direction. I could never put my finger on what these claims meant or fully understand where these ideas were coming from and why we were singled out as so different and extreme. With Seattle to the north and San Francisco to the south, I always believed we were simply people from the west coast who preferred living in a smaller, open-minded community that promoted living happily and honestly. However this is not the view many seem to hold who have either never been here or have little exposure to the wide variety of people who have chosen to call themselves Portlanders. What are some of these preconceived notions outsiders have about us and why have they become so wide spread in the last decade? A glance at our representation in the media and how we are viewed may give us some insight as to what some of these ideas are, where they may have originated and how the wide spread dissemination of the belief that we are so different came about.
The opening sketch of the first episode of Portlandia really says it all, “a place where young people go to retire”. Is this really how we’re seen, and if so why? How could this image have been cultivated and what characteristics do we display that set us apart from other young city dwellers? I recall disliking the idea that we would be portrayed on T.V., then watching it and laughing hysterically. While satirical in nature, there was a level of truth built into the characters. Still, after giving it some thought, I believe the only way one could fully understand the overflow of inside jokes would be to have spent some time here, to know the people and why these characterizations are made. This is simply not the whole story about who we are. The real message of the show, which I don’t believe was intentional, ends up having positive and negative effects on our image. While Portlandia is a program about a city and its inhabitants, the real content of the show is about the people. As Newsday put it, “before long it doesn’t seem like satire any longer but a funhouse mirror reflection of intensely real people.” And after all, without the people and they’re unique lifestyle choices there would be no material to use for singling us out.
We see an emphasis on the youth and young people when Portlanders are represented in the media, as well as an apparent lack of representation for older people. Is everyone in this city really between the age of 20 and 35? While there are a lot of young people moving here every day from all over the country, we are not all simply image-obsessed twenty and thirty something’s. The average age of Portlanders, according to the Portland Business Journal, is 36.4 in comparison to the national average of city goers nationwide at 36.9. There are a large number of well-educated young people and the number of college attendees has also been on the rise in recent years. The notion that we lack ambition is false and by the growing number of young adults.
A common theme when analyzing stereotypes of Portlanders is the assertion that we can be easily summed up by the way we dress. In the article ‘The four types of people you’ll meet in Portland’ the author, who is neither from nor lives in Portland, gives a tight narrative about exactly who each individual Portlander is and how they can be recognized upon sight. While distinct sub-cultures exist here, they exist in every city. The undeniable presence of unique and diverse clothing styles is highlighted by the media and we are sometimes seen as members of clubs rather than individuals. Should he or she dress a certain way then they must certainly adhere to a distinct set of values. Should they drive a certain car or live in a particular part of town they must shop at these businesses and eat specific types of food. This assumptive labeling happens to many of us as we are spotted in the open and quickly summed up based solely on the way we look. These predications are supported by portrayals of Portlanders and help in creating an exaggerated image of us to those who have had little exposure to Portlanders aside from what they’ve seen in the media.
Another misconception we see burgeoning in the media is that we are a group composed of fanatical and intolerant cyclists. As many of us are cycling enthusiasts and we live in an environment where this activity is fostered, how many of us are overly-aggressive road hounds who hate automobiles and drivers alike? Again in the first episode of Portlandia we see the characterization of a young, fixed gear-riding, refusing-to-share-the-road stereotype. As he rides around the city yelling at people in cars and cutting of pedestrians we can all get a laugh knowing there is a good chance at least some of us have previously seen exhibitions of these behaviors. But how many of us live up to this standard? I believe these images help support the notion that this is who we are. Again, this is not so. As a community we have made the efforts to design our streets to fit our lifestyle choices and allow us to live the way we would like, but this over-the-top drama can make us look silly and takes away the meaning of our collective value for bike riding and what this component of our personalities means when we call ourselves Portlanders.
Lastly, I’ll address the idea that we are a bunch of young, directionless people, content with simply getting by on part time jobs and never living up to our full potential. How this idea originally came about has been a bit of a mystery to me. Again, in the opening of Portlandia, the viewer is told we are retired young people whose aspirations are nothing more than to work in coffee shops a few hours a week, play in garage bands and make art. In the short-live sitcom Life Unexpected the lead male character is a 30 something who’s been left a building by his father, and instead of getting a job, he’s converted it into a bar where he hangs out and drinks, sleeps late and plays videogames all day until the bar opens again. His lack of direction or desire to grow as an adult is highlighted by his reaction to finding out he has a teenage daughter whom he has never met. This is a misconception that has been flung far and wide as I have personally experienced questions from people when traveling abroad. While on a trip last year and met a girl from Australia, who upon finding out I was a Portlander, informed me of how cool it was to be a Portlander and how lucky I was to live in place where life was so easy and where we didn’t have to work hard. It was surprising to learn this image had travelled so far. I, like some of my fellow students, work full time, attend school and do my best to maintain a social life. While there may be those of us who are content living in a house with 6 roommates and working a few hours a week at the local coffee shop, I believe we are more ambitious than that. We Portlanders, like young people anywhere, have aspirations and the desire to improve our lives as we grow. And while living in a free and un-inhibiting environment may be a value we hold as important, we are only people, and we all aspire to be something more than who we are today.
Portlanders are a unique bunch of folks; a little crazy at times and perhaps a little outside the boundaries of “normalcy”. That said I believe we are often unfairly seen as just plain ridiculous. It’s my conclusion that the media helps perpetuate these stereotypes through the characterization of people with extreme lifestyles. The rather harmless, and at times humorous, stereotypes about Portlanders give those who do not know us ideas about who we are before ever having a chance to really get to know us.
Hayes, Dustin. “The Four People You Meet In Portland.” TravelSages. TravelSages, 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
“Farm.” Portlandia. IFC, 21 Jan. 2011. Television.
Stein, Jake. “’Portlandia’ Season 3 Review: Has the Series Helped Or Hurt Portland’s Image?.” PolicyMic. PolicyMic, 1 Mar. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2014
“Pilot.” Life Unexpected. CW, 18 Jan. 2010. Television.
Stevens, Suzanne.Portland metro average age: 36.” Portland Business Journal. Portland Business Journal, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2012