The portrayal of Pacific Northwest culture in U.S. and P.N.W. based media

I am sure that as students that Portland State University, we can agree that Portland, Oregon, and the Northwest as a whole have a lot to offer us as residents. There is certainly a lot delivered by the natural environment, but the social environment also has much to offer. What is interesting is that people outside the Northwest see us in a way that compares and contrasts to the ways we see ourselves. Northwestern culture has a set of common values, and it seems that American pop culture uses a caricature of those values to represent us as a whole, while Northwestern based media embraces what sets the area apart.

Perhaps the most current and well known media that is centered on the Pacific Northwest is the TV show Portlandia. The show is created and produced by Fred Armisen, of Saturday Night Live fame, and Carrie Brownstein, who was known as the lead singer of multiple Northwest based bands. The show is set in a fictional version of Portland, in which the various characters get up to antics based on real life stereotypes of the city. In my experience with the show, some of the common themes in covered were environmentalism, hipsters, and the city’s passive-aggressive nature. Although Brownstein is someone familiar with Northwest culture, the show is designed to appeal to a national scale audience, which I think gives it more freedom to be “inaccurate”.

Since it is a sketch comedy series, the show tends to take the highest level of a subject, such as environmentalism, and further exaggerate it for humor. In one instance, a mob of cyclists blocks a city street and protests the use of cars. Of course, Portland is known as a city for its bike-friendliness, but the content of this specific sketch may influence the perception of the city in their minds. No one would think that cyclists block off streets or anything, but they might be surprised to find out that cyclists are still a minority in the metro area.

One show that I think is influential to how Northwesterners (specifically Oregonians) see themselves is Oregon Field Guide. The show has been broadcast and produced by OPB since 1990. The show documents the many outdoor activities, hobbies, and news that Oregonians (and occasionally Washingtonians) participate in. Hiking and kayaking are activities that appear in the show, and research stories, such as one about the preservation of a species of lizard are also included.

I think that many people outside of the Northwest would attribute the culture to have a “hippie” sort of environmentalism going on. Oregon Field Guide shakes that up a little bit. The show depicts how important nature is to Northwesterners recreationally. In my opinion, the environmental mentality of the Northwest is rooted in that rather than the counter-cultural tendency that hippies were known for. People want the outdoor areas where they spend their time to be intact far into the future, so they are willing to go to certain lengths to protect that.

A third source that provides insight into the cultural portrayal of the Northwest is Seattle Magazine. The first thing I noticed about the magazine is that it seems to be geared toward the middle and upper class of the city. It also is obviously specific to Seattle, which is the largest and most influential city in the region. Based on this, I had to compare the things I found here with similar publications like Portland Monthly to see what is common between them.

Seattle Magazine is another good way to see how Northwesterners think of themselves, much like Oregon Field Guide, but with more of an urban spin. The magazine has an entire section for restaurants with a lot of content within it. Within the section, 1/3 of the stories featured had to do with alcohol. Portland and Seattle are both known for their excellent selection of local beer, and both Oregon and Washington have a thriving wine country, so it is not much a surprise that drinks are featured somewhat prominently. I also thought it was interesting how the outdoors section had a strong emphasis on regional and outdoor oriented destinations as opposed to faraway tropical or cultural destinations.

After looking at all of the sources above, I would say a few realistic stereotypes attributed to Northwest culture are nature-oriented, interest in local food and music, and to a lesser extent an opposition to what is considered mainstream culture. I think that there are 2 ways to examine the portrayal of groups in pop culture. In one case, the portrayal influences the group, and in the other case the group influences the portrayal. Obviously, one does not need to pick one side or the other, but there is a scale involved. I would say that the portrayal of the Northwest in pop culture leans more toward being influenced by the way the region is in real life. Soon after Portlandia originally premiered, and article in the Portland Mercury acknowledged that there was truth to the shows subject matter:

“Comedy, at its best, cuts to the truth in any given situation. And while it may be true there are annoying bikers, annoying nerds, annoying feminists, and annoying hipsters in Portland (Jeez, Carrie! Is there anything that doesn’t annoy you?)—Portlandia would be far more successful by striking a balance between the ‘annoying’ and the ‘real.’” (Humphrey)

A large part of the reason that Northwesterners are “influencers” rather than “influencees”is because there is simply not that much mainstream media interested in this cultural segment. There are a couple of identifiable reasons for this, which I point out later in this paper.

In my personal experience, a majority of people I know enjoy the being outdoors, and many outdoor activities. I think that is common to a lot of places, but Northwest culture is a bit more unique in that people like to get out of the city somewhat and go hiking, camping, skiing, to the beach, or to a lake to hang out instead of doing something like tanning or playing sports (although those happen quite often as well). In my opinion, this is the primary thing setting the Northwest apart from the rest of the United States.

Another interesting trait of the Northwest is the presence of cycling as a mode of transportation in urban areas compared to other American cities. Both Portland and Seattle are consistently improving infrastructure to provide safe and fast areas for cyclists to move around the city. The cycling trend stems from a certain amount of necessity and convenience, and is helped along by desire of Northwestern people to be unique. If one examines a map of the Portland and Seattle metro regions, it shows that freeways are much more sparse. The main roads that are intended to supplement the freeways are often narrow, and rarely straight as the wind around geographic features. Neither city has been very willing to accommodate auto vehicle traffic more than what is necessary (and they often fall short of that). The failed Mt. Hood freeway project, which was supposed to run through SE Portland to Mt. Hood was stopped in the 1970s, and is sometimes regarded as the turning point towards cycling, and other transportation in the area. The difficulty that lies in driving through Portland and Seattle, has made it easier in a lot of cases to ride a bike from place to place, rather than drive. This phenomenon has even gained the attention of publications such as the New York Times, who has written many articles on the subject. In one of these articles, the writer points out how much business based on cycling has grown in the area: “In a report for the City of Portland last year, the firm estimated that 600 to 800 people worked in the cycling industry in some form. A decade earlier, Ms. Birk said in an interview, the number would have been more like 200 and made up almost entirely of employees at retail bike stores.” (Yardley). Although there has certainly been tremendous growth, it would be easy for someone to allow their mind to wander if they had not visited Portland or Seattle before.

I would also agree with the pop culture representation that the people in the Northwest enjoy food and drink. I think that the uniqueness here comes from the fact that the food scene here is not oriented toward fancy or high class establishments that you might see in larger cities. The most popular and highest rated restaurants in Portland at least are considered casual, and often focus on marketing their locally sourced ingredients. Related to this, up to half of all beer consumed in Oregon is considered craft beer which shows both the interest in local products, and beer itself. Portland has its own reputation of having hundreds of food carts, in which many varieties of food can be sold with a tiny amount of overhead. The amount of food carts would not be able to exist in many other cities that do not have a similar food scene.

Lastly, I think that there is truth to the counter-cultural mentality stereotype of the Northwest. However, I would not say it is nearly as strong as it is portrayed. I think that this is due to the geographic isolation of the region, and the lower population density. Seattle’s population is about 600,000 people. While the Bay area to the south is a nearby population center, it is still over 500 miles from Portland. The next closest city over 500,000 people when looking eastward is Denver, nearly 1000 miles from Portland. Most national news media and politics is based on the east coast, which is not concerned with comparatively small cities thousands of miles away. There is a similar situation with general pop culture, which people sometimes consider to be based in Southern California. Most of the media produced there is not related to the small cities 800 miles to the north. This leaves the Northwest to devise its own culture, and it certainly has.

As students at a school in the middle of the Northwest, we are as familiar with this as anyone. However, while the Northwest is distinct, it is still has much more in common with average American than anything else. Media that is directed toward a wide audience ignores this in favor of exaggerations that are more interesting or funny, but the reality of our stereotypes is not far off from that.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Amen, Steve. “Oregon Field Guide.” Orgeon Field Guide. KOPB. Portland, Oregon, n.d. Television.

Ayers, Chuck, James Hereford, and Anne V. Moudon. “A New Public Health-care Option — Smarter Transportation Planning.” Editorial. Seattle Post Intelligencer 1 Mar. 2010: n. pag. Opinion. 1 Mar. 2010. Web. 01 June 2014.

Boyd, Thomas. “Powell Boulevard: 40 Years after the Mount Hood Freeway, Still a Dangerous Unsolved Riddle.” OregonLive.com. N.p., 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 June 2014.

Brownstein, Carrie, and Fred Armisen. “Portlandia.” Portlandia. IFC. N.d. Television.

Cohen, Josh. “By 2040 Cycling Will Be Easy … Sort of.” Seattle Met. N.p., 10 Mar. 2010. Web. 01 June 2014.

Humphrey, Wm. Steven. “The Paradox of Portlandia.” Portland Mercury. N.p., 20 Jan. 2011. Web. 01 June 2014.

Seattle Magazine n.d.: n. pag. Web.

Yardley, William. “In Portland, Cultivating a Culture of Two Wheels.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Nov. 2007. Web. 01 June 2014.

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One thought on “The portrayal of Pacific Northwest culture in U.S. and P.N.W. based media

  1. I can somewhat relate to your topic on the stereotypes of the Pacific Northwest. I was born and raised in Southern California and am only in Portland to attend school. When I tell people that I live in LA county they automatically begin asking if I live near the beach or if I hate the traffic, which is kind of similar to how Portland is overly portrayed as a strange city on Portlandia. Also, I like the point you made of how the NW has devised it own culture because of the distance between major cities, I’ve never though of that!

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