Burning Man participants are eccentric drug consuming tribalistic animal abusing hippies. These descriptions come from satirical American sitcoms and are definitely exaggerations of stereotypes for the sake of humor. But what are the Burning Man stereotypes that the comedy writers are exaggerating? Are those stereotypes based on reality, or are they completely fabricated? I decided to watch sitcom episodes based on Burning Man and examine the stereotypes. I expected to see the Burning Man participants, or Burners, portrayed as one dimensional hippy types that are often used in sitcoms for comic relief. I definitely found this representation to be a common thread, but was also surprised to find positive characters as well.
I decided to watch three different episodes that I hadn’t previously watched so that I could be as objective as possible. The Simpsons Blazed and Confused, Malcolm in the Middle Burning Man, and Reno 911 Burning Man Festival. I’m a fan of these shows but have always avoided the Burning Man episodes because I didn’t want to dislike the show because of bad stereotyping. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn to this point because the episodes were pretty good and I had been missing out.
All the shows seemed to agree on one thing. The costumes. Lots of faux fur, bright lights, wings, and so on. The representation of costumes was fair on the three shows. They showed a wide variety outfits while the actual costumes were fair, the ratio of costumed to non-costumed burners was definitely off. The Simpsons showed everyone not in the usual cast in a Burning Man costume. , Image searches of Burning Man bring up tons of examples of the outrageous costumes so I imagine it was easy to imitate by the show producers. Burning Man is often described as a tribal experience and two shows took this very literally. The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle both had groups of people dressed in traditional native outfits dancing around a fire. The scenes looked more like something from national geographic then from Burning Man. They were funny representations though and not at all offensive.
The shows also got another thing right. Experiences vary. Each person has their own series of events play out on any vacation and experiences always vary. In the Malcolm in the Middle episode the family was divided on their experiences. Lois and Reece loved their time at Burning Man and wanted to go back next year. Hal, Malcolm, and Dewey didn’t want anything to do with it. First time burners often see this divide to some degree. I think I was more surprised to see any of the characters say that they like the event and wanted to go back.
The shows also got plenty wrong about Burning Man. Most of the discrepancies were probably done for comic value and are harmless but they were inaccurate. Cacti showed up in two episodes and created first aid opportunities. Cactus doesn’t grow near the event though. Neither Malcolm in the Middle or the Simpsons showed any kind of law enforcement in their episodes. Law enforcement is present, both state and federal, and this isn’t something that is hidden well. The absence of law enforcement had to be intentional in order to create a greater sense of lawlessness. Burning Man is often portrayed as unorganized chaos but this just isn’t the case. The event is very organized and people are often surprised by how smoothly the event is run.
One of the most surprising things I saw was in the Simpsons episode. In one of the first scenes at Burning Man a couple people were dressed in traditional tribal wear, masks and all, and were spinning fire at a pig, who was also wearing a mask. The pig was terrified. I know it’s only a cartoon sitcom and no animal was in harm’s way, but I still found it somewhat offensive. The writers were trying to create an atmosphere of lawlessness and chaos and used that scene to support the environment. It was definitely a surprise to see burners represented in this way because they are, for the most part, animal lovers and activists.
The Reno 911 episode was a very funny take on Burning Man. Three of the shows stars got dressed up in full costume and tried to take a rental van to the event so that they could “Bust all those LSD taking hippies”. They got lost a lot and spent plenty of time turning the van around and arguing about directions. They eventually ran out of gas and never made it to the event. This sort of thing actually happens when people who have never drove to Burning Man decide to take up the challenge. Even though they never actually got to the event they managed to make multiple references about Burners and drug abuse.
The most surprising thing I saw was in the Malcolm in the Middle episode. Malcolm was asked by his parents why he wanted to go and he gave a heartfelt explanation about the meaning of Burning Man. His explanation sounds like it was written by a person who had experienced the event and had a great time. It was nice to hear something positive when it wasn’t expected.
“Burning Man is an incredible, interactive experiment in human creativity, where you do art, just for art’s sake, and you make music from instruments that came to you in dreams. It’s the only place you’re free to let go and really see what you’re capable of creating without worrying what anyone else thinks! That is what Burning Man is all about!”
The entire episode seemed to be fair to Burning Man and its participants. The highs, the lows, and the unexpected. Not everyone had a good time but those that did had a life altering experience. In my experiences with Burning Man this seems to be the case for those going to the event for the first time. This was the least stereotypical representation of Burners but still pushed the dopey hippy character.
The Malcolm in the Middle episode lacked what the other episodes lacked though. Well educated science-minded participants. Burning Man is full of them, but they usually dress plainly and tend to not stick out as much. They don’t focus on creating crazy costumes but instead, they focus on art based engineering. Mutant vehicles are a huge part of the event and aren’t constructed by drugged up hippy character often portrayed by the media, but by responsible, well-educated contributors to society. EDN magazine is an engineering publication. Last year they published an article on the fun of engineering projects for Burning Man. The author Steve Taranovich has a masters of electronic engineering and described these Burning Man engineering feats as this: “A Mutant Vehicle is a unique, motorized creation that shows little or no resemblance to their original form, or to any standard street vehicle. Mutant Vehicles are radically, stunningly, (usually) permanently, and safely modified from their base vehicle. Sometimes the whole vehicle is made from scratch.” I agree with Steve’s sentiment about the complexity of the projects. Stereotypical drug taking hippies could never pull it off.
Shaun Maguire writes a blog for the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Cal-tech. His article “Science at Burning Man: Say What?” explores the science at burning man and challenges the typical stereotypes usually associated with Burners. Shaun camps with about 200 other scientists and can talk endlessly about the brain power needed to construct Burning Man projects. His roommates are in the middle of their theses at Cal Tech and decided to build a 3 million volt musical Tesla coil, just for fun. The contraption ended up standing over 20 feet tall when completed. Other science and engineering students volunteered time and brain power to help build it. Shaun says “You should come away convinced that there’s much more to the festival than just ‘a bunch of hippies doing drugs in the desert and listening to music.’ He agrees that the typical Burning Man stereotype is misguided and is an unfair representation of most participants. His blog post does a great job of portraying participants as very well educated and science minded. A stark contrast to the typical hippy image.
Engineering types aren’t the only ones flexing their brains at Burning Man. Tristan Ursell, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, brings a mobile micro-zoo to the dessert. He provides microscopes and slides full of interesting things to look at ranging from trumpet-shaped protozoa to human skin. During the day he shows Burners the wonders of the micro world, and at night he joins his campmates and hosts topical talks about various things including stem cells and 3-D modeling (LeCompte). Tristan is like many Burners not represented by pop culture. He is well educated, articulate, and driven to succeed.
I began this exploration expecting to see an unfair representation of Burning Man participants full of exaggerated stereotypes. While I did find that, it was usually light-hearted and funny and wasn’t to the degree that I expected. My biggest complaint isn’t what I saw, but what I didn’t see. Well educated, rational, responsible people were nowhere to be found. Burning Man is full of those people but since they don’t grab headlines or make good satirical targets they’re not often referenced. I imagine this is the case with many stereotypes that are perpetuated in pop culture. Take the extreme case of any given social setting and wildly exaggerate it for comic relief. I’m a huge fan of comedic satire so I need to just except that from time to time I’ll be mis-represented in favor of a few laughs, and that’s fine with me.
LeCompte Celeste. Scientists Showcase the Wonders of the World at Burning Man Festival. Scientific American. Oct 155 2013. Viewed Feb 18 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-showcase-the-wonders-of-the-world-at-burning-man-festival/
Maguire Shaun. Science at Burning Man, Say What?. Quantum Frontiers. Blog. October 15 2014. Viewed Feb 20 2015. http://quantumfrontiers.com/2014/10/15/science-at-burning-man-say-what/
Malcolm in the Middle: Burning Man. Season 7 episode 1. Sep 30 2005.
Reno 911!: Burning Man episode. Season 1 episode 10. September 24 2003.
Taranovich Steve. “Can engineering be fun?: Nuvation and “Burning Man”. EDN Network website. August 16 2013. Viewed Feb 20 2015. http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/anablog/4419775/Can-engineering-be-fun–Nuvation-and–Burning-Man-
The Simpsons: Blazed and Confused, Season 26, Episode 7. TV show. Fox broadcasting. Nov 16 2014.