Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mocking the Mockumentary: Portlandia and the Locavore

Though Portlandia is not a show amongst the most popular television series, it carries its niche market with its witty, quirky, and seemingly hipster/liberal character.  The show is known for its light mocking of residents of the city of Portland, and other more progressive cities which I believe Burlington, VT to follow similar characteristics (possibly why I am such a fan).  An article in The New Yorker describes it as "a television comedy in which precious concerns spin into giddy lunacy".

The clip above is a wonderful example poking fun at the most extreme locavores supporting the local food movement.  Portlandia creates this scenario where the restaurant guests go through somewhat excessive information gathering to find out where their food is coming from.  They ask if the chicken has friends, and reach the point where they actually go to visit the farm as the waitress holds their table.   While this scenario is not the most realistic example of what types of questions a locavore goes through before ordering, I do believe the dialogue is a quite accurate representation of food movement issues.  These questions bring light to the types of things we often do not think about when ordering or purchasing food.  Some issues it targets: How the farmer treats their animals, the distance the food is coming from, and the relationship between the farm and the restaurant.  The scene also models what type of role an individual can hold in creating change in the food system.  After the waitress leaves the table to get the papers about the chicken, the characters reaffirm that they are doing the right thing by asking these questions.  In many situations asking these questions can feel awkward and obnoxious, but that uncomfortable feeling is shared in this scene for others to relate to. This educational entertainment [Edutainment] models the behavior of asking thoughtful questions about your food, while also being highly entertaining.

It is important to recognize that the audience of this show is compiled of like-minded individuals that relate to the scenarios being mocked.  It is hard to say how much this show is a source of information for people not already part of the local food movement, but for people who do support the movement it seems extremely relatable.  In fact these are things I want to know about my food, but often don't have the guts to ask.  By watching this scene I feel more confident in my individual role as a supporter of food movements.

Entertainment does not often model food system issues, which is what makes Portlandia such a unique show.  This "Food Dialogues" video made by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance argues that food system issues are becoming a larger part of pop culture, though I have yet to see these practices as I watch my daily television.  Perhaps as popularity of the movement grows, so will its presence in media.  My hope is that the mocking can again be reflected into everyday practices beginning with how we think about food.

WP 3/22


  1. I guess my question is: do shows like Portlandia ever hurt or hinder the movement around local food systems? To an outside observer (i.e someone that is not necessarily as involved/aware of the localvore movement) Portlandia might seem like a crazy extreme. In that case, instead of furthering the dialogue, you reduce localvores and the local movement to a series of stereotypes and potentially negative assumptions. While I personally find Portlandia hilarious, I think it's important to recognize that not everyone has the same level of awareness and understanding of the actual, real life importance of the local movement. Perhaps there's a fine line to walk between allowing for humor without reducing the complexity and importance of these issues in the real world.

  2. I couldn't have put it better myself eninjathy. I'm so glad you brought this up because these too are things I worry about. I am certain that many viewers of Portlandia and other shows do not see the importance, and could perhaps even turn viewers away from the movement. My rationalization to seeing Portlandia as a supporter of the movement is the assumption that people tend to select what they watch, and the message coming from what they watched based on their own personal views and values. That could work both ways. I believe people who watch Portlandia enjoy it because it highlights some of their own core values. On the other hand, the CEO of a large food processing plant could be watching it and laughing at the fact that no one is going to go all the way to a farm to see where their food comes from. Either way, I am glad that the local food movement has enough presents in real life to make it to the media.

  3. For me, the role of Portlandia (and shows like it) in popularizing food issues is not insignificant. In particular, I think many would agree that humor can be a powerful tool in education about a range of interesting, and often messy, issues (check out the Vlog brothers' videos on everything from the sequester to gender stereotyping and sexuality).
    Maybe the next step is continuing the conversation and expanding the reach. I agree with the point that Portlandia is speaking to a niche audience, and supporters of the local food movement are, to a great extent, "preaching to the choir." "Locavore-ism" (word? probably not) is too often branded as a privilege of the middle-class. But access to good food from your community cannot be a class or race issue. It is a public health, economic, environmental, and social issue irregardless of the money in our pocket or the color of our skin. Nor can the local food movement exist only in pockets of New England, California, or the Northwest. Because local food is undeniably an issue of scale: it must be a demand both in our communities and across the country. Local food should be a conversation had in Burlington, Vermont, and in Jackson, Mississippi, and Portlandia certainly has a role to play.

    1. I think you've hit on a really important note in that access to local food is absolutely branded as a privilege of the middle/upper class, and rightly so. As Vermonters, we're fortunate enough to live in an environment where access to locally grown, healthy food is the expectation and not the exception; Portlandia and in particular the clip above demonstrate that norm. As individuals with the ability to recognize these food disparities, I think it's important to try and take the practices and ideologies of the local movement and start trying to figure out how to implement them in places whose climate and attitude towards local food might be not be as hospitable or immediately welcoming as we're used to. Perhaps in that sense, Portlandia and hopefully more shows like it in the future might serve an important purpose in using humor as a mediating tool to make "localvore-ism" a more accessible and relatable concept.

  4. Wow, it looks like I could benefit from some guest blogging from you guys! It looks like we are doing our job as individuals by starting and continuing the conversation. Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful responses.