Has Portlandia sold out?

Discerning readers may know that there’s a show called Portlandia out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the Oregon city of Portland (duh!) and it seems to both cheer and ridicule the alternative/hipster culture of the city.

The show stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is probably a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.

Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived in the town of Olympia Washington for a year. Oly is where Sleater-Kinney formed (indeed, I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk rock generally affiliated with anti-establishment thinking, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and therefore they were my enemy.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community there and probably went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week.

That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. So, when I heard that an icon of that scene, Brownstein, was involved in a comedy show I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.

Eventually, however, I did watch Portlandia and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL, is these days. Not only is it funny, it tends to use the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals that I detested in Olympia as its targets.

(I should note here that I’ve softened a bit in my hatred of these types and am willing to concede they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another blog post.)

As I watched Portlandia, however, I became a bit curious at how Brownstein, who, as far as I can tell, is neck deep in the very culture the show lampoons, justifies the show’s attitude. And I suppose I could get on the web and figure this out, but I’m not that curious. Nonetheless, this general thought popped into my head when I came across the following link.

Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show

The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports. 

The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”

The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.

“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN. 

On the show, the book store serves as the setting for a similar store run by two humorless lesbians who inadvertently deliver laughs. It’s a great example of how the show, to my mind, makes fun of the very culture Brownstein is from.

A little more digging revealed a story covering the controversy generated when Armisen and Brownstein had made an ad for clothing company Old Navy. Some of the comments responding to the article include…

Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.

Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, Portlandia wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.

Now, these comments deliver all the self-righteous fury I associate with the north west punk scene. That said, I can’t help feeling they have a point. Brownstein’s actions do seem at odds with her ethics. (Not Armisen, who to my knowledge has never claimed to be anti-capitalist etc.)

It should be said that humor is complex. You can applaud a culture or idea while simultaneously holding it up for ridicule. And “Portlandia” may not be making fun of the ultra-stringent ethics of certain Portlanders, as much as it is the stern seriousness with which they apply those ethics. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to have the attitude that we’re all figuring this life thing out and maybe we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Exactly what punk rock puritans don’t do.

Anyway, that’s my take. We just started watching the new season of the show on Netflix and it feels like one of the best ever.

  1. No Comments