Portland as parody

Hipsters, politics and beer, oh my!

Hipsters, politics and beer, oh my! From environmental awareness to cross-culture acceptance, Portland has much to brag about—but at the same time, let us not forget how to laugh.

Last month, Erin Rook of Just Out interviewed Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live” and Portland resident Carrie Brownstein of the indie band Sleater-Kinney about their new comedy series “Portlandia.”

The series parodies “various aspects of Portland’s unique culture.” “Portlandia” is based on another project, “Thunderant”—Armisen’s and Brownstein’s largely improvised online comedy sketches that parody everything from Portland’s bike punks to feminist bookstores.

Plenty of people poke fun of Portland, but when I heard about “Portlandia” being picked up by the Independent Film Channel, I had to ask myself: What’s the deal? What about Portland is there to make fun of?

And then it occurred to me: We take ourselves too seriously. And everybody knows that people who take themselves too seriously are the most fun to mock.

I’ve lived in other places—college towns, cities with booming arts and music scenes—and it wasn’t this way. People didn’t make broad summations about the culture of the city or its residents. There wasn’t the sense that a caricature could be or should be drawn of the people who lived there. Other cities don’t regard themselves as quite the national treasure that we believe ourselves to be.

Portland takes on a unique position as a sort of Mecca of awesomeness—people move here in droves to take advantage of our booming youth culture, bike lanes, efficient public transportation, academic programs, temperate climate and liberal politics. We excel at a lot of good things—coffee, beer, nightlife and producing hugely popular bands—and can get a little bit of a big head about it. With such a feeling of importance, we lose a sense of humility and the ability to laugh at ourselves.

We’ve all probably heard someone make fun of some aspect of Portland’s culture, but what you’ll probably hear most often are derisive comments about Portland as a whole: Portland as hipsters, Portland as compulsive composters, Portland as Obama-obsessed liberals. It’s engrained in our consciousness—our progressiveness, our tolerance, our role as a major West Coast destination—it all plays a part in our self-awareness. We know we’re something special. Grist Magazine cited us, for example, as one of the “greenest” cities in the world, second only to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Having a sense of humor about ourselves would be particularly beneficial when it comes to the less-than-ideal things about Portland.

We’re known, for example, for our awful, rainy, six-month long winters and the seasonal affective disorder that comes with them. We’re also known for our extremely competitive job market. According to City Data, nearly 20 percent of the Portland population is between the ages of 25 and 34, making the search for employment for that age group a harrowing and viciously competitive task.

One common way we get attention, both good and bad, is through our politics. We are very opinionated and very politically active. Overall that is a good thing, but it does make for a tense social environment. One major aspect of the social climate here is political correctness. We love to be P.C. It’s something you don’t find as much anywhere else in the country. We spend a lot of energy avoiding offending anyone and maintaining a society that is tolerant, accepting and respectful of everyone.

The trouble is, that’s a pretty lofty goal and not a very realistic one. In the South, for example, there is the acknowledgment that we all express ourselves differently, and that openness about those differences is the real virtue. It’s extremely common there to hear someone noting the differences between white people and African-Americans. It’s not hate speech—it’s dialogue.

In Portland, though, we shy away from discussing our differences or making reference to race at all. We consider such evasive behavior to be “respectful.” And joking about it is out of the question.

With as many young people as Portland has, and all the vying for jobs, clothes and housing, competition inevitably wins out over respect. We end up appearing hypocritical. These same people who are rigidly P.C. and dogmatic about their politics tend to be overly critical of their peers on a personal level. On the surface, we are respectful and tolerant, but below the surface we are fearful social climbers with no real personal politics beyond what kind of coffee we drink or the proper attire.

Posturing is our pastime.

With all this hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement, is it any wonder we get made fun of? Our grand-standing overshadows our actual achievements and make us easy targets for parody.

I’m not saying we’re awful people. I’m not even saying we need to change. But getting off our high horse, becoming aware of our contradictions, and being willing to accept how cavalier our notions about life are, would be a great start to becoming even better. The ability to have a good laugh at ourselves is a good practice towards that end.