Speak Your Piece: Performing in ‘Ruralface’

Why does a photo spread of “pinup” chicken pluckers elicit such strong reactions? Here’s another theory why a Portland, Oregon-area chicken farm’s publicity event sticks in our collective craw. 

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Shawn Poynter is not alone in his confusion about this monstrosity of a performance. (It’s a bunch of urban hipster “ladies” from Portland dressing up like fantasy pinup fifties farmwives to kill chickens. Seriously.) Visceral reactions have abounded on the internet, but so far I haven’t read any commentary that gets to the heart of why I think it’s disgusting.

I see a lot of people saying, like Shawn, “I think it’s really gross, but I just can’t decide why.” Perhaps that’s because there’s a lot there to be distracted by. There’s the weird, weird juxtaposition of lipsticked plastic barbiedoll smiles and freshly-dead chickens. Is it the disrespect for chicken life? Well, could be, but that’s kind of a surface absurdity for me.

Then there’s the cartoon-style 1950s gender dynamic. Is it the power imbalance between the male farmers and the helpless “ladies”? For me, that just merits a sigh and an eyeroll—how uncreative of them. Of course, there's the porno feel of the whole thing. Is it the sexualization of, well, all of it? Eh, people like to make porno out of everything, why not this?

No, for me, the problem with this whole thing goes beyond all that. The problem is that these ladies are performing in ruralface. Yes, ruralface.

Thought experiment: imagine them in blackface, performing chicken-slaughter on the old plantation, rather than down on the farm. Right. It’d be gross.

Photo via Rebecca Huenink
The author, duck plucking.
This is just that. I guess it’s harder to see because they’re performing a caricature of people who share their skin tone and features. But there they are in ruralface, performing a caricature of people below them on the social ladder, prancing around giggling as they act like a twisted version of somebody else’s grandma. (What do you want to bet there weren’t some really icky fake hillbilly drawls bouncing off those killing cones?)

Ruralface. It’s super popular these days, especially among the young, white, privileged, culturally vampiric folks known as hipsters. It’s everywhere, and it’s gross. Plenty of non-rural people can feel how gross it is, even if they don’t really understand why: check out this restaurant reviewer getting really grossed out by it (and, unfortunately, patronizing and mischaracterizing rural Appalachians in the process—sigh).

If you need another comparison, here you go: ruralface is just as gross as Indianface. Think of a white, upper-middle class, new-age dude called Walking Bear or some such awfulness. He’s in Indianface. These lipsticked ladies, with their kerchiefs and their aprons, are in ruralface. 

This sort of thing isn’t new. Rural folks are the last group that it’s still OK to make fun of in nearly all educated, liberal-minded circles. Rural people are used to cringeworthy redneck jokes and earnest, ignorant stereotypes of all kinds.

Cultural appropriation is a weird one, though, because it’s supposed to seem like a compliment: we like you so much we want to be you! Except, um, no. You don’t want to be us. You want to be your weird, twisted fantasy of us. And it’s gross. You look like idiots.

 

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