May
8th 2011
The internet, cowgirls, and the search for authenticity

Posted under: American history, Gender, women's history

You know what this joint needs?  More cowgirls. Amirite?  It seems like there are just a lot of photos of ugly men and sausages on this blog lately, and I don’t like it any more than you do.

I’ve got a question for you, friends:  did any of you read the profile of fellow cowgirl-blogger Rhee Ree Drummond, a.k.a the Pioneer Woman, in The New Yorker this week?  (Sorry, folks:  it’s for subscribers only.)  And if you did, did any of you find author Amanda Fortini’s surprise and dismay that the Pioneer Woman is (in her personal judgment) all hat and very little cattle a little naive, or even a bit simple-minded?  Now, click on this link to the Pioneer Woman–and you tell me if you’re surprised that the woman is on a book tour.

Fortini implies that it’s very suspicious that Drummond, now living on an actual ranch with actual cattle and even an actual cowboy husband and a ranch hand in Oklahoma and homeschooling four actual children, has a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Southern California.  I guess their ranch isn’t ranch-y enough for her:

 The two main rooms of the Drummonds’ seventies-era two-story wooden house form a kind of central artery where nearly all activity, except sleeping and ranching, takes place.  The blond-wood kitchen has a large breakfast bar that wraps around a Viking Range, as well as two stainless-steel Bosch dishwashers.  The room opens into a den with soaring ceilings, where a colossal flat-screen television faces a prodigious brown tweed sectional couch.  Pretty much everything in the Drummond house is supersized.

The author suggests that it’s somehow unseemly that Drummond has a comfortable modern home, an expensive camera, that she’s very businesslike about her blogging, that she has published a cookbook and a memoir, and that she was on a publicity tour for her memoir this winter.  Because cowgirls in Oklahoma shouldn’t have college degrees?  They shouldn’t make bank on a humble blog?  They shouldn’t go on book tours?  (Does this seem condescending to the rest of you yet?)  Alas, Fortini finds Drummond inauthentic, as though cowgirl personae on the internets are the most obvious place to go searching for authenticity:

As the canny author of her own persona, Drummond surely realizes that she must encourage the fantasy that she has created.  To remain interesting, her life must be aspirational.  She is who her readers would be if they had more time, more money, a quiet life in the country, a professional teeth-bleaching, or the support of a laconic cowboy husband.  Drummond, however, would never admit as much.  She said she highlights her shortcomings in her blog and doesn’t present herself “as any model of perfection.” “My Lord!” she told me.  “I’ve always just thought that that was reserved for Martha Stewart.”

Amanda, please!  Come on down to the anxious bench, honey.  We need to have a little chat. 

I know a little bit more about American history than I do about ranching, riding fences, roping ‘em up, gelding, branding, or just about any other cowgirl-like activity.  And yet I play one on the internets–how come?  Well, friends, the truth is that all cowgirls througout American history have been more about show biz than anything else, and I’m a little surprised that that news has taken the entire twentieth century to get back to New York.  Who’s the most famous cowgirl in U.S. history–Annie Oakley?  Why is she famous–for all of the cattle drives she led?  Hardly!  She’s famous because of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show!  She was an actual sharp-shooter, but she was born (and buried) in Ohio.

Now, we all know that there were and still are all sorts of gals who worked with large animals in the American West.  Many of them even wear big hats and snappy boots, not as a fashion statement, but because of the protection from sun and horse manure that they offer, respectively.  But the role of cowgirl was mostly a fiction from the very start, born in the minds of genius hucksters like Buffalo Bill.  (Only dudes and rubes wouldn’t have caught onto that by now.)

Have you ever heard of the expression “to have been buffaloed?”  Well, now perhaps you’ll appreciate a little bit more about where that might have come from.  Sure, the Pioneer Woman is fake, but that don’t make Rhee  Ree Drummond a phony, if you follow.  But, I guess those of us who eke out a living by writing in “flyover country” just don’t deserve to have an audience for our work.  We in the West especially have to be authentic to some dude fantasy about pitchin’ hay, droppin’ our g’s, and bein’ rode hard and put away wet.  We don’t deserve book contracts or book tours or appearances on the Today Show.  Apparently, that’s only for folks who write for the New Yorker and such–the kind of people no one expects to be authentic.

32 Comments »

32 Responses to “The internet, cowgirls, and the search for authenticity”

  1. Dr. Crazy on 08 May 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    I haven’t read the New Yorker piece (I don’t read the New Yorker), and I don’t even read the blog of Pioneer Woman (though I know about it). But I did see an interview with her on, like, the Today Show or Good Morning America or something. What’s weird to me about what you report is that Rhee Drummond is VERY OPEN about the fact that she is NOT an “authentic” pioneer woman, and that in fact she found the transition to ranch life really challenging. And, in fact, she started the blog as a way to connect to the “real world” when she felt so disconnected from it when she made the transition to ranch life.

    This is just to say that this only give credence to my general sense that the New Yorker is stupid.

  2. Dr. Crazy on 08 May 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    er, gives. Didn’t proofread before I submitted my comment :)

  3. Bardiac on 08 May 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    I’ve read the blog a bit a while back, and I think Dr. Crazy’s on the mark: the blog did a LOT of “fish out of water” city girl falls in love with a cowboy and learns to live on a ranch.

    Do you get the feeling that the NYer wouldn’t have found it “authentic” enough unless she were living in a sod house?

  4. Historiann on 08 May 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    Exactement. Or, that’s what I would say if I spoke French, which we all know can’t be the case because Coloradoans haven’t spoken French since the days of the fur traders on the Poudre and the Platte at least 170 years ago.

    Dr. Crazy, that’s an interesting angle. The dudes and rubes are even easier to fool than I thought!

  5. Roxie on 08 May 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Screw authenticity. We know you are the real thing, cowgirl, as sure as I am a most sincerely dead dog. It’s like we always say: Trust the blog, not the blogger.

  6. Historiann on 08 May 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Heh–thanks Roxie. I knew you’d love this story.

    Give Ruby a belly rub for me.

  7. Meredith on 08 May 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Hi Historiann – I am so happy to have come across your article – “We’re all cowgirls now” – during my research for my third year thesis in American Studies at the University of Virginia. I came across the Pioneer Woman a few months ago and decided to study her blog through the lens of postfeminism and the demystification of femininity for my final paper. The New Yorker article also shed an interesting light on my paper and I just wanted to say I appreciate your approach to blogging, and your ability to write about this interesting phenomenon. Thank you!

  8. Dr. Crazy on 08 May 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    Here’s what I’ve learned from all of this, with a bit to process: The New Yorker doesn’t believe that “irony” is possible in flyover country. Because anybody who calls herself a Pioneer Woman in that country must be a pioneer ala Laura Ingalls Wilder, right? RIGHT?

  9. Nicole on 09 May 2011 at 4:42 am #

    Heh. I enjoyed reading The Pioneer Woman’s romance story on my laptop when I was sick in bed one day last year. It was a real page turner…er, next page clicker.

    It is true that the story is “poor little rich girl searches to find herself at her parents’ country club and finds a rich rancher to marry instead of going to law school…” but there’s nothing phony about that. She’s very upfront about having more money than the rest of us and that’s ok. It really is like watching a B&W movie about how the other half lives, only without the musical numbers. I look forward to the Reese Witherspoon version when it gets to Netflix. (Hopefully it will be better than The Lady and the Cowboy which we turned off last night because it was boring.)

  10. Historiann on 09 May 2011 at 5:10 am #

    Thanks, Meredith. I’m glad my article was helpful to you.

    Dr. Crazy: I think you’re onto something. Irony is too hip for the tragically unhip people of Oklahoma, because if they were actually smart and hip, they’d move to New York.

    Once again, we have evidence that provincialism is not nearly so much a phenomenon of the periphery and much more a problem of the eastern cities. There’s a big, wide world outside of New York, Washington, and Boston, as it turns out, and not everyone is super-sad about not living in those cities. (E.g.: When I lived in Boston in the 1990s, people I had just met would ask where I was from. I’d say, “Ohio, originally,” and they’d pat my arm in a congratulatory fashion and say, “Well, that’s OK–aren’t you glad you’re here now!” as though moving to Boston were some kind of personal achievement.)

    And, Nicole: her website is distractingly slick (for my taste), but her recipes look pretty darn good. I think I might go back for another look later today.

  11. Comrade PhysioProf on 09 May 2011 at 5:14 am #

    Sounds to me like the usual: “bitchez ain’t shit”. No matter how Drummond titrates her “authenticity”, she clearly needs to be taken down a notch for behaving as though she has the right to be a popular, successful, wealthy business owner.

  12. Nicole on 09 May 2011 at 5:43 am #

    Historiann– She has a cookbook! Though it gets kind of mediocre reviews, IIRC.

    Deep down I do think she wasn’t really meant to be a housewife alone (some folks aren’t), and if the internet hadn’t allowed her to make this empire, she would be doing something else equally productive either in terms of charitable work or profitability. This is a good outlet for her intelligence and ambition.

  13. Perpetua on 09 May 2011 at 6:12 am #

    Right, and in additional to everything ya’ll have said (with which I agree) there’s the general hatred/ tearing down of women who make a business out of blogging specifically. How dare she be successful! Especially from unskilled labor like blogging! It’s not like she’s a “real” writer. It’s astonishing to me the amount of negativity that successful female bloggers attract.

    It’s also pretty hilarious that the author of the New Yorker piece expected to find her out there on the prairie tanning buffalo hide and churning her own butter. I’m pretty sure they have electricity now. Even in OK.

  14. Western Dave on 09 May 2011 at 8:28 am #

    Well, my frustrations with living in a college town in the West weren’t because it wasn’t like the East but because it wasn’t like the Midwest. And I think it had to do with the specific dynamics of Albuquerque and the way the military base led to a certain instability in the population, not anything particularly western. But yeah, the looks of sympathy New Yorkers gave me for living in Philadelphia (!) made me want to kick people at my hs reunion last fall. Of course, the phrase “my six bedroom house cost 115,000 dollars” tends to shut them up pretty quick.

  15. Indyanna on 09 May 2011 at 8:55 am #

    Damn, I forgot to renew my New Yorker subscription–in 1978! A recent piece in the NYT tells how New York is expecting to get a *real* “Silicon Alley” this year, rather than the faux knock-off imitation the town has been putting up with for years, so I guess there’s faking it and making-it-at-faking-it. Viking and Bosch amenities are only supposed to be in the fabulous lofts and co-ops that get featured in the drooly “Habitats” column of the Sunday “Real Estate” section of the paper of record. Which section I’ll note doesn’t get included in the Trans-App version of the rag that I buy out here on Sundays.

    Anyway, off to my summer grazing grounds due east of here, which direction is the new west.

  16. quixote on 09 May 2011 at 11:04 am #

    I was doing field work in western OK a few years back and got to talking with a rancher whose land I needed to visit. She dropped her g’s and had the typical TexOkie accent and she was telling me how much better ATVs are for herding cattle than horses. Then, I don’t even remember how we got on the subject, but it turned out she was a fan of balsamic vinegar and we discussed that for a while.

    The writers for the New Yorker need to get out more.

  17. Undine on 09 May 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    The New Yorker only has two available modes of description for those of us in flyover country: those who can be patronized and those who are “inauthentic.” These categories go double for the ladies, so I wasn’t a bit surprised at that profile. I’d never heard of Drummond before but knew she must have a following because of the stacks of her books on the book table at Costco, which is where those of us in flyover country get our literary opinions.

  18. Bridgett on 09 May 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Thanks for posting Fortini’s profile. As a reader of the Pioneer Woman’s blog for several years, I too think she readily offers that she is from the city and has had to adapt to the “pioneer” life. One could argue that she has adapted quite well! So I am not sure being depicting her as inauthentic is an accurtate portrayal.

    Like Nicole, I have always been intrigued by The Pioneer Woman in that she is obviously multi-talented – an interesting and funny blogger, an amazing photographer, and great at translating her activities such as cooking on her blog. (BTW – I have probably cooked a half dozen things from her blog and they all truned out GREAT!) So the fact that she was able to communicate her talents using a medium offers her public recognition is a statement of her abilities, as well as a reflection of the visibilty that can be achieved when a creative person blogs!

    And I’ll bet Fortini doesn’t have any ranchers in HER family! Because I know the ones in my family work very hard, but live comfortably and enjoy much higher incomes than mine as an Assistant Professor!

  19. koshem Bos on 09 May 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    What the hell is Authentic? Family, parents, kids, grandkids and the latest spouse are real; the rest doesn’t really matters.

  20. Historiann on 09 May 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    koshem Bos asks a great question. What is “authentic?” Who ever walks around thinking “I’m authentic,” enjoying hir awesome authenticity?

    Authentic is more of a compliment for others to bestow (largely meaningless, perhaps) or more importantly, it’s something to withhold from another. And that’s what I think was going on in that article–an accusation of inauthenticity when I don’t get the impression that authenticity was really on the table.

    (We are talking about the internets, after all.)

  21. Pie Near Woman on 09 May 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    The New Yorker article was poorly written, poorly researched and stupidly published by a magazine that should know better. Ree Drummond’s blog contains everything that is wrong with America in one tidy place – from pimping big brands to turning ranching into a ridiculous caricature of itself. She is a moron and the New Yorker journalist lacked the balls to say it out loud. If you want to read a hilarious take on The Pioneer Woman – check out http://www.pienearwoman.com. You’ll see what the New Yorker journalist saw and was unable to articulate in her article.

  22. Historiann on 09 May 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    She is a moron and the New Yorker journalist lacked the balls to say it out loud.

    Yeah, the reason she “lacked balls” is probably because the journalist’s name is Amanda. I think you give Rhee Drummond far too much credit in suggesting that her blog is where to find “everything that is wrong with America.”

    But, kudos for the funny blog name!

  23. Leslie on 10 May 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    “The author suggests that it’s somehow unseemly that Drummond has a comfortable modern home, an expensive camera, that she’s very businesslike about her blogging, that she has published a cookbook and a memoir, and that she was on a publicity tour for her memoir this winter. Because cowgirls in Oklahoma shouldn’t have college degrees? They shouldn’t make bank on a humble blog? They shouldn’t go on book tours? (Does this seem condescending to the rest of you yet?) ”

    Speaking as a native Oklahoman, yeah it’s condescending and also par for the course.

    “Authentic is more of a compliment for others to bestow (largely meaningless, perhaps) or more importantly, it’s something to withhold from another. And that’s what I think was going on in that article–an accusation of inauthenticity when I don’t get the impression that authenticity was really on the table.”

    The whole concept of “authenticity” seems to suggest that there’s just one way of being. I can think of all kinds of ways of being a cowgirl, let alone anything else.

  24. wini on 11 May 2011 at 6:46 am #

    As someone who actually has to teach about authenticity, I’m going to try my hand at this. Authenticity, at least in music, is always relational. Authenticity is a concept that works within genres, and while it is a characteristic that is bestowed by others those working within the genres strive for authenticity. I’m going to make the same assumption about Drummond’s self representation.

    There is a really good book about country music and authenticity by Peterson.

    So, within the genre of “cowgirl,” what is authentic? Being a music scholar, I would go back to some of the original cowgirl singers, let’s say Patsy Montana or Girls of the Golden West. In much of their music, they express the desire to be, well, a cowboy. So within that frame is Drummond “authentic”? [It's important to note the audience for country and western music at the time, but suffice it to say it was not New Yorkers unless you're looking at recent refugees from the dust bowl.]

    Can anyone aspire to be a cowboy’s wife? My guess is no, that a cowboy’s wife was not a well off woman living in comfort. Scholars of the west probably have a lot more to say about that.

    So, she aspires to be a ranch hand’s wife? Seems to me that ranchers are largely hard working and wealthy. Within that frame, the frame she herself places herself in, both she and her husband are “authentically” hard working and wealthy.

    I love “pie near woman” because it parodies exactly what I find to be “Everything wrong with blogging,” namely the staged, photo shopped beautiful pictures.

  25. loyal reader on 11 May 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    I thought the article was nasty. It was pointing out that Drummond basically was full of shit. It also had some interesting things about fame and how it destroys people — her blog has become about her being on a book tour, not about her being on the ranch. Similar to “Bethenny”. I was dismayed that one of her home-schooled sons has a pretty bad speech impediment (“her son is unable to say the letter r” — it was said so casually, but this is a serious deficit!) — know what? I bet ya they got speech therapists out there on the prairie, yall! He needs to get to one and fix that lisp. Perhaps most snotty in my opinion was early in her bio, it mentioned that Drummond had gone to a community college in Virginia to study restaurant management. but one of her professors said “what the hell are you DOING here!” — so she went to the U of T @ Austin. Like, how HORRIBLE that she went to a CC! Good grief! New Yorker readers must have been appalled! Anyway I am late to the party. Thanks for reading.

  26. Historiann on 11 May 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    How many kids can’t say the letter “r” clearly at age 6? Like, at least 5 million of them!

    I don’t know a lot of kids, but some speech idiosyncracies are clearly linked to age and fine muscle control, so they overwhelmingly age out of them. Big deal!

    IIRC, the article says that she went to USC to study broadcast journalism. (Even more damning–she’s just a phony from LA who studied mass comm!)

  27. Leslie on 11 May 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    @wini I get your point about authenticity, and like the way you frame it. With a tip of the hat to internet acquaintances, I think I’ll use that in my class tomorrow. We’ve been talking how personal/cultural identity is expressed in music today, from the standpoint of composers in the classical tradition. So it encompasses everything from Daugherty’s riff’s on Elvis and Superman to the various strategies Peter Sculthorpe uses to evoke the Australian landscape in his music.

  28. Christine on 12 May 2011 at 6:58 am #

    I just want to add that I think one of the appeals of the Pioneer Woman that often goes unmentioned or underemphasized is the strong, yet precisely calibrated sexuality present in her writing about the entire process of courting, marrying, and settling down with “Marlboro Man” and then *retaining* that sexuality through the birth and raising of four kids on a relatively isolated ranch. I started reading her blog a couple of years ago, when I consumed the entire backlog of her soon to be printed bodice-ripper of a memoir over a weekend! It is really what hooked me, if I’m being honest, even though I’m a sort of obsessive cook and should care more about her lasagne (which is delicious, I have to tell you). I’m both taken in and skeptical about the whole deal, which is what drew me in. She’s pretty! and thin! and smart! and has some taste! and seemingly slap happy; and he’s buff! and deep! and they have these sweet kids and lots of land and money and a seemingly sizzling! private life. Yeah, Drummond blogs about food, redecorating, and homeschooling, but the story of her romance with M.M. is what I think attracted a lot of readers and is now about to make her the biggest of the biggest bucks. The sex was and is central to her success.

  29. Christine on 12 May 2011 at 6:59 am #

    *sex appeal

  30. Monocle Man on 12 May 2011 at 11:34 am #

    “Why does Nietzsche challenge the pursuit of the origin (Ursprung), at least on those occasions when he is truly a genealogist? First, because it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities, and their carefully protected identities . . . if the genealoglist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is something altogether different behind things – not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.”

    Michel Foucault – “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”

    PS – It’s “Ree” not Rhee”

  31. Western Dave on 13 May 2011 at 6:03 am #

    Almost all of my son’s whole kindergarten class can’t pronounce the final r in his name.

  32. Historiann on 15 May 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Sorry about the misspelling–thanks for bringing it to my attention, MM. I’ll make the correction (very belatedly!) now.