Saturday, November 14, 2009

the little house on the prairie, all grown up

Annaa Mattsson - we've never met, but we did have the same teachers for high school, ten years apart - wrote on her blog recently about having read a pile of American fiction, aimed at women. There was a theme, she said, and she summarized it like this (translation is mine, Annaa writes in Swedish):

A smart young woman grows up in small town, and leaves to a different and preferably larger town for school or work. She starts her career there, and she finds love. Then something dramatic happens, and the young woman abandons her career and, if she can't convince him to come with her, she also abandons her new found love. The young woman then returns to "where she belongs", the small town where she grew up, and her large family. And her friends, who, according to Annaa, have outrageous demands on her time and availability.

What's going on? Annaa asked on her blog. Family and friendship is more important than love and personal success? What kind of crap is that? She didn't recognize this moral-to-the-story, and figured it had to be an expression of American culture.

I have been thinking a lot about women and choices the past few months, because my friend Barbara and her daughter Shannon are writing a book and a blog on the topic. Often when I talk to Barbara or read their blog I have an unsettling feeling of being out of my element. I understand what they are talking about, but at the same time I don't. Sometimes I think I am just stupid, and sometimes I think there are actual cultural differences.

Annaa's question, and her observation, really helped me. I felt validated. I think Annaa did see an American theme. I think there is a strong pull for American women to stay home and take care of their families. To Swedish women that can be jarring, because we've been raised differently, and Swedish society works differently.

After I had been thinking about it for a couple of days, I realized that Annaa had described almost exactly the life of internet sensation Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman. She is a woman in her early 40s, who has just published her first cookbook. She also has a large sprawling website. She is incredibly funny and talented, and popular among women. Right now her cookbook is number 11 on Publisher Weekly's list of bestsellers, non-fiction.

The New York Times describes Drummond, and her book, like this:

Ree Drummond lives on a cattle ranch in Pawhuska, Okla. She is also a writer, photographer and home-school teacher to her four children. She is also funny, enthusiastic and self-deprecating, making the book appeal to pavement-pounders and pioneer types alike. A self-described “career gal in black” and a vegetarian, she was between jobs in Los Angeles and Chicago when she met the man who would become her husband during a stopover in her hometown. Now, she is rooted in a community where meat is eaten at all three meals, pasta is still regarded with suspicion and vegetables other than potatoes are considered entirely optional.

I wonder if the popularity of The Pioneer Woman can be explained at least in part by the fact that while she is living out, very happily, women's fantasy of being whisked away by a handsome cowboy (she refers to her husband as 'Marlboro Man'), she is also fulfilling a social norm, the American social norm of returning home. And, not only does she return 'home' as in to her part of the country, she's returned 'home' in the most American sense of all: home to the prairie.

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