“Show-Me State Hello”: Greetings from the “Unnatural” Midwest

Curator's Note

In The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture (1989), cultural geographer James Shortridge describes the Midwest’s popular identity in American culture as a space commonly believed to have “importance as a repository for traditional values… . It was America’s collective ‘hometown,’ a place with good air, picturesque farm buildings, and unpretentious ‘simple’ people” (67-68).

Airport,” a 1997 episode of NewsRadio, initially appears to affirm this reductive image of the Midwest. The episode finds New York radio personality Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) and WNYX station manager Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) stranded in the St. Louis airport due to a snowstorm. During the cold open, Bill dramatically complains about being “marooned in the vast, cultureless wasteland between New York and Palm Springs,” and he adds that “it’s just that four solid days of relentless Midwestern friendliness, it just seems so … unnatural.”

As “Airport” progresses, however, the episode quickly eschews the tired fish-out-of-water narrative trading on lazy stereotypes – such as the hardnosed, abrasive New Yorker and the affable Midwestern yokel, respectively – in favor of a far more subversive and surprisingly complex engagement with regional identity. In short, the episode configures “region” as an identification category reliant upon performed external behavior. Hence, Bill’s suspicions regarding the Midwest’s “unnatural” status ultimately are warranted, as “Midwestern friendliness” is revealed to be nothing more than a performed façade that obscures violent tendencies and deep-seated resentment towards coastal inhabitants.

For his part, Bill also performs “fake friendliness” in an attempt to exploit the superficially naïve Midwesterners occupying the airport terminal. Bill’s performance, though, culminates with the local deviants giving him the “Show-Me State Hello,” a violent initiation ritual through which the visitor from New York is granted recognition as an honorary Midwesterner. With this brutal display of regulated Midwestern sociality, the episode further undermines the region’s longstanding image as an anachronistic stockpile of kind, simple folk.

This episode of NewsRadio thus posits that regional identity is dependent upon insidious forms of performativity. To be Midwestern, the episode suggests, is to embrace performing stereotypical traits that mask underlying resistance to essentialized regional imagery. Rather than being a staid and uneventful space, NewsRadio presents the Midwest as a site of disorder in which, as Bill suspects, “every toothy grin hides an extra row of teeth.”

Comments

Staci Stutsman's picture

Considerations of genre

Fantastic post, Adam! You make a lot of great points and I look forward to watching this episode in its entirety. Going back to the discussion thread on Dr. Harkins’ post at the beginning of the week, I’m interested in the ways that different genres handle regional identity. (Note that my post on Friday also deals with a sitcom.) As the region is so associated with its stereotypical reputation, it’s especially open to comedy I think. I appreciate the fact that NewsRadio takes its joke past that though, delving into the region’s performative nature. Isn’t there something about the comedic form, though, that also opens it up to this move, one that undermines and steps on the head of the previous joke in order to reach a larger pay off? I’m interested in the way that comedy uses the Midwest (and its place as this multifaceted repository of traditional values) to both confirm some of those values as well as disrupt them. What sort of cultural critique is being done by shows such as NewsRadio and would this look different in different genres?

Adam Ochonicky's picture

genre

I’m really intrigued by your comments about the production of cultural critique through genre. In terms of comedy and the Midwest, “Parks and Recreation” stands out as a contemporary example of the region’s reductive image as “nice” being affirmed and undercut almost simultaneously. One of the recurring gags in the series revolves around the city hall’s murals, which depict outrageously offensive scenes from Pawnee’s history. On one hand, Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) generally pleasant demeanor might be read as an attempt to compensate for this shameful past by demonstrating how progressive the town’s present has become; on the other hand, her sometimes halting attempts to sustain a publicly “nice” persona reveal a highly performative identity that’s adopted, in part, to mask her extreme provincialism.

Regarding genre, several major horror franchises use the Midwest as a setting, including “Halloween” (Illinois) and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (Ohio), which I consider to be a significant decision on the parts of the filmmakers. By establishing the Midwest as a site of horror, these films unsettle perceptions of the region as a safe realm, among other things. Moreover, in terms of genre characteristics, horror generally is past-oriented in the sense that an ancient trauma or forgotten monster emerges to wreck havoc in the present. What does it suggest about the Midwest when the region is selected as an ideal venue for such horrific returns?

Adam Ochonicky's picture

Airport episode in full

By the way, the full “Airport” episode of NewsRadio is available here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2bOG6IUZgg

Anthony Harkins's picture

Minnesota Nice Exposed?

Adam- really interesting stuff on an old favorite show. So what do you think is the audience takeaway of such a subversive reading of tried and true regional stereotypes that suggests instead that regional differences are just a facade? Is it comforting for Easterns to think/see that Americans are all really the same under our fake smiles? Or conversely, for Midwesterners, is it seen as recognition of the performative nature of Midwesterness or, in contrast, as resentment that legitimate differences between “real Americans” and coasters are being denied? It strikes me that many Midwesterners cling tightly to the idea that they ARE genuinely nicer people than those with more status and media-focus — so what happens when this is called into question? As to Staci’s astute point, I do think the comedy genre allows, even encourages, such challenges to expectations more than dramas (or advertisements) do and perhaps this explains the fact that so many examples of the televised Midwest come in the form of sitcoms. Look forward to your further thoughts on this in your Roseanne post!

Adam Ochonicky's picture

"real" Americans

You present some very challenging (and important) questions to consider in terms of audience reception. I have to admit, I’m a bit reluctant to speculate on how this episode might have been received by viewers. Given the critique of Bill’s inflated sense of Eastern cultural superiority and the refutation of Midwestern “niceness,” the episode’s assessment of American culture and regional identity is remarkably pessimistic. From that perspective, then, the episode potentially indicts all American viewers for being shallow and duplicitous…

Anthony Harkins's picture

Airport Cynicism

I watched the episode — that is a pretty dark view of “the brotherhood of man”. But offset, I suppose, by the comedic genre and the 30 minute format.

Simone Becque's picture

Mayberry and Niceness

Both the above comment threads from Staci and Dr. Harkins’ on genre and niceness lead me back to an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” and Mayberry though not Midwestern is certainly a representation of the rural. I must confess, I haven’t seen every episode, but there’s an episode in particular that I’m thinking of, “Man in a Hurry.” In the episode a big city businessman’s car breaks down on his way through Mayberry, and since it’s a Sunday, no one can repair the car, and he’s forced to spend the town with Andy and Co. He complains about the slow pace of things, and seems to have no time for the kindness being offered to him (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F4HGnQ4e_o). But by the end of the episode (seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIcyRWlJHHY) he seems converted - lulled like a baby away from his anxious pacing.

As opposed to the pessimism you discuss the permeates the NewsRadio representation of Midwestern “niceness,” this representation presents the possibility of optimision, by suggesting that the niceness is lurking behind the harried - don’t bother me facade of the city dwellers. For me it’s less about the audience reception, and most about what continues to get thought of as “authentic.” Or do we live in such an irony permeated, post-modern world, that of course the niceness must be revealed as an act? Could we imagine a show that presents authentic niceness, of the Andy Griffith vintage on contemporary American television? And if niceness is the provenance of rural Midwesterners, then what is authentic about the Urban dwellers, their irony, the mask hiding their ‘nice’ underbelly (here I’m especially thinking about “Girls”)? And the way, the Midwest is often held as a place of banishment for those who can’t make it - Karen Cartwright on “Smash” was a stone’s throw away from being “sent back to Iowa.”

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