In Case You Missed It: The Goddamn Midwest

a christmas story

This week, I want to ramble briefly about something that’s become a regular part of my conversations as of late. A few weeks back, I was loudly explaining to a friend why Parks & Recreation is not only the co-best show on television (with Breaking Bad), but how it’s one of the most on-point/least snarky depictions of the Midwest I’ve ever seen. Typically, there are three ways in which the Midwest enters into pop culture.

1) Because it’s cold and we are simple of mind, we resort to violence to pass the time. (Fargo, a metric fuckton of horror movies.)

2) We’re simple folk who really just wanna do a gosh-darned great job and have a nice house and family. (Drop Dead Gorgeous, Home Improvement, everything that took Home Improvement as the last word)

3) Flyover country. (Everything else.)

It’s difficult to articulate exactly what defines the Midwest, because having grown up in it I just kind of instinctively get it. We drink pop, not soda, and McDonald’s came out of our womb. (The afterbirth was McRibs.) Our love for John Cougar Mellencamp is somewhere between genuine and ironic, and cheap Norman Rockwell Americana still has a certain appeal, even though time has left it behind. We’re aesthetes, willing to roll with the changing tides but always trying to maintain a sense of ourselves and our place in the world. When we make fun of Detroit, it’s joshing, like the way one would make fun of a little brother. A house isn’t just a status symbol (though it is, as we’re the world captial of suburban sprawl), but it’s also a place your family fits in. Unless you despise them, in which case we don’t fight, we passive-aggressively snipe.

I could wax philosophical for hours on what feels like the Midwest to me, but shows like Parks hit the nail on the head without getting too long-winded. People more or less give a shit about each other (conversely, when we hate, we hate hard), and there’s comedy in knowing that everybody in the rest of your country kind of underestimates you. (My favorite is a gem from Mad Men: “I’m from the Midwest. We were taught to be humble and do things ourselves.”) It’s an entire geographical mass of professional appreciators, since a relatively low amount of national pop culture comes from us. We get to just kind of stand off to the side and make bemused Facebook statuses about it.

For me, the true benchmark for the Midwestern ethic in a piece of pop culture is A Christmas Story. Anyone from here has known every member of that cast. The sarcastic kid, the foulmouthed, bowling-loving dad, the mom who’s learned from years of endurance to laugh at everything around her. Nearly everything about that movie feels lived-in, from the mirth of looking at department store windows (Marshall Field’s) to obnoxious dares in an effort to keep yourself amused. Even the scene with the tire change is perfect; I once had an allergic reaction to getting my mouth washed out with soap, and couldn’t stop laughing about how I got to miss school the next day on account of “soap…poisoning…

The Christmas Day sequence is what brings A Christmas Story absurdly close to home. Aside from the dog stampede, who hasn’t watched family members loom ominously over meticulously prepared food? I’ve had holiday meals at small restaurants (though I admit, never Christmas) that attempted to infuse festivity into the proceedings, with dwindling returns. Maybe I’m just putting my native territory on a pedestal and this isn’t particularly exclusive, but it is to us. As P.O.S. best put it, “I’m from the heartland, motherfucker. Sipping whole milk, motherfucker.”

I want to hear from all of you, though. How do you explain the Midwest to outsiders? If you’re an outsider, how do you understand it?