Screen » Screen News

Portlandia: The White Subcultural Equivalent of a Minstrel Show

Starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein


Written on a wall at the entrance to the Mississippi District in Portland, Ore., is the line "Welcome to Hipsterville U.S.A."

For those unfamiliar with that particular burgh, it's more of a spiritual locale than a physical one, existing not just in Portland, but also in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Austin, Texas; Seattle and nearly every other urban area in the United States--even Boise.

With its skin-tight fashions, social malcontents, bike culture, backyard chicken coops and localism that borders on xenophobia, Hipsterville U.S.A. is a fascinating place. So fascinating a place, a TV show has been made about it that's now entering its second season on the Independent Film Channel.

But it isn't called Hipsterville. It's called Portlandia, and that's where things start to go wrong.

The sketch-comedy series from SNL alum Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, former guitarist for Sleater-Kinney, chronicles the misadventures of artistic oddballs and the uber-politically correct as they play adult hide and seek, go dumpster diving and "put a bird on it." Sketches feature characters like angry bikers and ultra-sensitive couples as they insist on ordering only local food from menus.

The problem is that much of the humor functions with a structure similar to racist jokes, in which viewers are encouraged to despise the characters. But unlike the sorts of characters written for SNL, Portlandia's are not based off personal quirks like attaching the suffix "idge" to everything but off of cultural stereotypes. These sketches are the white subcultural equivalent of a minstrel show, that while perhaps intended as a charming homage to oddballs, has in fact drummed up a sentiment best summarized as "it's about damned time someone put those weirdos in their place."

[ Video is no longer available. ]

By labeling the show Portlandia, instead of Hipsterville U.S.A., it gives the erroneous impression that these are isolated phenomena and the hateable characters portrayed are somehow representational of all Portlanders.

Portlandia's humor is doubly crass, as some of the places and people they're skewering are real--like the sketches about the unnamed Feminist Book Store, which is actually In Other Words, a shop located on Northeast Killingsworth St.

But that doesn't mean Portlandia isn't funny. A sketch in which everywhere Fred and Carrie go, they are invited to someone's DJ night feels incredibly relatable. As does one about spending days ignoring the world to watch Battlestar Galactica.

But those sketches could have taken place anywhere in Hipsterville U.S.A., not just Portland.

With tight editing, clever writing and a total lack of fear in its satire, Portlandia can be funny. Very, very funny. But when laughing, it's important to stop and ask yourself if you're laughing for the right reasons. And there's a good chance you aren't.