Monday, June 14, 2010

Round on the ends and high in the middle

When a film or television show needs to convey that a character is from the heartland (and probably a little naive to boot), the go-to state is Ohio. I don't know if it's the shortness or sound of the name that makes it so popular or the nondescript geographical nature--it's neither north, south, east, nor west--that makes it receptive to being anything a writer wants. Whatever the case, the Buckeye State is convenient shorthand for suggesting a background of small towns, farms, and mom, baseball, and apple pie Americana.

For example, consider how Ohio was portrayed recently on So You Think You Can Dance. (I'm giving the show another shot since that screeching judge appears to be out of the picture.) One contestant hails from Wapakoneta, which is best known as the birthplace of Neil Armstrong. Based on the recurring gags about the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the Native American name, you'd have thought he said he was raised in the wilderness by wolves.

On last Thursday's show there were a few sequences of a British judge getting lost trying to find this teeny tiny burg and ending up in Marysville and Columbus, which aren't exactly next door to Wapakoneta. Never mind that the 2000 census pegged the city's population at approximately 9500 or that it's not that hard to find if you're on Route 33. Even the GPS failed him!

I've driven that way several times to my parents' home and recognized many spots featured in the TV segments. It may not be Los Angeles, but trust me, Wapakoneta isn't some microscopic point on the map that you make one wrong turn looking for and then wind up in the state capitol.

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Of course, playing up Ohio as all cornfields, general stores, and trains more effectively sells their narrative of an outsider trying to make it in the big city. Fox's musical dramedy Glee, which is set in nearby Lima, does a better job of portraying what the area is really like, although the TV version certainly looks much nicer.

As with all stereotypes, there are accurate elements in Ohio's popular conception as the embodiment of all things Midwestern. Farming is important to the state. There are plenty of small towns. (I'm from one of those of blink-and-you-missed-it villages.) The ordinariness that the state gets pegged with isn't necessarily off the mark.

But here's the catch: the most recent numbers place Ohio as the 7th most populated state in the nation. The greater metro areas of Ohio's three major cities (Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati) account for more than six million people. Dayton, Toledo, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown aren't exactly quaint little towns where everyone knows one another either. To act as though the state is nothing but agriculture and community-wide potluck dinners is to ignore the numbers and the reality.

Certainly there are other states that fare much worse in how they're perceived. Just think of what comes to mind with bordering states Kentucky and West Virginia. Taking that into consideration, Ohio's sentimentalized normality isn't such a bad way for people to imagine what it must be like here.



At 11:50 AM, Blogger Elizabeth said...

Thank you! I so totally agree. Driving there for work takes me 45 minutes not FOUR HOURS


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