The development of cross country air and Interstate highway travel over the course of the 20th century steadily eroded formerly conceived regional divisions and led to the growing imagining of the great center of the United States as “flyover country,” a place that needs to be quickly traversed to get to somewhere that actually matters. Long in the making visually through airline advertisements and other sources, it was perhaps best solidified by Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue” of 1976 that perfectly captured both New York self-absorption and the “flyover country” vision of the nation, and indeed the world, in the jet age. In the following decades, this fantastical image became more and more an actual model for everything from airline passenger maps to television programming such as The Middle. Indeed, television programmers and programming played a central role in the emergence of the term and idea of “flyover country” as it steadily erased, with a few notable exceptions, the rural and even non-coastal United States from the airwaves.
Although “flyover country” is supposedly the way those on the two coasts routinely dismiss the interior, what is most striking is how few examples there are of coastal commentators using the term. Instead, it is Midwesterners who have embraced the label in the names of independent films, fiction series, and album or song titles, and who have used it to denounce cultural “elites” and to extol the virtues of the supposed better quality of life and values of the “heartland.” In the past decade plus, the term has also been explicitly politicized as a marker of conservatism, patriotism, and advocacy of the Republican party.
Jason Aldean’s 2012 video for his song “Flyover States” explicitly defends the nation’s vast interior from the sneers of coastal elites flying far above, but in so doing, reinforces many of the visions of the region held by its supposed critics – that it is entirely rural or wilderness, that it is devoid of major cities or cultural diversity, that it is exclusively white, working class and Christian. On the other hand, the decision to use an airplane graveyard as the backdrop for the band cleverly positions the “forgotten” residents of “flyover country” as the ultimate survivors in contrast to the superfluousness of the modern technological society of Manhattan, Hollywood or Silicon Valley.
rural versus urban representations
Thanks for this post, Dr. Harkins- you make a lot of interesting points. What strikes me as most provocative is your assertion that the term and idea of flyover country has “steadily erased” the “rural and even non-coastal United States from the airwaves.” This strikes me because there still are (and were) many television shows (especially sitcoms) set in the Midwest. Upon further reflection, though, I realize that many of these are based in more metropolitan areas such as Detroit (Sister, Sister and Martin), Chicago (Whitney, Community, Married with Children, According to Jim, Andy Richter Controls the Universe), Cleveland (Drew Carey Show), and Columbus (Family Ties). It’s fascinating the degree to which the rural Midwest tends to get effaced, as the region is often portrayed in cities that seem to say “hey, look, we’re not the other flyover Midwest- we have culture.” I’m interested in the way that politics play out here with more urban Midwestern cities being represented as more liberal in contrast to the more conservative Heartland rural areas. What do these types of shows do to the national imagining of the Midwest? Does it work to refute the image you discuss above or does it further reinforce the rural Midwest as cultural Other?
Midwest Television Shows
Thanks Staci for your point about Midwest-set TV programs. You are of course right that there have been a somewhat steady stream of sitcoms set in the Midwest over the past few decades (along with the ones you've mentioned, you can add "Hot in Cleveland" and going much further back, "WKRP in Cincinnati," "Bob Newhart," (Chicago) "One Day at a Time" (Indianapolis), "Coach" and "MTM" (Minnesota), "That 70s Show" (Milwaukee) and so on. So erasure may be too strong a term but set against the absolute avalanche of programs set in New York and Los Angeles (in addition to talk shows and news programs) I do think the cartoon I showed is not entirely wrong. It strikes me further that other than Chicago, very few (please let me know of exceptions!) dramas or procedurals are set outside of the East and West megalopolises.* I wonder why sitcoms are seen as appropriate for Midwestern settings but dramas generally are not? Perhaps this reinforces the "otherness" of "middle" America as well? I do think the desire to refute the "flyover" dismissal is most keenly felt in Midwest cities desperate to prove to "coasters" that they are culturally relevant. In this regard, ironically, the Aldean video erases them as effectively as do the high flying elites. Incidentally, a great source for further thinking through these questions is Victoria Johnson's "Heartland TV: Prime Time Television and the Struggle for US Identity" (NYU, 2008). *er, ok also "Breaking Bad" (New Mexico), "Justified" (Kentucky) which I also see as part of "flyover country" writ large
Dr. Harkins, thanks so much for the suggestion of Johnson's book! I really appreciate your point about Heartland portrayals tending to be sitcoms, where the characters are perhaps endearing but quirky and somewhat backward. I'm struck, though, by how the advertising industry often takes the opposite tack -- portraying American "goodness" as embodied in bucolic small town family life. I'd be interested in your thoughts on how TV ads differ in this respect from programmed content.
Simone- Great point about erasure beyond a few opening shots. Here in KY, this is very much the feeling about "Justified". To its credit (due to Elmore Leonard origins) the show does include some authentic local specialty items (Ale 8 soft drink/soda/pop, Pappy Van Winkle's bourbon, etc.) but many of the accents are a bit off and every time I see a Eucalyptus tree outside a supposed Appalachian mountain cabin, the illusion of authenticity is shattered. I think too, that for most of the sitcoms we listed earlier, beyond an opening credit sequence and the occassional one-liner, there is little sense of a genuine Midwestern-groundedness -- probably because most were not actually filmed there.
Well put, Tony, about Justified. There's something about Nick Searcy's performance that really seems to capture Kentucky well, and the gentleman they had playing the KSP officer for the first few seasons really struck me as very authentically "Kentucky" as well. The show is filled with great performances, but some of them are to greater or lesser degrees "Kentucky" to my ear...(although, to be honest, my authentic experience with Eastern Kentucky culture is thin...) They did work in a reference to Chaney's Dairy Barn at one point, but I think they indicated you could get it at the grocery store in Eastern Kentucky...which I don't believe to be the case. :) I do wish Kentucky could think about ways to more actively bring television and film taping to the Bluegrass State, especially with some increasing interest in setting shows here from highly regarded networks (i.e. FX and AMC). Do you know whether AMC will be taping Ashland in Kentucky? Or will we get Eucalyptus trees there as well?
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