Does ‘Maine, Obviously’ reinforce negative stereotypes?

On Monday I announced the launch of Maine, Obviously, a Tumblr-based collection of news stories that feel [to me] as though they could only have been produced in Maine. From people who live in or have ties to the state the response has been largely positive. On a few occasions, however, it has been suggested that “while Maine, Obviously is coming from a place of love, it is not clear that is where it is ending up.” Specifically, the blog runs the risk of “reinforcing others’ stereotypes of Maine, Mainers and small towns.”

Maine, Obviously comes from a place of love, indeed, though it is largely born of a number of my own experiences here in the state. I grew up in Cornish, a Western Maine town of 1,200 hundred people. Much of the lens that determines which stories I select for the collection was developed by experiences I had as a young person (and, in living back in Cornish, continue to have today).

I remember the snow plow man who, upon getting a call for a job, left the local restaurant after shoving a couple bottles of road beers into his pocket. I remember the small business owner who carried a Jansport backpack stuffed with cash wherever he went. I remember my father getting his drivers license suspended and then using his tractor as a form of transportation for a year. I remember a classmate of mine—Beaver—getting in trouble for using the c-word during health class and jumping onto an awning from a second story window in order to escape the teacher’s wrath. I remember when someone I went to high school with somehow emerged unscathed after falling into a fire pit he was trying to jump over at a party.

I love Maine the same way an adult loves the family they grew up with; my many memories are fond, but when we all get together around the table and trade stories, far more are of the “remember when Uncle John had one too many and joined the Memorial Day Parade, beer in hand” variety than they are poignant and love-laden. In this way, I loved Roseanne growing up more than any other show because it portrayed my class experience more honestly than any other television show.

Maine, Obviously is intended for an audience who already knows the state—they are the only audience I can imagine actually appreciating it—but the nature of the Internet doesn’t really allow for turning away onlookers from outside of the state. In the context of the aforementioned criticism, it was implied that with a relatively sizable Twitter audience I enjoy, and with much of that audience out of state, I should consider the message, explicit or otherwise, that is being delivered beyond our state lines. But even though this spill-over exposure is unintentional, I wonder what responsibility one has when presenting their state, intentionally or not, to a broader audience? I am a big fan of David Lynch, who paints grim, macabre pictures of our country, and while many of the scenarios are heavy and surreal, they are based on abstract realities about the United States. I do not compare myself to Lynch—I am a mere blogger—but it is worth noting that we do not ask Lynch to consider himself an ambassador of the country who has a responsibility to considering the promotion of a particular image aboard; we celebrate Lynch for telling a truth that goes frequently untold in mainstream film. Is John Waters reviled or revered for his truth about Baltimore? Martin Scorsese for his truth about New York?

Where Maine, Obviously does reinforce stereotypes about the state, it does so in the form of an in-joke with other Mainers by acknowledging and highlighting particular truths. What happens, though, when the reinforcement of those stereotypes is unintentionally consumed by Internet bystanders? But which stereotypes are being underscored, anyway? That Maine remains quaint, small, and rural? That the news stories, while strange, show a people with a good deal of heart? That there are some bumbling, well-intended, good-hearted fuck ups here? That there are a lot of incidents involving moose? So what? Some stereotypes popular to other states, mind you, point to incidents of mass corruption on the parts of the police and politicians, epidemics of urban violence, wholesale environmental degradation, plagues of homicide, and so-on. That I will take the former batch over the latter should be evident in that I choose to live here over the plenitude of other options available to me, and thousands of other people who have considered their options have made the same choice based on similar factors.

In some ways, the urge to believe that everyone must do their part as a means of giving Maine a positive name is understandable. For the second year running, Maine appeared dead last on Forbes’ list of “business friendly” states, and Governor LePage does little to earn for the state any positive attention. I can’t help but to wonder, though, if part of this expectation of individual accountability for the state’s image has roots that go deeper than this. Due to the proliferation of social media, intentionally or not, we brand our personalities, our selves, as corporations brand their products. Is the next step that we must consider our home as an extension of ourselves and brand accordingly? Tidy branded narratives are, after all, the default for some of the most popular dialog relating to the state. Consider the efforts of groups like Creative Portland, which exists to let people know beyond state lines that Portland is a perfectly reasonable place to make a creative living in, or that the LL Bean Boyfriend meme has popularized a meta-branded interpretation of the state in the vein of a surreal advertisement. The default narrative of the message we broadcast beyond our boarders is that which is unequivocally inviting, and in that way, unequivocally unbelievable. In this context, Maine, Obviously feels out of place and is, for this reason an important contribution. It is one of the few entries into this dialogue that doesn’t double as a quasi-overt advertisement.

And so it is no more the responsibility of the citizen to reflect a tourism board reality of the state as it is of the painter to be bound to exclusively capture the beauty of creation with a reverent eye. I made Maine, Obviously as a sort of on-going Christopher Guest meets David Lynch love-letter to the state that produced me, and it is meant to be shared with other Mainers who have an appreciation for a similar lens. There is no singular narrative that defines Maine, no one singular truth. Maine, Obviously serves to tell one of those many truths and it is intended to be digested as such.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.