Yesterday I caught the tail end of a show on NPR about Schitt Creek, a show on Amazon about a couple who lose everything and have to move to a town they bought as a joke called Schitt Creek to rebuild their lives. That gives you an idea of how much their lives have changed if they are moving to a town they bought on a whim, as a gag, to rebuild. It’s a riches to rags story. I haven’t seen the show although it sounds good and I want to watch it, but listening to the conversation about it on NPR made me really think about some assumptions in this country about small towns that really bothers me.
I’ve been living in a mid-sized town for the past fifteen years. The closest small city is thirty minutes away. The closest big city is two hours away. As recently as four years ago, I had to plan a weekly trip into town to get groceries as there were no grocery stores close. I was raising two kids as a single mother, so running out of something simple like milk or butter was a massive problem. I couldn’t just hop in the car to run to the store because my babies were in bed by 7:30 and the store was thirty minutes away. This town is in a rural county. The biggest community in our county has 5,000 people and that is larger than where I live. This is just to paint a picture of the size of the community where I live and the surrounding communities. Growing up in Pittsburgh, then moving to Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; San Jose, California while traveling to other big cities like New York, Boston, San Franciso, Paris, Rome, London, and others, I had a massive culture shock when I moved here as a young woman. Not only was I living in a small town where I knew no one, but I live in the bible belt of the south. When my nephews came to visit a couple years ago, they commented on all the monster trucks on the road, but these were just regular lifted diesel trucks. Most men and many women carry a gun at all times. For every Starbucks I saw living in Seattle there was a church here taking up prime real estate. These churches are of all sizes, ages, and types, just like the people here.
So, that’s a bit about where I live, but here’s the point of me writing this out and what I wanted to say.
On this NPR interview, the conversation focused on how there are two gay characters who live their lives normally. There are no outside oppressing influences threatening them or their relationship. It’s just a very normal relationship that happens to have two characters of the same sex. This seemed shocking and to be a strange creative choice to the NPR host. Why would someone have a gay couple on tv without acknowledging and even dramatizing all the problems and dangers with being gay, especially in a small town?
There is a recording of the interview I heard here.
Host: So, one of the things about this show that I’ve never seen anywhere else is you have a gay relationship that is never talked about by anybody in the town, the parents don’t react, it’s just completely normal.
Daniel: “I tried to write my experience, I tried to write an experience that I know that friends of mine have had. I think that’s the big thing that seems to be connecting with people, is the fact that there is an ease to the relationship and that we write the relationship in a casual way, and that was very deliberate.
“I think because we’re so accustomed to seeing queer love stories that are put in jeopardy by outside forces — it’s the sort of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ effect of, any time you see two queer people in love, there has to be some kind of consequence. So to propose a world where there is no consequence, and two people can love each other sort of wholly … in small-town America, and ultimately show that what comes from that is freedom and love and joy. It’s a form, I guess, of sort of quiet protest, saying that this is how things should be.
When Daniel Levy says, “in small-town America” the host interrupts and repeats with emphasis, “in small town America!”
There is shock that small-town America would be accepting of a gay couple and it made me really think about something I’ve noticed before but haven’t given much thought to which is that there is a grand assumption, a characterization that small towns and the people who live in them are intolerant, unaccepting, bigoted, hateful and ignorant. Yet, the writer, Daniel, says very clearly that his own experience and the experience of his friends was that their lifestyles were treated as very normal. It seems that it’s primarily in these big cities that produce movies, literature, and television about small towns that perpetuate this lie that small towns are breeding grounds for hate and intolerance. Having lived in both small towns and big cities, I haven’t seen any more hate or intolerance where I live now than what I saw living in big cities like San Jose and even Seattle. There are individuals who sometimes do bad things and are hateful, but they are everywhere and they do not represent the community they live in. Not that I have seen.
In fact, I’ve seen the opposite about small towns. We all live close together and it’s very hard to keep secrets. We know each other’s business whether we care to or not. If someone is having problems with their child, its pretty likely everyone knows about it. It’s just as likely, those who know about it, sympathize and try to help.
When I lived in Portland, Seattle, and San Jose, it was common to go to work and come home every day and not know the people who live next door to you. You could hear the rumblings and footsteps and conversations and lovemaking of your neighbors through the ceiling, floor, and walls but not even once get eye contact in the hall or parking lot or learn their name. In contrast, I know the names of all my neighbors, I have their phone numbers. For many, I know their birthday! Two of them have keys to my house. The neighbor to my left used to wake up every morning with the dog from my neighbor across the street in her bed! My neighbor across the street would let her dog out to pee and the dog would run outside, pee and then sneak into the other neighbor’s doggy door and hop in bed with her and her husband. This went on for months and we all thought it was hilarious.
On our street, we have young couples, old couples, a gay couple, an interracial couple, a single mom (me), a household with four generations, a military family, a business owner, newlyweds and a widow. We have sports fans, Griswold level Christmas decorators, political activists with yards full of political signs, perfect yards, and yards that could use some attention (mine). What I have seen of small towns is a tolerance for differences that include lifestyles, sexual orientation, race and even just wide open eccentricity. The south and small towns in my mind have always been known for being filled with eccentrics.
Hasn’t anyone see “Crimes of the Heart?” Does no one remember Minnie Pearl? This isn’t to say that Southern Towns don’t have their flaws. They do, of course. The people can be territorial, judgmental, holier than thou. There are those who use religion and status to persecute, humiliate, oppress and intimidate others and I know that has led to violence against minorities. I just don’t see small towns being all together worse than cities. Cities have high crime, gangs, violence too. But for some reason cities have gotten the reputation for being more evolved and tolerant and small towns have the reputation for being backwards and intolerant.
I’m not gay, so I may not have seen the silent or hidden oppression. This is very possible, but it sounds like the writer also lived in a small town and didn’t experience any. I do agree with his statement;
“So to propose a world where there is no consequence, and two people can love each other sort of wholly … in small-town America, and ultimately show that what comes from that is freedom and love and joy. It’s a form, I guess, of sort of quiet protest, saying that this is how things should be.”
I’m glad Schitt’s Creek is portraying a town where alternative relationships and lifestyles are “normal.” I would just add that in many places, this isn’t just how things “should be” but how things are.
Eugene: “A love story’s just a love story, and that’s the tone that’s set on the show. And as Dan just said, the effects are quite amazing when it comes to how it’s affecting people out there.”
Daniel: “It was never a question for me. I mean, sure, there was, you know, bullying in high school. But for me, my experience has been relatively easy compared to what is happening in many parts of this country and others. So meeting people in a respectful way, and not pinning people against a wall with an agenda but rather just sort of saying, ‘This is what we’re doing’ — it’s seemingly helping people, which is an incredibly rewarding part of the job.”
I can’t help but wonder if part of what people are relating to is the fact that this is a more widespread experience than the media and entertainment industries have acknowledged. It’s not just a matter of seeing things how we want them to be but seeing things how they really are for many people. Maybe that’s a big part of why the show doing so well. I look forward to watching it.
Have you seen it?