March 10, 2011

In Media, Big Ag Looms Large while Farmers Get Younger, Better Looking

Megan Clayton

Megan Clayton

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

In September 1965, CBS broadcast its first episode of Green Acres, a mini-series documenting a family’s transition from an urban life of prestige and luxury, to one of mud, manure, and chaos on a farm in the fictional town of Hooterville.

Green Acres took off, in part capitalizing on the popularity of its 1963 predecessor, Beverly Hillbillies, which was the number one TV show in America during its first two years. While Green Acres commented on the awkward integration of city elite into rural America, Beverly Hillbillies followed a clan of poor Ukrainian farmers through their upgrade to flashy Beverly Hills (but only after striking oil – mistakenly – on their land). The two TV hits were only a part of a mass of mini-series placing a farmer, or farm family, at the center stage. Other notable shows included The Real McCoys and Petticoat Junction. According to film critics, these series succeeded for their comedic portrayal of culture clash; for the agricultural community, however, the shows unfairly labeled farmers, and the farming occupation, as backward, poor, uncivilized, and

By the 80s and 90s, TV focusing on the rural farmer waned in popularity. Perhaps the last big effort to revive the genre came in 1993, as 20th Century FOX released Beverly Hillbillies in a movie format. The critic reviews gave the movie an A for low-brow humor, but labeled the overall effort a pointless remake of a worn-out past. Worse still, the film’s directors received complaints from (mostly southern) viewers who found the movie insulting, irrelevant, or both. And so, by the end of the 20th century, the relationship between TV, film, and the farmer was headed for reform.

Admittedly, media’s desertion of the country farmer role reflected the reality of a swiftly changing food environment. As the US food system was appropriated by massive industrialized farming operations, fewer Americans could survive as independent farmers, and the bucolic image of rural food production -overalls and mud – no longer resonated with the TV-watching, movie-loving public.

By the 2000s, popular film took on industrialized food production, and began to depict agriculture as a mysterious and powerful force of greed and deception. One such portrayal came in the 2007 movie Michael Clayton, which followed an elite lawyer through his defense of an agrochemical company’s billion-dollar class action lawsuit brought for damages caused by toxic chemicals. Two years later, the movie The Informant publicized the true story of an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest agriculture processing companies. The plot depicted the details of this employees’ harrowing experience as a whistleblower against executives found to be fixing the price of lysine, an additive for livestock feed.

Hollywood’s most recent depiction of the industrialized food system is currently in theaters. Released on February 18th, the movie Unknown positions its action/thriller plot around a biotechnology summit in Berlin. One of the movie’s many themes is centered on the topic of genetically-modified crops, with a particular focus on corn.  According to preliminary critic reviews, this particular storyline is challenged by gaps of information regarding GMO-related research, as well as the respective involvement of large agricultural companies. (If you see it, feel free comment in a reply post).  Regardless of this issue, however, the point is that media has, over time, reinvented the image of farming and food production.

And, mind you, the media – and its portrayal of the farmer – is still hard at work. The above mentioned commentaries on industrialized food production, genetically modified crops, and corporate greed have managed to share the stage with a burgeoning focus of local and community-based food.

In 2009, the process of starting a community food project was shown to be fun, and funny, through NBC’s show Parks and Recreation. In the series, Leslie Knope (played by comedian Amy Poehler), is the Deputy Director of the Pawnee Indiana Parks Department, and she works diligently to turn a local community eyesore (an abandoned dirt worksite) into a community garden. At the completion of the project, she declares the effort, “her greatest brainstorm ever”. Next, in July 2010, a 4-time Academy Award nominated film, The Kids Are All Right, examined family life from the perspective of a lesbian couple and their children, conceived by artificial insemination (trailer). The film follows the kids as they venture to incorporate their biological father into the family. The mystery man is a handsome, motorcycle-riding urban farmer, who also owns a Los Angeles restaurant, and coordinates the menu to match his local produce.

If we believe media is a reflection of consumer demand, recent portrayals of farming may represent a push in the direction of healthier, more localized food systems. As modeled by the media’s development of the farmer through popular characters and films, it is clear that food production (at least for the movie-going, TV-watching, and media producing folks), has grown out of overalls and mud, rebelled against complete industry control, and moved into the hands of  driven, entrepreneurial, everyday people.

When it comes to the popular media’s depiction of farmers and farming, what TV shows and films do you think of?

One Comment

  1. Thanks for this great post, Megan! The movie that I think about most is the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” with Kevin Costner. It depicts independent farmers as heroes trying to hang on to a lifestyle that is increasingly difficult economically (given the onset of larger commercial farming). That is why it is such a difficult decision for him to pursue his dream of turning some of his productive land into a baseball field. Thoughts?

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