This post reviews Amanda Fortini, “O Pioneer Woman!” in The New Yorker, 87 (May 9, 2011), pp. 26-31. [Abstract available here]
Fortini, a frequent contributor to several popular publications on topics ranging from celebrity fashion to politics, here pens a fascinating portrait of Ree Drummond, the famous blogger “The Pioneer Woman.”
Drummond, for those who don’t know, has become a blogging superstar. Her “Pioneer Woman” blog averages, according to Fortini, 23.3 million page views per month, with 4.4 million unique visitors, which means she has about the same number of readers as The Daily Beast.
Why? Fortini’s explanation is that Drummond is trading on a fantasy of millions of American women who dream of “ditching their frenzied lives for a calmer, more agrarian existence, without having to abandon the notion that they are sophisticated, independent women.” Drummond is also a tireless self-promoter and astute businessperson. She has leveraged her “city-mouse conversion narrative” into a media empire, with her bestselling cookbook The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl and her new memoir The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–A Love Story
Fortini describes how Drummond works hard to cultivate the image of pastoral idyll, quite literally through the images she constantly posts of her heavily photoshopped children, husband, plants, and livestock, and through her constant reiteration of what Fortini calls “the origin myth of the blog,” the story of her own movement from Los Angeles hipster to rural housewife and homeschooling rancher.
The homeschooling itself doesn’t get a lot of treatment in the story. Fortini spends a day with the family, and the kids begin it by moving cattle with their father Ladd (the famous “Marlboro Man”) to holding pens in the blistering cold. They beg to have the job finished so they can go inside and “do school.” Once inside, school is bedlam. Here is the entire paragraph on homeschooling from the article:
After returning from rounding up the cattle on that morning in November, Drummond conducted a desultory few hours of homeschooling. Todd practiced phonics (the lesson, unfortunately, concentrated on the letter “r”: “wat,” “wun,” “wib.”), Paige baked pumpkin-bread pudding, Bryce colored, and Alex complained about the science project she had to make for the statewide homeschoolers’ fair. “I think what has helped my homeschooling is that I’m not a type-A personality,” Drummond said, stepping over the boys’ small coats and work gloves, while she swept tiles gritty with graham-cracker crumbs. “On a day like this, when it all gets shot to smithereens, it doesn’t bother me, because I know we’ll make it up on the other side,” she said. Ladd later corrected her: “You’re type A when it comes to your blog, though.
And that’s it. Ree goes away to work on her blog and Ladd takes the kids back outside to help with the cattle. The picture one gets from the article is not unlike what one gets from Drummond’s own posts–she depicts herself not as an omni-competent Martha Stewart type but as a normal gal who just happens to have a perfect life with her perfect man, four perfect children, and thousands of perfect acres of land. That her homeschooling is just as disorganized as anyone else’s only adds to the charm.
What strikes me about all of this is that it reinforces for me a point I made at the end of my bookabout the meaning of homeschooling. Fortini notes that the Drummonds’ partnership “is a modern marriage masquerading as a traditional one.” Ladd, the ostensibly rustic Marlboro Man in his chaps and Wranglers, “is as progressive as any urban daddy with a BabyBjörn.” He’s the soccer mom, transporting the kids to their activities so she can work on her blog and write her books. They discuss everything together, working collaboratively rather than hierarchically.
That point I think extends to the broader homeschooling movement. It casts itself as a traditional, even hyper-traditional mode of life in many cases. But if you look past the surface rhetoric about dad being the “principal” and so on, what you find is a world of empowered, educated, articulate women telling themselves that they’re being traditional when in fact they are living embodiments of the progress women have made in the wake of feminism.