TALKIN' SHIT ABOUT SHIT TOWN
Adrienne, Jeremy, and Zane listened to S-Town and we've got some thoughts. (SPOILERS BELOW)
Jeremy: GIRL. Shit Town. I love it because This American Life is so crazy good at stories, but also, WTF.
Adrienne: A lot of my activist people are enraged by it.
AG: Like that NPR would shine a light on these racists jerks. Or that the reporter wouldn't say something in the tattoo shop to these guys being bigoted and terrible. Educate them. I think there's a feeling like, "these people should be better," or "why are we hearing from these people, they don't deserve this attention."
ZB: I think that's very classist/urban viewpoint. I live in a rural area and all of this familiar. It's hard to be smart in a place like that/this. Roseanne Barr grew up in Salt Lake City and she said once that she used to pray that god would make her a Mormon or retarded. I think John B could empathize with that sentiment. But also, he is an asshole. He does mental donuts on people’s faces, ya know? It is his mental illness that truly isolates him.
JO: And a mental illness that was possibly not his fault. God. It’s fucking heartbreaking. I also grew up in a similar place…and it was in the south. It is closed off. New ideas, progressiveness of any kind isn’t welcomed. It just isn’t. Change is hard there.
ZB: I thought it was a good look at the difference between big city vs small town. I live that shit everyday. Not to say that I’m surrounded by racist jerks all the time (I don’t live in the South, after all. J/K they’re everywhere), but I do live in a place that has similar cultural closed-ness, to coin a stupid term. But that desire to not look at the place, well...ask Hillary about her basket of deplorables. You can’t take that tack and be successful at reaching people.
JO: John is sad and terrible and I'm sick of sad and terrible homos everywhere ALL THE TIME. It's the same reason I wanted to throw Moonlight in the garbage. I KNOW I KNOW I KNOWWW. I’m the worst person. I mean I LOVED Moonlight, but also…I was irritated. WHY CAN’T THAT GUY BE SHOWN TO HAVE A CLEAR AND OBVIOUS HAPPY ENDING. I know these stories are important. I know we need to hear from all gays everywhere but DAMNIT. My people (if I can speak for all queer people everywhere for a sec) DESERVE a happy ending. I AM SO IRRITATED. So much all capping I’m ridiculous.
AG: Leaving endings ambiguous is a pretty standard narrative device for serious dramas, but I feel what you're saying. I'd like to see some happy endings and non-stereotypical depictions of single mothers.
JO: It makes me angry because JOHN B. HAD TO LIVE THAT WAY (without love) BECAUSE STRAIGHT ASSHOLES IN FUCKING ALABAMA MADE THAT SHIT HAPPEN. It. Is. Their. Fault. He couldn’t hope or dream for more in that department because they don’t want us to win.
But some assholes are going to listen to that shit and go OF COURSE THIS WEIRD ASS MENTAL HEALTH DISASTER IS A HOMO. I can't control that shit obviously, but i'm sick of that narrative. I want a queer person who wins. A queer person who isn’t sick. A queer person who gets married. A queer person who gets and keeps a job. A queer person who loves and is loved and has kids and a dog and a house and a job and is fulfilled and the picket fence. I WANT A QUEER PERSON WHO GETS TO WIN. Who doesn’t have to commit suicide.
ZB: J, you remind me of a piece Roxane Gay wrote: “Beyond the Struggle Narrative.” She brings up all these same points about people of color. So why do “we,” the monolithic straight white “we,” get off on consuming these monuments to the “other” suffering? NOW I HATE S-TOWN, WHUT HAPPENED?
AG & JO: WE LOVE ROXANE GAY.
AG: I think there's a question about whether or not S-Town is entertainment. How you view that question changes how you view the story. Podcasts are a relatively new media and maybe we don't know yet how to consume them--are they reportage, documentary, entertainment.
On one hand, why aren't these people deserving of having their story told? But on the other hand, what we're talking about is this dearth of stories from other marginalized groups that we all agree we want to exist. But I don't necessarily think that doesn't make these people not marginalized or misunderstood as well. Like think of Tyler's FOUR DAUGHTERS. FOUR. What do their futures look like, ya know? That whole "fuck it" mentality that they talk about; life is going to suck, fuck it. Like Jesus, what a way to grow up / live.
I think there is a really interesting question here about the moral responsibility of media / NPR. A reporter should be unbiased, and I think Reed did a good job of presenting these people and their stories with out judgement. But what the organization chooses to present has political ramifications.
JO: Ultimately I think it is a responsibility. If this were just some rando white dude from a small town I might not care. BUT since I'm gay I feel like the story is limited and only serves to portray my people as diseased. I know that’s not THE ONLY THING this story is about, but it’s what I heard the moment we knew he was gay. Maybe I just knew because of my gay voodoo magic.
AG: Yeah, that's not how I viewed it. But I'm a liberal white chick and not from the south so I would never think, "he's diseased." I was like, this town, these people, they're so limited, they can't understand this genius. And he's so smart that like, probably he'd have issues trying to grow up in Naperville, ya know? Maybe he'd do ok in Portland where antiquarian clock fixers would be revered, lol. But in most places he's going to be operating on a whole different plane because of his genius, not his sexuality. Genius like that is pretty isolating.
JO: True. I’m obviously super sensitive about the gay thing. I know that the whole podcast isn’t about his gayness. BUT. I do worry about our portrayal in media. I think the show might perpetuate what many people (particularly in the south) may think of homosexual folks AND what people think about the south. I’m deciding I can say this because I am both FROM THE SOUTH (a shit town in fact) AND a flaming homosexual. Southerners might say this happened because he’s GAY, and northerners might say this happened because HE’S IN THE SOUTH. It’s interesting to me. We’re a judgy bunch.
AG: It did reinforce my prejudices / unconscious biases towards the south. For sure.
JO: I mean ultimately I loved it I'm just homo-sensitive.
ZB: I really had to stop and think about the sexuality angle in all of this after listening to you, J. I, like A, am a white, heterosexual woman, and I found the stuff about his sexuality devastating. I do think the reporter slow plays that reveal in a way that is sensational, but at the same time mirrors John B’s coyness on the subject. It’s in one of the later episodes where we get the full reveal. I’ve read several articles trumpeting the sensitivity and journalistic ethics on display in S-Town, but I think that turning his sexuality into a late season twist maybe violates some of that. But I do agree with AG: he is trapped in a place that can’t accept him.
AG: I agree with that totally, Z. It felt sensationalized when it was "revealed." But I also thought he was gay from the first episode. HEDGE MAZE. OK, insensitive joke, but I couldn't resist? And also, amirite?
JO: I think the election is making everything a dumpster fire. I know this was started BEFORE NOVEMBER. Deep sigh. Sometimes I think back to the hope we had BEFORE NOVEMBER and it’s overwhelming. OK OK OK. I’ll stop. This podcast really also seems to be exploiting some of November’s “big reveal.” Maybe the election has changed the way everything is seen. It feels like liberal white America checking in on far off distant and terrible rural RIGHT America. Gayness, queerness, genius, climate change, all of that stuff is ours (Liberal America)…look everybody…look at this gay, genius dude IN THE SOUTH OMG HOW’S HE GONNA SURVIVE. It makes me question my liberal-ness. It makes me ask if my ideas are really inclusive OR if we haven’t possibly become a bunch of judgmental assholes.
AG: We have a huge divide. And I think part of this is that we are all products of where we come from. And not everyone has the mental resources or wherewithal to expand their worldview in either direction.
ZB: Poverty is at the root. But there is another aspect that I can identify with, which is being tied to a place. John B is tied to the place. He goes to college, spends all his time making sundials and huffing mercury, drops out. He goes back to S-Town. He tries to create a place of beauty: the maze and his flowers. He tries to “save” these young men. He tries to take care of his mother, although I get the feeling that he didn’t really do her a favor there. He tries to bring his truth to people. Contacting NPR about the “murder,” he’s trying to enact change. And ultimately, he changes nothing. It’s all swept away by his death. Annie Proulx is my favorite writer and of course she wrote “Brokeback Mountain,” which makes a surprising and devastating appearance here. But in that same collection she has a story called “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” and it ends similarly: everything human will be swept away. In her case, it’s by nature. In this case, it’s by man. WOW. Bummer.
JO: Yeah, all my gay ranting aside S-Town did force me to think about the energy it takes to leave a place. I left my hometown a long long time ago. I’ve only been back a couple times. At first it was hard. I have always known that I am different and that I did not belong there, but you’re tied to where you came from no matter what. That place, for better or worse MADE YOU. There’s that restaurant we always went to, there’s THE church, THE autoshop, Old Lady Smith’s house, where we went swimming in the summer, saw movies, played games, went to school…grew up! EVERYTHING. That place created you. I think that feeling of knowing you want more (and maybe not fitting in) but being scared to leave combined with the gay thing was a lot for me to take in. It felt like my experience. I had to leave. It took a lot to make that happen. It was devastating for me to think about what it took for me to get out, and what if I didn’t go. What if I was still there. Would it have been different for me? I’m not so sure. John B got stuck partially because of the gay thing (here I go again). He came of age 10 or so years before me, a far more dangerous time for queer people. If you can’t walk around in your world and be safe, it can make you agree to a lot. It can make you shut down and hide yourself. Forever. It can make you give up on finding love, and make you agree to live in a place where you do not belong.
AG: That Brokeback Mountain stuff was so heartbreaking and beautiful. One thing I get on my soapbox about is that Americans have this idea that we all have the same mental / emotional resources and that if you just pull yourself up from your boot straps you can have it all and that is just NOT TRUE. John clearly had a lot of specific mental resources. But emotionally, this story is about his inability to connect. Even with Reed (the reporter) he's an eccentric, a story. I think Reed cared about him, but we're they really connected? And with Tyler, John says that shitty thing about his daughter, because he's just like flailing emotionally, trying to connect. At any rate, what I'm roundabout trying to get to is that I don't think John necessarily had the emotional resources to leave and find his people and Jeremy's point about the time period is spot on.
As a whole, I think society would be better if we'd offer each other more empathy towards the differences in our abilities. My reaction to a lot of the secondary characters was, these people need education and opportunities. And we're all a product of our environments, unless we get educated and figure out how to broaden our views. Not everyone is smart, motivated, or able. I guess this is a very "liberal" point of view, like to assume these people aren't educated and that if they were they would share my beliefs. Holy shit. I'm not a dictator! But also, I cannot with the racism, homophobia, etc.
ZB: Going back to the classist/urbanite viewpoint: I think that city people are by nature scared of the country. That’s why so many horror movies are set there. And I would argue that this podcast does a good job of showing that these people might be more vocally racist, perhaps, than your average city dweller, but that they are still people and the things they struggle with are heavy. Living in a place where there are no opportunities. I’m sure John B, had he not killed himself in a spectacular way, would be pleased as punch and giving interviews on the Today Show and making Matt Lauer blush and sweat. I lost the most patience with the treasure hunting aspect of the show, and the coyness with Tyler, who did steal stuff and maybe found John B’s gold and blah blah blah. Talk to me about the incorporation of a town and chat lines some more, you know?
I will say, though, that S-Town makes the “Missing Richard Simmons” guy look like a real dumb dick.
JO: Oy, speaking of gay people in need of rescue.
AG: You guys, I'm exhausted. Thank god Drag Race is on tomorrow.