Who Will Deliver Us From Dumpster Dairy? Portlandia and the Narcissism of Small Differences

A wonderful profile of Sleater-Kinney guitarist/Portlandia co-creater Carrie Brownstein appeared in The New Yorker last […]

David Zahl / 1.4.12

A wonderful profile of Sleater-Kinney guitarist/Portlandia co-creater Carrie Brownstein appeared in The New Yorker last month. We’ve championed the IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia consistently since it debuted last year and with good reason. Browstein and creative partner/SNL mainstay Fred Armisen have a lock on identity satire. They intuitively understand the absurdity of most identity markers (diet, image, art, even activism), and how deceptively the slide into self-justification can happen. In our parlance, you might say they have a firm grasp on how identity and Law often function as synonyms. In fact, more than anything Portlandia seems to enjoy unveiling the unfortunate irony that plagues all human subcultures: that the same communities that trumpet bohemian freedom most loudly (AKA non-judgmental laissez faire tolerance – but it could just as well be Van Halen records or pilates classes) tend to take on just as fierce a competitive and even fundamentalist aspect as the more buttoned-down counterparts they’re reacting against (or wisely running away from). In this sense, regardless of what one makes of religion, the Law is truly inescapable – it’s just as present (if not more) in hipster enclaves as in Bible-belt small groups – and it by definition alienates people from one another, especially when it promises to bring them together, e.g. the Riot-Grrrl example that Carrie mentions at the bottom, which is one for the ages! Judgment kills love, in other words. What’s the answer? A better question might be Who’s the answer:

“Portlandia” is an extended joke about what Freud called the narcissism of small differences: the need to distinguish oneself by minute shadings and to insist, with outsized militancy, on the importance of those shadings.

Brownstein, who is also one of the show’s writers and producers, told me, “In general, things in a place like Portland are really great, so little concerns become ridiculous. There are a lot of people here who can afford—financially but also psychologically—to be really, really concerned about buying local, for instance. It becomes mock epic. It’s like Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock.’ I was standing in line at Whole Foods, and the guy in front of me says, ‘I really wish you guys sold locally made fresh pasta.’ And the cashier says, ‘Look, we do.’ And the guy says, ‘No, no—that’s from Seattle.’ Really? You don’t have a bigger battle?”


When Brownstein plays music, there is nothing ironic about her. The first time that we sat down to talk, at a restaurant in Portland’s loft-filled Pearl District, she said, “I’ve never understood people who play up the artifice of music. Music, for me, was like a tidal wave. It took me outside of anything I’d ever done.” She had been an isolated teen-ager, and punk was “a salvation,” she said. “You can never underestimate that moment of somebody explaining your life to you, something you thought was inexplicable, through music. That was the way out of loneliness.”

Armisen and Brownstein are fascinated by how couples interact—the shared references and gestures that mark intimacy—and since they often play couples on “Portlandia” they have been able to channel their outsiders’ observations into characterizations. “I get to play at connecting with people,” Brownstein says. “Because in every scene we’re in a different relationship, it’s like I’m learning how to have relationships from the show.” She has let go of some of her squeamishness about nuzzly couples: “When you’re embodying the person, you’re not judging.”

Armisen and Brownstein text each other every night before bed. Brownstein says of their friendship, “Sometimes I think it’s the most successful love affair either of us will ever have.” Both claim that it wouldn’t work if they were romantically involved. “It would be colder, because we’ve both treated our romantic relationships in a cold way,” Armisen says. “Carrie and I are more romantic than any other romantic relationship I’ve ever had—that sense of anticipation about seeing the other person, the secret bond. But things don’t become obligatory. I’m not thinking, I’m doing this because you’re my girlfriend; I’m just thinking, I love Carrie.”


The feminist bookstore where “Portlandia” films is a real one called In Other Words. When I visited the place, the employees were nowhere near as humorless as their counterparts on the show, Toni and Candace. (In one sketch, Toni, played by Brownstein, reproves a woman who has written an appreciative account of her boyfriend’s sexual technique for the store’s “journaling class.” “I feel like it was a brag journal,” Toni says. “And what a journal should be is a document of misery.”)… In the bathroom were posters seeking roommates for group houses, including this one: “We are into open and honest communication, dumpstering, crafts, music, raw/living foods, biking, natural building, permaculture, living in shacks and trailers and all kinds of fun stuff like that. We are a vegan house, except that some of us do dumpster dairy.” (When I mentioned this to Brownstein, she said, “If I were into dumpster diving, dairy is the last thing I’d dive for.”)


We found ourselves talking about ambition. Though Brownstein had taken full advantage of the riot-grrrl scene, it clearly wasn’t a long-term place for her. Brownstein loved the way that the movement had freed her to make angry, exuberant music, and she was grateful for her collaboration with Tucker. But she ultimately found life in Olympia oppressive: “When you’re indoctrinated into a scene, there’s this pride that comes with being accepted and understood by people you admire. But the flip side of that is this almost stifling sense of democracy. You put yourself down, to overcompensate for the embarrassment of riches or the little attention you get.” Even worse, she said, was “the élitism that passes itself off as inclusiveness.” She went on, “The rules are so esoteric, so hard to follow, that no one else could fit in. And what you’ll never admit to yourself is that you don’t want other people to fit in.” That’s a good summation of what “Portlandia” lampoons.

The classics: