Sunday, December 31, 2006

Will the Real Plano Please Stand Up?

Unbeknownst to me, there's been a debate raging online about the true nature of Plano, Texas. The main participants are Mickey Kaus of Slate and blogger and widely published journalist Virginia Postrel. The issue, as summarized by Postrel, is: "1) Is Plano really a conservative (or socially conservative) place? 2) Does it say anything about liberal causes that Brokeback Mountain and An Inconvenient Truth did well in Plano?"

I went to high school in Plano and then lived in the general area again for a few years after college, so it's a debate that interests me, partly because Plano is indeed the prototypical exurb of the 21st century, and I see its influence creeping up everywhere, from other cities in Texas to the areas of Long Island where I grew up to even Brooklyn.

As far as I can tell, Kaus initially said that the success of those movies proved that Plano is not a "conservative bastion." Postrel, who lives in nearby Dallas, begged to differ with a more detailed analysis of the place. One of Kaus' posts can be found here, and Postrel's take on her blog is here. She also wrote a longer piece in Texas Monthly, which is available by subscription only.

For those of you who happen to subscribe, here's the link. For those who don't, allow me to summarize. Postrel writes that in the midst of the culture war this time last year:
...New York Times columnist Frank Rich momentarily called a cease-fire. Brokeback Mountain was a heartland hit, he told anxious liberals. It represented “a rebuke and antidote” to President George W. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The movie, which he acknowledged has “no overt politics,” was “not leading a revolution but ratifying one.” After all, it was even doing well in Plano, Texas.

Nonsense, replied Los Angeles-based blogger Mickey Kaus, of Slate. Plano is no indicator. It’s not the land of pickups and gun racks; it’s just a bunch of yuppies. Kaus, an iconoclastic Democrat, quoted a reader who wrote, “Plano, TX is NOT the heartland. It’s a ritzy, upscale, SUV-choked, conspicuous-consumption-driven Dallas exurb populated by more east-coast ‘expatriates’ than native Texans.” In other words, this suburb isn’t Middle America. It’s an affluent island of educated blue in a sea of ignorant red. It’s a bunch of people who think more or less like Kaus and Rich. ... “What is Plano really like?” suddenly became a hotly debated question in the political blogosphere. The answer matters not because online pundits are considering relocating but because Plano has come to symbolize the fast-growing territories of Red America. As Plano goes, perhaps, so goes the nation. It’s the quintessential “boomburg” and the new Peoria: the touchstone Middle American town, a bellwether for retailers and culture watchers alike.
Postrel goes on to describe Plano pretty accurately:
It allows residents to live a scaled-up, globalized version of the family-centered life of the postwar suburbs, a twenty-first-century Wonder Years. While you can find a $7 million estate in Plano, you can also buy a perfectly reasonable vintage ranch house, possibly with a pool, for less than $200,000. From that address, you can send your kids to excellent public schools. By contrast, on Kaus’s modest street in Venice, a tiny two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow was recently on the market for $754,000, making it one of the cheapest houses in the area (and the schools are lousy).

The economics of Plano change the sociology and the politics. Plano is more conservative than Silicon Valley at least in part because its cheap real estate and good public schools support a more traditional lifestyle. Many families don’t need a second income to live a comfortable middle-class life. Mothers can stay at home or work, often part-time, for personal fulfillment and luxuries like family vacations. These educated women also provide a safety net in hard times, like the tech crash. You don’t have to be work-obsessed to live in Plano, and at least in some circles, a work-oriented life seems rather eccentric.

Most Planoites would never ostracize the irreligious, if only because that wouldn’t be polite. But they also don’t really understand resolutely secular people—just as the New York Times has trouble grasping that smart, good-hearted, well-educated people can be conservative Christians. Cosmopolitanism, in both varieties, has its limits.
But I think Washington Post style writer Hank Stuever, who Postrel quotes, got it closest to right with the fewest words when he wrote that Plano "(embodies) everything both dreamily enviable and vaguely unnerving about modern paradise.”



Anonymous Dread Pirate said...

Stunned - simply stunned. Someone is arguing that the success of a film in a region determines that region's political attitude. Here is a hint - just because X-Men 3 did really well doesn't mean that the majority of adults in Plano secretly hope that they have mutant powers. Here is a hint - go to a screening of Brokeback in Plano and listen to the amount of snickering and uncomfortable seat shifting during the anal sex scene. Watch how many people leave the theater when Sacha Baron Cohen kisses Andy Richter in Talladega Nights. Just because people stop and stare at accidents on the highway doesn't mean they wish to be involved in one.

Give me a break. Brokeback Mountain did well EVERYWHERE - it is called good press. Just because people giggle at Jack on Will and Grace doesn't mean they want their insurance premiums to go up to allow for same-sex benefits.

People do not go to movies to make a statement. They go to be entertained. Stop trying to invent things about which to write.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pirate dude raises a good point. Lots of people have enjoyed a Governator movie without supporting the right to jam a steam pipe into someone's head. And lots of people listen to country music, but don't wear cowboy boots.

Entertainment is frequently escapist. You don't buy a ticket to a movie as a proxy for voting. You buy a ticket to see a good movie, and intentionally leave all that political crap behind.

This isn't necessarily true for movie critics, but that's because they're paid to put movies into a larger context. It's frequently not their job to decide whether a movie is entertaining; it's their job to decide what a movie means. And the disconnect between a movie's social value and it's entertainment value is one reason why movie critics so frequently disagree with the public on which movies are good.

And it shouldn't need mentioning -- though it almost certainly does -- that being opposed to gay marriage doesn't necessarily mean that you hate gay people and all things gay-related. Similarly, you can oppose affirmative action without being racist. And you can also oppose the war in Iraq without being anti-military.

Plus, I think that Ang Lee and Annie Proulx would probably feel kind of slighted at the suggestion that their movie and short story are only about homosexuality and gay rights. There's a lot more going on in there besides a political message.

That doesn't mean that Plano is un-stinky, though.

-- Comish

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I agree with the Commish - Plano sucks - although if you are jonesing for black tar, those high school kids do carry the good stuff.

- Pirate

10:04 PM  
Anonymous geezlouise said...

Having grown up in Plano, I would argue that Collin County’s support of Bush (Bush 71%, Kerry 28% in 2004) is more related to their full-on love of low taxes than their strict adherence to man on woman action. While a movie's success isn't a great indicator of the audience's disposition, I find it hard to believe that an audience’s entertainment values might be in complete opposition to their social values. A person's willingness to pay $8 and walk into a movie where they know that two men are going to make out shows that that person doesn't find the idea exactly abhorrent. Sure, they might not support any movements for gay marriage or defend against any bans on gay marriage, but they most likely don't gag at the site of two men humping. You don't get a successful movie when half your audience walks out.

Is Plano outrageously fiscally self-centered? Yes. Homophobic to the point of regurgitation? No. As such, it leans more socially liberal and is not a good representative of the heartland of America.

Not hating gays is more socially liberal than hating gays. And being able to enjoy a love story between two gay men is just one step closer to (at the least) not fighting gay marriage. So says the optimist.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I agree with Geez. X-Men 3 is a different type of film than Brokeback Mountain. X-Men 3 did not contain any controversial issues, was not touted in the press as making any sort of statement. But, as Geez correctly states, there was much ado in the press about the ass pounding scene in Brokeback. If Plano were truly a socially conservative bastion, there was enough advance notice to where the masses would not have gone to the film.

8:47 PM  

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