This week I’m taking a moment to reflect on where I’ve come from and where I’m going. One undeniable aspect of my background is that I am a Midwesterner. This will undoubtedly bring up stereotypes in your mind, such as that I was raised on a farm. (I was not raised on a farm, I grew up in a city of 3 million people.) And just how well has this midwestern city upbringing prepared me for “making it” in “the industry” (two phrases coupled together that you never hear in my hometown of Minneapolis)? On the face of it, I would say that being from the Midwest is not an asset in Hollywood. I’m an unknown, without too many connections, certainly none through family or family friends. I was raised to give everyone the time of day, whether it’s the homeless person sleeping underneath the bush in front of my apartment complex or Geena Davis (who happens to be the biggest celebrity I have interacted with), not to keep track of “who’s who” and treat them better if their imdb ranking is higher. I was raised to be modest about my accomplishments, to avoid “tooting my own horn”. And my sense of humor is midwestern – entirely self-deprecating. So what is a Midwestern girl in LA who is trying to make a living as a writer/director/occasional producer to do?
I do feel the need to digress a bit here to tell you that when people who have only lived on coasts start to talk about the middle of the country, I alternately want to politely educate them, firmly point out their stereotypical comments, or yell, “You just don’t get it and you never will!” But I would never do the latter, because I am a midwesterner. People from the coasts don’t seem to realize that there isn’t just one middle of the country, or even just one Midwest. I am from the upper Midwest, which is known within the region to be mostly blue state descended politically from the populist farmers and labor movement of the 1930’s. Beloved politicians Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone (RIP) are the more recent Minnesota examples coming partly out of that tradition.
Culturally, the person who has explained the midwest, or at least Minnesota best for outsiders is probably Garrison Keillor. He gets at the practical, kind and conflict avoidant mindset that predominates during his monologues on his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. His is also an example of a midwestern understated sense of humor. As a state, our legacy to the entertainment industry includes Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Prince and The Coen Brothers. An interesting, talented, intelligent and eclectic mix, if you ask me. I admire all of them for the varied ways they have navigated the questions of art vs. commerce and commercial potential vs. independent spirit and artistic control.
Let’s discuss stereotypes for a while. Because, just as you had them about me, I have them about myself, and my fellow midwesterners, and those of you not from the midwest. Of course, I am not just a Midwesterner, I am also my own person. I am not always a typical Midwesterner. This is probably in part because my grandmother was Jewish from outside of Boston (more stereotypes here, I am aware), but she converted to midwesternism and Catholicism in order to marry my grandfather in 1943. From her, I get a certain fieriness and willingness to go into verbal battle. Unlike many Midwesterners, I am willing to confront problems, situations and people directly. (I also drink kombucha and go to therapy.) This is good and bad. In the Midwest, I am seen as a bit aggressive, perhaps. While I have never lived in New York, I would probably be able to adapt. However, my fieriness is balanced by the deep-seated internal desire to also be a “Minnesota nice girl”. So, while I will passionately defend, for example, ObamaCare, I will concede a few of your points, such as that it’s too bad that there are some people who are now paying more their coverage. I will listen, and smile, and even if you are just plain wrong or you are boring me to tears I will not avoid you the next time I see you, because every single person deserves respect, no matter how infuriating they happen to be.
When I meet someone in Los Angeles who is also from the Midwest, for better or for worse, I make certain assumptions about them. For example, I assume that they are less flaky than the average Angeleno, more down to earth, nicer, more hardworking, and I trust that if we were to encounter rain or snow while driving in a motor vehicle they would be able to keep me alive. I also think that because they got out of the Midwest, they are more ambitious than the average midwesterner. They decided that they were going to follow their dream and were willing to be a so called small sunfish in the big LA pond instead of a large trout in the local Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Iowa City waters. (I also wonder if they, might not be quite as good a person as my friends who stayed closer to home and are now caring for their children and elderly parents — just as I wonder this about myself.) Since they’re from the Midwest, they are probably also less well connected. Like, unless it’s the child of Ethan or Joel Coen, their parents aren’t going to be major directors. If they are from the upper Midwest, they probably got a good public school education. Reading this all through, I think to myself, wow, maybe this is not cool. If I had this many unquestioned stereotypes about people of other ethnicities or women, it would be a definite problem. Just how unquestioned are these Midwest stereotypes I hold? I’ll tell you, if I met a Midwesterner on set here in LA who was a complete a-hole, I would be surprised, then pissed and then disown them from my Midwest cohort. They probably wouldn’t notice, because I’ve actually never gotten around to organizing bowling with said cohort, but I would have disowned them nonetheless.
When people from Los Angeles meet me, I can see in their eyes that they don’t quite get me. I’ve been in several meetings with Hollywood types that ended with them giving me a dismissive smile, and me taking that as a cue to thank them for their time. I think it all comes down to sense of humor. I’m not sure if I have figured out what the Angeleno sense of humor consists of, but I can tell you it isn’t nearly self-deprecating enough for my taste. My funniest jokes are always on myself. Like this joke, have you heard it? The one where I will write a blog weekly and anyone and everyone will read it? Hilarious! (See? That was a Midwestern sensibility. It doesn’t matter if you laugh. I know it’s funny and I am laughing to the bank. So what if I’m only depositing quarters?!)
This self-deprecating sense of humor comes from anxiety at being in the spotlight. It’s something that has to be unlearned, it seems, to (again) “make it” in “the industry”, if I can judge from recent conversations and even trainings on making your personal brand, social media, putting yourself out there. You have to be relentless. You have to put out the positive so you will attract the positive. You have to be willing to invite everyone you know and even people you don’t know to “like” your new Facebook page or share your latest YouTube video. In the Midwest, especially if you are a Midwestern daughter, you can’t brag about yourself and your accomplishments. It brings bad luck, or something. If nothing else, you are seen as full of yourself. And you can’t be seen as full of yourself! You will be shunned. Or something. So you make fun of yourself. You are constantly aware that any success could be short lived. This may be in part due to the weather, which is changeable and wildly ranging in temperature. If it’s beautiful out, you thank the higher power, and you know that you only have two more months before it drops below zero again.
So what is the moral of this story, anyway? It’s not that much of a story, more of a musing, but I think the moral is that despite the apparent lack of preparation for Los Angeles living I received in the Midwest, I actually had the perfect preparation to weather the storm of the Hollywood early years. I was raised to be persistent and work hard, not to take things for granted, to treat everyone with respect (you never know if the receptionist will turn out to be the one who lands the next big pilot deal), and to laugh at myself. That part about telling everyone how great I am for whatever position I’m up for, now that I’m in LA (and with enough of the aforementioned therapy) I’m sure I’ll get there eventually!