by Omotayo Jolaosho
Fashion matters. As does television. Attention to these areas of popular culture reveal the spatial workings of power. Susan Kaiser and Bernstein’s research examines “rurality” in fashion and television. Through their analysis of CBS’s programming choices in 1970, we see that within television, representations of the rural were disparaged, with a move towards the urban. In fashion, on the other hand, as we see in Vogue, the rural was embraced as an authenticating element in sartorial expression. Although both instances were discussed as hegemonic moves that proved unsuccessful, what draws them together is that the urban remains a normative humanizing standard. Whether embraced or disparaged, the rural remains cast as an “other”—another space, time, people existing in a timeless “eternal present”—for urban consumption.
For myself, as an anthropologist, these discussions of spatial hierarchy in the making of a rural “other” are all too familiar—the casting of the rural as primordial, eternally present, a space to be valued as instructive for the modern malaise or cast aside as backwards in a denial of coevalness has taken place historically and on a global scale that describes so- called primitive societies or third world and underdeveloped countries.
Television and fashion are not equivalent mediums, so in responding to Kaiser and Bernstein’s work, I pondered the justification for drawing these spheres together in analysis. While we see how the rural is approached differently in each medium, I wondered if some of these outcomes were not due to distinctions in the mediums themselves. What are the representational frameworks of how television operates as distinct from how fashion operates? Can we say that fashion consumes without differentiation? Is this drive to be “in fashion” ever forward thinking whereas TV is present-affirming? Once we articulate these distinctions, what then serves as the basis of comparison across mediums? In the article, we see instances in which both spheres overlap in the sense that the costuming of characters in the rural TV shows influenced fashion designs. What further interactions and overlapping exist between the two?
Engaging television further, what representational difference does a change in genre make? Kaiser and Bernstein point out the prevalence of situational comedies and variety shows among the rural programming that was cancelled. The CBS executives’ move to cancel a number of rural-based sitcoms confirmed that rurality was no laughing matter. Rural-themed programs that did re-emerge following this purge were not comedic but dramas. What representational difference does a change in format make? What is it about comedy, as opposed to drama, that generates the critiques of representation we see here? Or alternatively, what is happening with the dramatic engagement of rural spaces that possibly escapes the representational dynamics and demographic burdens of comedy?
Finally, I want to ask, what is happening when popular culture turns toward and away from the rural? The “rural turn” of the 1960s occurred at a time when rural populations were diminishing. How do we attend to the proliferation of rural-based programming in our contemporary moment? And in fashion as well? What does a current turn to the rural indicate of our ambivalences and contradictions?