The Minivan Majority

suburb

Where (some of, but not all) of the minivan majority sleeps

I first read the term ‘minivan majority’ on LaineyGossip.  I can’t recall if she explained it in that particular post, or if it was just a bit of vernacular whose meaning I quickly came to understand, but it’s stuck — both with me and with the blog in general.

Its immediate connotation is pretty clear: mindless suburbanites with minivans who may not be the statistical majority in this country but compose a ‘ruling majority’ when it comes to media and taste.  But I don’t think that’s quite it.

Lainey generally uses the term pejoratively — but beneath her scorn lies a rather astute analysis of the morals, beliefs, and desires that drive media production, whether within the gossip industry or the entertainment industry more broadly.

It’s hard to define the minivan majority in a sentence, so I’ll start with some descriptors.  Not all of these are necessary true of everyone in the minivan majority — and if some of them describe you, that doesn’t necessary mean you’re in the minivan majority (and I want to make it clear that I don’t dislike or disdain the minivan majority — but it’s important to know the identity of those quietly driving taste and entertainment in the country.)

Some traits of the minivan majority:

  • You probably live in a non-urban space — either suburban or rural, but most likely suburban.
  • You are probably white.
  • You have no radical convictions.  You are neither an arch conservative nor strong liberal.  In other words, you are probably a self-described ‘moderate.’
  • You love pictures of babies.  Especially celebrity babies.
  • You believe things that appear in print in the gossip magazines.
  • You are not overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic, but you might subconsciously discriminate against people who are different than you or the people that you know and see on an everyday basis.
  • You don’t like things that are too much: too gross, too sexual, too outrageously expensive.
  • You might own something from Ikea.  You almost definitely own things from Target or Wal-Mart.
  • You style is a combination of Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft, Talbots, Coldwater Creek.
  • You are a parent.
  • You probably battle your weight, even if it’s just those pesky ten pounds.
  • You may (duh) own a minivan — or a similar SUV type vehicle.
  • You believe that people of any race, color, creed or background can make something of themselves with hard work.
  • You believe in a higher power — most likely God — even if you don’t necessarily go to church every week.
  • You are not generally an early adopter — of a technology, a political candidate, a new fad, etc.
  • You enjoy the reliability of chain restaurants and all-inclusive vacations.
  • You have a subscription to Cooking Light and/or contribute recipes regularly to allrecipes.com

Swing

Good clean fun in Gap khakis.

Now, some media products favored by the minivan majority:

  • Jennifer Aniston
  • Julia Roberts
  • Tom Cruise
  • Michelle Obama
  • Celebrities who hit their career pinnacle about 10-15 years ago
  • National Treasure (and other Nicholas Cage movies)
  • Marley and Me
  • Reese Witherspoon
  • Jennifer Garner
  • Michael Buble/Josh Groban
  • Norah Jones
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • Two and a Half Men
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Sex and the City (latecomers — started watching Season 3 or later)
  • Network television in general
  • Jay Leno
  • Martha Stewart and/or Rachel Ray
  • Oprah.  Oprah’s Bookclub, Oprah’s magazine, things recommended by Oprah.
  • Entertainment Tonight
  • People especially, maybe Us.
  • Nicholas Sparks novels and film adaptations
  • American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, The Bachelor/Bachelorette

20081008-michaelbuble

Minivan Fav Michael Buble

Again, just because one or more of these describes you does not necessarily mean that you’re in the minivan majority.  What’s key to observe here is how unoffensive each and every trait listed above truly is.  (Sex and the City might be the exception — but it’s a dirty minivan majority pleasure, and it can be watched without the dirt on TBS)

Because when you get down to it, the best way to describe the minivan majority is conservative. And when I say that, I don’t mean conservative in its political Fox News connotation — although some most definitely fit that moniker — but in its more literal interpretation as those who would like to conserve the current state of things. (Whereas the ‘liberal,’ at times referred to as the ‘progressive,’ wants to MESS SHIT UP…and change the way things are.) (Another note: Lainey may have taken the alliteration of the minivan majority from the famous ‘moral majority,’ but they are not so much siblings as cousins….maybe the minivan majority is the slightly more morally liberal moral majority?)

Thus the late-adopter status: the minivan majority will adopt something new, but only after it becomes safe.  The minivan majority of the ’50s, for example, was probably not okay with interracial marriage and most definitely not okay with homosexuality or sex outside of marriage…but as it became more and more commonplace, and more and more represented in the media, it became more acceptable.  If you look to the minivan majority media diet, it’s almost entirely things that rehash familiar genres and formulas — whether that be the romance (Nicholas Sparks), the soft jazz singer (Norah Jones…oh, and I forgot to add Diana Krall), the man-loves-dog story (Marley and Me) or the American-history caper with tried-and-true star (National Treasure).

The minivan majority is attracted to and endorses stars who uphold beauty standardsnot people who introduce new standards of beauty.  Thus Jennifer Aniston — who has an amazing body and great hair…but is in no way remarkable, either as an actress or in beauty.  (She certainly doesn’t try to form a mini United Nations family, steal husbands, get tatoos, or speak out about genital mutilation…)

I could go on and on about the different characteristics and media consumption patterns….and please do so yourself in the comments….but I want to close with a bit on why the minivan majority is such an important entity in the gossip world.

To put it bluntly, the minivan majority controls the gossip market.  While the movie market is controlled by the tastes of 17-year-old boys (and I’m not kidding here — it’s the target demographic: make something teenage boys will love and everyone else will come) the minivan majority drives a secondary, equally lucrative market — the market defined by rom-coms that generally come in 3rd place but cost far less money).  In fact, those teenage boys are by and large the sons of the minivan majority — and will grow up to be part of the minivan majority itself.  (For more on how the blockbusters since JAWS have catered to an audience far more conservative then the counter-cultural generation on the late ’60s, see Jon Lewis’ incredible article “The Perfect Money Machines.”)

With the help of Oprah, the moral majority can and does change consumption patterns — such as when she prompted millions of women to buy Pearl S. Buck, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison –  but they generally reinforce established patterns.  They can be relied upon to make the Sex and the City movie, however lackluster in relation to its source material, into the #1 R-rated opening weekend…EVER.  (Last weekend’s The Hangover comes in at #3….after American Pie 2.  Go figure.) The women at the head of these minivan families also hold the purse strings, and are thus an enormously lucrative market. And lucrative market = powerful market.

And they also drive the tone, tenor, and subject of gossip.  In my last post I outlined the ways in which gossip is used as a policing mechanism — a way to bring offensive, ‘progressive’, or different elements back into the fold.  The gossip mags, taking their cue from their number one consuming public, enact this process. While Vanity Fair and The New Yorker‘s own brand of high fallutin gossip focuses on taking down bigotry, harlotry, and those brazen enough to cross the New York upper crust, these mags, like any other smart publication, aim to please their readership.

They do so by affirming the illusion.

You think Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were a match made in heaven?  That Tom Cruise is the most romantic man in the world?  That ‘Sully’ from the Miracle on the Hudson is a modern day American hero?  That Kirstie Alley really is going to take that weight off?  That it’s wrong to criticize Tyra’s weight?  This magazine will support and feed that belief.

But they also do so positively. This is where People and Entertainment Tonight figure so prominently.  Unlike their ugly stepsister (Us Weekly) and stepbrother (TMZ) these two make you feel good about yourself, what you’re reading/watching, and the world around you.  You’re not reading smut — you’re just reading about humans!  That’s why People still publishes human interest stories (and, during a dry gossip week, will put them on the cover — see “Sully”) and Entertainment Tonight has Mary Hart as its host.  Why their fonts are bubbly, their pages are draped in warm, soft colors and their address is inviting.  Why neither stoop to lambasting stars so much as elevating those in the minivan majority’s favor.

Lainey Gossip blames the conservative tastes of the minivan majority for the failure of Friday Night Lights (they’d rather watch Dancing with the Stars).  I like to think of it somewhat differently — NBC never figured out how to market their show to the minivan majority.  I mean, Kyle Chandler is a minivan heartthrob waiting to happen.  Anything that’s not too crazy can become a minivan mainstay — and a People darling.  It’s just a matter of marketing.

Kyle Chandler

Appealing to the minivan majority doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing something down or making it blandly palatable.  Angelina Jolie has done an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT JOB of turning the majority (and People) on her side — mostly by  having beautiful babies, encouraging the affection for Pitt to extend to her, and allowing stunning pictures of the family to be published in its pages (and then donating the millions of dollars paid for those photoshoots to charity.  Nicely played, indeed.)

In other words, it’s a matter of knowing your audience, understanding their quiet yet persuasive power, and playing to it.   The Obama family on the cover of People?  Absolutley brilliant.  They don’t say he’s the smartest president in decades for nothing.

obamas_people-magazine

Want to add your own thoughts on the minivan majority and its quiet yet persuasive power?  Comment away.

17 Responses to “The Minivan Majority”

  1. Interesting post! I suppose I’m within the minivan majority in some ways, but those few ways that I diverge are very important to me! (My wife tells everyone – “but we inherited it!” Which is true.) The overall argument reminds me very much of the “middlebrow” debates of the 1950s – eg Dwight MacDonald “mass cult and midcult” and such – extended to the gossip trade. It idea of “minivan culture” is fascinating to me – my first conference presentation was based on a paper I did about Radio Disney, titled “Music for Minivans.” I do think the “minivan” label has a very strong generational and life cycle correlation here – at least as significant as class – I think of the disdain with which I was raised to think of “station wagons” and yet here we are with modified stations wagons all around. Also the significance of the more “muscular” minivans like the Subaru Outback/small SUV sector what seem more popular among more liberal, urban gentrifier-types.

  2. CBD says:

    Love your breakdown of the minivan majority. Safe and conservative are absolutely categorizes this group.

    I think we can also credit them with the boffo family pictures this year. Movies like Mallcop, Up, Night at the Museum are out performing adult dramas.
    http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20283201,00.html

  3. KW says:

    Good piece. A couple points:
    1) I think what I find most interesting about the MM is how in many cases they are able to forgive very blatant and untoward indiscretions. Harrison Ford leaves his wife after 20+ years of marriage and then quickly hooks up with Calista Flockhart or Julia Roberts (who I’m not as certain as Lainey is that she’s still a star) getting photographed wearing a shirt that said “A Low Vera” as a way of embarrassing Danny Moder’s then-wife Vera into divorcing him so she could marry him, move to Taos and have his babies. That the MM allowed for some slippage there blows me away. Conversely, Cruise has been scolded and punished by the MM several times in the last ten years. The couchjumping incident and afterward is a clear indicator of this but I’m talking about his divorce from Kidman. Vanilla Sky flopped and Kidman rose to fame as the MM sided with her and her unfortunate circumstances (including the “surprising” 9 year and 1 month divorce that allowed Cruise to not have to abide by the community property laws of CA and give her half his assets and a miscarriage with her alleged lover Ewan McGregor) giving her street cred with Moulin Rouge and eventually an Oscar Cruise hasn’t even attained with The Hours. Oh they (and Hollywood for that matter) slapped his hand real hard.

    1b. Also interesting is how the MM is so easily persuaded that their fave celebs all hang out together and support each other as a way of building and maintaining the earnest support of their followers. It is no coincidence that Oprah’s fave people are: Aniston, Roberts, Cruise (who got a redo on his own terms at his OWN FECKING HOUSE), Berry (who at one point was kinda nutty and hit somebody with a car), and, strangely, Pitt (but not Jolie).

    2. Slight digression: I agree with your assessment of demographics and how they work. You should read about “quadrants” though because when a film has all four quadrants met, that’s when it’s a hit, e.g., Titanic or Star Trek. A quick search pulled up this link: http://coverageink.blogspot.com/2006/09/meet-four-quadrants.html

    3. Final thought. You know who wanted and still wants so desperately to be a part of the MM and has yet to gain true, true access? J.Lo. She even got married (again) to a very traditional and patriarchal dude (cultural specificity but whatever) and had babies. And still, no go. Her mistake was dating Affleck. Never shoulda done it cause that cross-mixing was unforgivable. Even if she did act like she wasn’t Latina, not one member of the MM believed her.

    • Annie Petersen says:

      Spot on, Kristen. I was reading for comps after posting this, I kept thinking about the complexities of Cruise and the selective forgiveness of the MM.

      In some ways, they’re predictable, in others, the exact opposite. The only reason Cruise was really in the toilet following the couch-jumping isn’t that Paramount’s Sumner said that his “behavior had been unacceptable” — it’s that the MM had turned on him.

      This was all recovered, of course, with one perfectly timed Vanity Fair cover with Suri. Also by firing his sister as his agent and getting real representation again — but that’s another story.

      I think we can also think about the ways in which other stars have remained immune to the scorn of the majority (or made its special target) –

      A few instances come to mind:
      Got away with it:
      *Pickford/Fairbanks (by appealing to their TRUUUUE WUUVVVV…I think that’s the way that you circumvent the divorce/cheating stigma — by showing that you really and truly love each other, were unhappy before, and that you have the potential to produce beautiful children together. See Brangelina, Julia Roberts.)
      *Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn
      *Mel Gibson (sorta…maybe he’s just irrelevant now?)
      *Kate Hudson (again, and again, and again)
      *Oprah — she is NOT MARRIED.
      *Jude Law
      *Robert Downey Jr. (now. But maybe not before.)

      Didn’t get away with it:
      *Meg Ryan (post Russell Crowe affair)
      *Elizabeth Taylor
      *Claire Danes/Billy Crudup
      *Sienna Miller
      *Ryan Phillipe

      And as for J.Lo….she lightened her hair and her skin, she basically gave up dancing, she settled down, she has two babies…but she’s still too Latina for the MM in this latest iteration, don’t you think?

      • KW says:

        OMG I’m having such fun with this! Bless you for doing this blog!!
        I absolutely agree with you about Cruise and “Couchgate.” Getting away with it is a tricky business. It can be done (as you mentioned from your examples) but it’s also contingent on timing. I mean, even though Leann Rimes is a C-list has been, she’s still in the papers pulling a Julia Roberts. The difference is that Cibrian’s wife has gone on record calling Rimes out. If Vera Moder had done that it’d be a WHOLE different ballgame (one I would have enjoyed watching too). Because then it’s about the normal, ordinary woman being overplayed and exploited by hot Hollywood starlet, c.f. Lance Armstrong’s ex-wife. MM ain’t having that cause it’s too close to home.
        Also, I wouldn’t say Jude got away with it. Leaving Sadie was bad and he did manage to recover with the ladies but the babysitter thing? Hell no. The MM’s weren’t having that. RDJ is an interesting case because I’m not sure the MM knew who he was pre-Iron Man or pre-Ally McBeal even. If they did know of him, it was that he was the junkie that ended up in some small child’s bedroom. So I am not sure that he was on the radar enough to fit in your list. Meg Ryan is big. BIG. It was too bad Dennis Quaid was in obsolete-ville at the time cause he could have capitalized BIG time. She will never recover from that. Never. And the sad thing is noone really even remembers that. They just know that she can’t do romcoms anymore (also what probably killed her was In the Cut).

        J.Lo: Oh yes, that’s what I was saying. She just cannot get it right with MM. I mean, do you remember her interview with Diane Sawyer showing off that ring and normalizing her romance with Affleck even after having to admit she left her husband for him? Do you remember her frying damn chicken with Affleck and Pat O’Brien in their kitchen? Christ. She will never be one of them. They don’t even like Jen Garner that much but they’ll take Taupe over Brown anyday.

  4. Laura says:

    Is 30 rock a minivan majority approved show?

    • Annie Petersen says:

      Interesting question, Mom. (I totally just outed you as my mom.) I would say that it was NOT in the first season and much of the second…more transgressive, more into Tracy Jordan, more offbeat. That’s also why it did so terribly in the ratings for those first two seasons.

      Then, in the third season, when Tina Fey realized she needed to get some numbers if the show had any hope of continuing, she pulled out all the minivan stops — tons of guest stars (including minivan fav Oprah), a ticking biological clock, etc. — traits that endear her to the great middle. While I still think the show is funny, I don’t find it as original or hilarious as the first season.

      You can also apply this to Friday Night Lights (see Tiffiny’s post below) — it tried to appeal to the minivan majority’s love of a good solid murder melodrama in the second season, realized it was crap, and then, in the third season, said screw it, forgot about the murder completely (selective amnesia!) and played to their small yet vocal base, forgoing the approval of the minivan majority.

      • Tiffiny says:

        Oh Annie, I had forgotten (read: blocked out) the whole ‘FNL murder melodrama’ plotline. Now I’m picturing Tyra’s tantrum on the bridge again…gah.

  5. Tiffiny says:

    I like your short blurb on the lack of savvy marketing re: FNL. Could you expand on that idea in a future post?

  6. Alison says:

    This post revealed to me that I AM the minivan majority. Except that I’m 27 years old and I’m not a parent. Good grief, what does that say about me?! And I just used the phrase “Good grief” — isn’t that a trait of the minivan majority?! Next thing you know, I’ll be driving an actual minivan!

  7. Carissa says:

    “…little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky…” Can you tie in Weeds and WASPS? How do they relate?

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  10. Jody T. says:

    I think the use of “minivan” here is a bit dated and these mindsets/interests are more accurate to families who are starting to age-out of this vehicle type (i.e., young Boomers/Older Gen Xers). I think the characteristics you’re describing are more in-tune with Middle America, in general. Thus, wouldn’t “Middle America Majority” be more accurate?

  11. wildcatteacher says:

    We can’t take ourselves seriously, folks. Let’s have some fun with our minivan status. Kudos to Toyota for their creative work in marketing to us… http://growingupwell.org/2010/05/06/the-swagger-wagon/

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