Guest Post! Pioneer Woman: Betty Crocker for the Digital Age

The following post is from Melanie Haupt, a PhD candidate in English at UT, freelance writer, and blogger extraordinaire. You can find her Celebrity Proust Questionnaire here.

Anne (or, shall I say, DR. PETERSEN) has already done a lot of work here explaining and analyzing how the star image works within the context of Hollywood (I am using “Hollywood” here as a catch-all for the system she describes). I’m here to talk about the Pioneer Woman from a feminist food studies perspective; part of this blog entry is an excerpt from my dissertation, which looks at how women use recipes, cookbooks, food blogs, and other texts to make themselves and their communities of meaning visible both within and outside of the context of domesticity.

In the spring 2011 issue of Bitch magazine, an article contending with the phenomenon of mommy bloggers complained that when Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, appears on the Today show to make cinnamon rolls, she is never asked to discuss her success as a self-made media juggernaut. Rather, she is constrained within the identity of “Mommy” (or some other similarly domesticity-entrenched image) rather than celebrated for her professional success. Sarah McAbee writes,

Despite the complexity of these blogging powerhouses, the mainstream media seems content to categorize them as just, well, moms.  Not professional bloggers, not businesspeople, not brands in and of themselves. [...] By emphasizing the domestic and ignoring the professional aspects of these figures, the media ensures that even the blogosphere’s mommy moguls fit neatly into the dominant pop culture narrative in which women have to choose between the competing world of family and career/creative work.  Instead, bloggers like [Heather] Armstrong [of Dooce.com] and Drummond have actually made a business of their home life, blurring the boundaries between the domestic and the public spheres.

Well, yes and no. Of course the Pioneer Woman is going to talk about making cinnamon rolls on the Today show, because the Pioneer Woman is a product, not a person. No one is going to tune in to Oprah or a morning magazine news show to hear a woman talk about how she became a media mogul, because the identity of “media mogul” doesn’t fit the persona Ree Drummond has created for herself in the Pioneer Woman. In other words, I don’t think that the Pioneer Woman’s Today show cooking segments are part of some media conspiracy to keep women barefoot and homeschooling in the kitchen. Rather, they are way stations on the trajectory of professional development that Ree Drummond has plotted for herself as a celebrity blogger.

The Pioneer Woman and her "punks"

Laura Shapiro, in Something From the Oven (2005), describes the genesis of “live trademarks” in 1950s America that gave rise to the phenomenon of fictional female characters serving as home economics advisers to befuddled housewives. These contrived home economists included Mary Blake for Carnation Evaporated Milk, Chiquita Banana of United Fruit, Mary Alden and Aunt Jemima of Quaker Oats, and, of course, Betty Crocker of General Mills. These characters “were designed to project specific, carefully researched characteristics to women shopping for their households. ‘Ideally, the corporate character is a woman, between the ages of 32 and 40, attractive but not competitively so, mature but youthful-looking, competent yet warm, understanding but not sentimental, interested in the consumer but not involved with her’” (30). The image of Betty Crocker was crafted by General Mills in response to countless housewives writing in needing troubleshooting tips and advice for baking cakes, pies, and biscuits; “The company saw this as a good chance to communicate with customers, so home economists on staff answered every letter, signing them all ‘Betty Crocker’” (32). Some might argue that in addition to serving as the genesis of the live trademark, but also that of conversation marketing, in which a company strikes up a social relationship with the consumer. With that relationship came increased trust and, naturally, increased sales:

General Mills could see that Betty Crocker was unparalleled when it came to reaching homemakers and building trust in the company. The phenomenal success of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, published in 1950 with a then record-breaking first printing of nearly a million copies, showed just how much home cooks wanted the simply phrased reassurance and reliable advice they associated with her name. (Shapiro 34)

Betty Crocker is best known today as the symbolic figure on the cake-mix box, although Adelaide Cummings portrayed her from 1949-1964 in Betty’s various television appearances, delivering the carefully mediated combination of sentiment, empathy, authority, and references to General Mills products for which her constructed image had become known. Ultimately, Betty’s job was to demystify the process of cooking via emphasizing convenience items like cake mixes, enabling women to unchain themselves from the kitchen while continuing to lovingly provide their families with homemade foods.

Similarly, Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, is a mediated image dedicated (in part) to helping people who are uncomfortable in the kitchen discover a love of cooking via her step-by-step instructional cooking entries. She shares stories of embarrassment and silly behavior, offers up gift suggestions, hosts giveaways of expensive items paid for by revenue generated by the site, and promotes a community of sameness that invites the reader to identify with the Pioneer Woman’s foibles. Only in this case, rather than providing the humanized face of a giant corporation, the brand behind the living trademark is Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman herself.

And yet, this has not always been the case with the Pioneer Woman. Where the blogger named Ree Drummond, writing in 2006 and 2007, frequently uses mild profanity; writes long, revealing entries in which she shares disturbing or humorous episodes from her past; and describes herself as a “malcontented, angst-ridden desperate housewife” (May 12, 2006), the blogger known as the Pioneer Woman writes pithy, self-deprecating entries that follow an established formula and adhere to a consistently breezy tone. However, because the archives of the blog’s early days are still relatively intact, readers can piece together a very different portrait of Ree Drummond, separate from the highly polished, mediated image of the Pioneer Woman of today. For example, the poetry populating the blog’s earliest entries, a series Drummond titled “Poetry of a Madwoman” and presented in “volumes,” is surprisingly candid and evocative. For example, “Volume 7,” published May 12, 2006, reads,

I’m a pool of flesh.
A puddle of exhaustion on the dirty tile floor.
I can’t get up.
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
I have no button on a chain around my neck
With which to summon help.
Would that I did so I could be whisked away
In an ambulance.
Sirens blaring.
People staring.
I’d ask them to drop me off at a hotel.
Room service.
Maid service.
Laundry service.
Two days of this heaven
And I’d muster the strength to carry on. Until next month.

Here Drummond expresses a deep sense of fatigue stemming from her duties as a housewife and mother and evokes the pathos of the Life Alert medical protection system commercials that feature feeble elderly people in dangerous positions after falling down. Unlike the people in the commercial, the enfeebled-by-housework Drummond does not have the safety net provided by the electronic assistance alert, and has no one to help her.  She expresses a desire to spend two days alone in a hotel where there are staff to assume the duties she is responsible for on a daily basis: cooking, cleaning, and laundry. The underlying mood is that of a woman dissatisfied and exhausted by the grueling and repetitive duties incumbent upon her as a stay-at-home mother. While the tone is somewhat wry, the subtext is that the work of the housewife is Sisyphean and thankless.

A few days later, “Volume 9” (May 22, 2006) reveals a similar dissatisfaction with her body:

I’m fat
So very fat.
These thirteen bastard pounds
Cling to my gut
Like a marsupial suckling.
My thin, shapely legs
Are mankind’s greatest deception.
Just travel north a foot or two
And a blubbery hell awaits.
Bring me cheese.
Fresh mozzarella cheese.
And chocolate by the load.
I’m nothing but a toad.
I’m fat.

Here Drummond ventriloquizes the self-loathing women are expected to express when they carry excess weight, and humorously expresses the tension between feeling anxious about that extra weight and wanting to feed that anxiety with chocolate and cheese.  This stands in contrast to the self-deprecating tone Drummond takes in regard to her love handles and jiggly arms in her mediated “Pioneer Woman” image.

This cheery, self-deprecating version of the Pioneer Woman, I should note, is wildly popular. She is wildly popular not because the recipes are particularly remarkable – her repertoire includes chocolate mousse made from Hershey bars, cornbread, cinnamon rolls, chicken spaghetti, all very Midwestern, middle-class fare — or that homeschooling is particularly remarkable, but because she has crafted an online persona that women have responded to almost universally. The site garners more than 20 million hits per month. In a recently published New Yorker profile, Drummond reluctantly admits to bringing in more than $1 million from the site alone (who knows how much she’s netting from the advances and royalties from her books, any Food Network revenue, and Hollywood development deals).

The Pioneer Woman Cooks became a New York Times bestseller and was one of Amazon.com’s Top 10 books of 2010. When Drummond (along with her husband and children) appeared at BookPeople in Austin to promote her cookbook in December 2009, the second floor of the bookstore was packed and people waited in line for more than an hour to get their cookbooks signed. Black Heels to Tractor Wheels was a bestseller on Amazon.com before its February 1, 2011 release. In short, in five years’ time, the Pioneer Woman has become a cultural juggernaut among middle-class American women in an increasingly urbanized country. What’s disturbing about this is the absolute balls-out insanity she inspires in her fan base. At the aforementioned BookPeople event, the crowd chanted, football game style, “Pioneer!” “Woman!” “Pioneer!” “Woman!” When she came down the stairs, you would have thought the Beatles — even the dead ones — were re-enacting the British Invasion. And when Drummond took to the podium to speak, she said absolutely nothing. Oh, she said words, but they were completely devoid of meaning or interest … sort of like on her blog.

Penelope Trunk argues that Pioneer Woman engages in “housewife porn” and has created an online space in which no one ever fights with their spouse about money or is overwhelmed by the laundry (although Drummond does make joking allusions to a never-ending pile of laundry). Women, says Trunk, “don’t want to see themselves reflected back to them.” However, this only explains part of Pioneer Woman’s appeal to women of her approximate demographic. When it comes to the Pioneer Woman, women like to see themselves reflected back to them, because she has cultivated such an affable, folksy image. On the Pioneer Woman’s Facebook fan page, Drummond posts the occasional frivolous status update, like this one from November 10, 2010: “I think I’ll actually do my hair today instead of tying it in a knot and fastening it with a pencil.” This one-line status update garnered hundreds of responses (and “Likes”), including “omg, I do the pencil thing too,” “Mine has a pencil in it right now,” “I resemble that remark,” “That’s my favorite way to do my hair, though,” and “i thought the pencilled knot WAS doing our hair!” Many respondents adopted a tone of familiarity, as though they were addressing a close girlfriend: “oooooo, Miss Fancy!” “Now don’t go crazy. Next you’ll be spraying Sun-In and teasing.” “you go girl!” “Now, now, no need to get all fancy on us!” Women responded with staggering enthusiasm in response to seeing some aspect of their experience, however trivial, reflected back to them via the Pioneer Woman image.

However, this image is tinged with cynicism. The philosopher Kenneth Burke writes in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950):

The extreme heterogeneity of modern life, however, combined with the nature of modern postal agencies, brings up another kind of possibility: the systematic attempt to carve out an audience, as the commercial rhetorician looks not merely for persuasive devices in general, but for the topics that will appeal to the particular “income group” most likely to be interested in his product, or able to buy it. (64)

This aspect of identification is crucial to persuasion and, within the market, cookbook (or romance novel or children’s book) sales, not to mention ad revenue generated simply by surfing to thepioneerwoman.com. So, if Pioneer Woman holds her hair in place with a pencil and I, too, hold my hair in place with a pencil, I identify with Pioneer Woman and feel greater kinship with her. The more kinship I feel with Pioneer Woman, the more likely I am to purchase The Pioneer Woman Cooks ($27.50), Black Heels to Tractor Wheels ($25.99), and Charlie the Ranch Dog (a forthcoming children’s book based on Drummond’s beloved Bassett hound, Charlie, who is featured extensively on the website; $16.99). The success of the Pioneer Woman model depends not on women identifying with the exhausted woman in a puddle on the filthy tile floor, but on identifying with the woman who jokes about her jiggly arms or idly contemplates dyeing a blue streak into her hair. Women will spend money on someone who gives voice to their own insecurities without the inconvenience of meaningful engagement with painful issues.

I see two major reasons behind Pioneer Woman’s appeal to readers. The first is that she (the mediated image) represents an idealized woman, a frontier version of the angel in the house with a 21st-century twist, one who offers up domesticity as escapist entertainment. She offers a nostalgic image of a pastoral Midwestern existence that, while a simulacrum, has found traction in a nation that is increasingly urbanized. Second, in the process of “keepin’ it real,” Drummond-as-Pioneer-Woman regurgitates hegemonic tropes of femininity and masculinity in that she frequently posts worshipful entries extolling her husband’s virtues, which include his chaps-clad rear end and muscular forearms; additionally, her pet name for him, Marlboro Man, conjures up images of rugged Western masculinity and virility while also gesturing toward an iconic advertising campaign for the Marlboro cigarette brand. At the same time, the matrix of feminized domesticity she constructs through her posts about cooking, her children, homeschooling, and home-related product recommendations such as quilts and jewelry-storage systems reinforces the image of Drummond as the angel in the (ranch) house, attending to all things domestic while her rugged, virile, Dr. Pepper-swilling husband attends to manly things outdoors, like working cows and castrating male calves. As the evolution of the blog suggests in its movement from the emotionally visceral to the imaginary, it is in the imaginary that the Pioneer Woman finds her audience. A recent entry (“Ten Important Matters,” January 26, 2011) featured three separate (and previously published) photographs of Marlboro Man’s leather chaps-clad rear end, and dozens of commenters left messages of thanks for these snapshots. Pioneer Woman’s readers vicariously derive pleasure from these images because they identify with Drummond and, therefore, have some claim on Marlboro Man themselves.

This is the relationship that keeps fans flocking to Drummond’s website: she offers up an idealized vision of domestic life, one in which the housewife gripes cheerfully about her neverending chores, extols the virtues of her adorable children, and gives voice to her unwavering desire for her hunk o’ burning love husband. It’s also a vision of idealized whiteness, which I find the most troubling, given Drummond’s runaway success. In the current (May 9, 2011) issue of The New Yorker magazine, Amanda Fortini offers up a profile of Drummond, and describes how the blogger edits a digital photograph of her son:

She deepened the colors, rendering his skin alabaster white, his lips rosebud pink, and his eyes a lovely but artificial shade of blue. Critics complain that her pictures are so digitally enhanced that they distort reality, but that’s the point. She’s painting a fantasyland, where everything — flowers, quilts, kids, hotel rooms on her book tour — looks like dessert.

(image borrowed from thepioneerwoman.com)

This passage took my breath away. It was an aspect of the site that I had not yet noticed or analyzed, probably due to the blind spots of my own white privilege, but there it is, in vivid, living color: Whiteness as dessert. But that’s sort of the narrative of pioneering itself, isn’t it? The pioneers (think Laura Ingalls) are romanticized icons of Western progress, fighting harsh weather, uncertain food supplies, and — worst of all — Indians (*gasp*) in order to realize the promise set forth by Manifest Destiny. The American Dream, while certainly accessible to and enacted by all Americans, is rooted in a rhetoric of whiteness.

"American Progress," John Gast, ca. 1872

So, when Drummond tells Fortini that, “I’m an example that you should never assume that where you are in life or what you’re doing is going to remain exactly as it is forever. If this can happen to me, who knows what you might be capable of doing?” she unwittingly gestures to the 19th century strain of American exceptionalism that believed in white folks’ divine right of conquest. Go West, young man! Come and take it! Anything is possible if you just put your mind to it! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!

But even Betty Crocker eventually reflected the “melting pot”:

On the left, Betty Crocker in 1936; on the right, in 1996, a composite of 75 women's faces

21 Responses to “Guest Post! Pioneer Woman: Betty Crocker for the Digital Age”

  1. [...] a post on our mega-strawberry-picking excursion, please allow me to take a moment to point you to a guest post I did at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style. It’s a little sneak peek at Chapter 1 of my [...]

  2. What a fascinating post. I often think that reclaiming the home world – gardening, canning, etc., – as a choice versus a duty is a good thing, but I do often wonder at the whiteness it can be at times. Many thanks.

  3. [...] Betty Crocker for the digital age [...]

  4. gfrancie says:

    This was an absolutely fascinating post. Some aspects of Pioneer Woman remind me of the radio housewives that were popular between the 30s and 50s. Those personalities who would have a short little show every day would provide comfort and a connection to the outside world to other housewives. (often isolated farmwives) It seems like she is an updated version of that role.

  5. [...] and, among other things, food blogging, and she has some really interesting observations about the Pioneer Woman’s carefully cultivated image: This is the relationship that keeps fans flocking to Drummond’s website: she offers up an [...]

  6. suze says:

    Very insightful! I personally do not ‘get’ the Pioneer Woman’s popularity. After reading your article perhaps I will stop thinking of her as a complete fraud. I do think she has taken the role of women back in time to the 1950′s…women of my generation worked very hard so that women of her generation would have the opportunity to chose their career path. She should acknowledge the fact that she is a smart businesswoman with unlimited funds. Thank you.

  7. [...] post, by Austin-based writer Melanie Haupt, is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the [...]

  8. Jo says:

    I was directed to this post today, and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t “get” the whole Pioneer Woman thing either. I think she has such a huge fan base because she represents what happens when the Harlequin romance novel is finished, and the girl rides off into the sunset with the cowboy. This is the …to be continued part. This is the part folks don’t get to see when the book is finished. All of her fans are bored women who are living vicariously through the fantasy world that Ree Drummond has created for them. And yes, she is a very savvy businesswoman. I don’t believe for a moment that her blog was an accident; I think she knew all along what she was doing, and how to make it a lucrative business. There are too many blogs out there that are far superior to hers. She actively promoted it for the purpose of making money. And good for her. She’s no desperate housewife. She’s a smart women; I just wish she would admit it. But then, she would lose a large portion of her fan base if she were to do that.

  9. Hypatia says:

    By golly you nailed it, I viewed her site once and decided not for me I want to enhance my cooking not live vicariously through some one’s life as I detected from the comments her fans wrote, Jo, you are so right It is life after she rides into the sunset to Majesty’s Rancho with Roy Rogers

  10. Zoe says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you. There is much debate about the Pioneer Woman, at least as far as disingenuity is concerned. What I feel is a shame is that she appears to have lost Ree the blogger in crafting her Pioneer Woman persona, but then again, she’s created a fantasy world for her readers to get lost in; it seems it’s the escapism that helps fuel her success.

    While I do not harbor resentment that she is so successful, it would be nice if she would have something real to talk about when she goes on tours or gives interviews. I thought the comment mentioning that she had nothing of import to say was spot on, having watched several clips of her speaking myself.

    Wonderfully written and thought provoking – thanks!

  11. carrie says:

    fascinating! thank you.

  12. Dianne says:

    While I find your article interesting, I would like to point out that I am a PW blog reader. My mother is from Indian and my father is black. I’ve never read a single romance novel. I’m a happily single woman with a great life. I enjoy the PW blog for that fact that is is entertaining.

    • Jo says:

      Dianne, then you definitely need to get out more. The Pioneer Woman’s blog is one of the . most . boring blogs in the blogosphere. There is no intellectual stimulation whatsoever, her cooking is terrible, her pictures are ho-hum and her writing is *y-a-w-n*. There are SO MANY fabulous blogs out there. Try to find some…!

      Cheers,

      Jo

      • Sarah TX says:

        I am not Dianne, but I found both this and your previous dismissal of women who read romance novels to be incredibly condescending. It’s possible to hold a negative opinion of PW without assuming that fans of her blog are rubes. I think it’s necessary, even, to think critically about “celebrity” without passing judgement on those who consume that celebrity (in fact, I think critically about media that I myself am a fan of).

  13. [...] she’s claiming to be “real” but is really a self-created character, a sort of modern Betty Crocker with an impossibly perfect life. Secondly, though blogs (especially “mom blogs”) [...]

  14. [...] She’s thought as much about women and food as anyone and has already published some interesting thoughts about the Pioneer Woman. (Oh, and she helped write a book about Texas [...]

  15. Meredith says:

    I heard the “ranch” is a fantasy as well, that it is actually a large corporate farm type operation. Does anyone know? I think the class issues here are so tied up in the idea of white pioneering and ruralness. I mean, people are attracted by this notion she is somehow roughing it, yet she obviously lives in a fancy house and i think was wealthy before the blog took off too. As the suburban world encroaches on the rural, it is hard to tell the difference here for me, considering how fake the persona is. Her problems she suffers through in this cheerful way are not really problems but silly concerns of a bougeois person with nothing better to do than write about her mundane yet mostly recreational existence. The notion of her “journey” that she is always touting is so preposterous.

    • HoustonMom says:

      Ree Drummond was most definitely WEALTHY long long before she became known for her “little ranch woman blog” … she was wealthy the day she married Ladd Drummond, the Drummonds are one of the largest and oldest landowners and ranching families in OK. They also make a mint off the US Govt for their feeding and caring of wild mustangs, a very lucrative endeavor indeed.
      Ree Drummond has no REAL problems, she has had help and nannies and housekeepers and now staff for her blog … her only problem apparently is deciding which overpriced flowy top to purchase and wear next, then give away to the adoring peasants who follow her.

  16. [...] to prove (to ourselves, to others?) that we are “doing it right” (I really recommend reading the post she references in the above link).  I’ve come to the conclusion that I am just as much guilty of this as I [...]

  17. CNM says:

    I am familiar with the Pioneer Woman’s blog- I’m not a “follower” but I have read a recipe here or there. I found this article to be very interesting because I have never thought of Pioneer Woman as a malevolent force before. Sure, she may be all fluff and basset hounds, but I fail to see what is so threatening. She doesn’t present herself as someone with OMG REAL PROBLEMS- her recreational existence is, well, recreational.

  18. [...] Drummond’s picture t&#959 b&#1077 genuine — those wh&#959 describe t&#959 h&#1077r see themselves &#1110n h&#1077r &#1072n&#1281 &#406&#1110k&#1077 h&#1077r, b&#965t those wh&#959 don’t austerely see h&#1077r &#1072&#1109 &#1072n over-publicized [...]