“Well I was born in a small town, And I can breathe in a small town”
— John Mellencamp
“There is only one good thing about small town, You know that you want to get out”
— Lou Reed
America is a vast landscape, both in its geographic expanse and its demographic diversity. But if there’s one place in which, culturally speaking, the signifying torch of “America” still burns brightest, it’s in the small town. Not a single small town, of course, but the thousands upon thousands of Mayberrys that dot the American landscape — from the oldest New England settlements, to the Midwestern corn baskets, to the Southern white-picket fence farmsteads, to the West-Coast logging villages.
If you grew up in a heathen-infested big city like New York, Boston, or (gasp!) San Francisco, then you likely can’t appreciate the potent brew of aw-shucks Americanness that supposedly streams in the blood of every red-white-and-blue hayseed. Being from a small town is like being born with microscopic Lee Greenwood midichlorians in your circulatory system; it’s an instant indicator of authentic Americana. In much of the popular imagination, a small-town provenance means you’re from — in the infamous words of a former red-state governor and notorious airhead — the “Real America.”
Or so goes the popular myth. But if small-town America is the “Real America,” then Real America is in serious decline. The American small town ain’t what it used to be, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
A makeshift memorial for victims of the Isla Vista shooting: a tragedy brought about by insanity, a sick gun fetish culture, and some seriously twisted ideas about masculinity.
When an overprivileged, mentally disturbed, misogynistic asshat named Elliot Rodger gunned down seven people and wounded thirteen others in Isla Vista, California on May 23, 2014, the United States once again descended into a deep, meditative reflection on how our culture in many ways still treats women as subordinates and how America’s obsession with all things firearms might be an impediment to many citizens’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, draft-dodging chicken hawk whose image was built on colonialism and pseudo machismo.
Quick question: what makes a man? Is it, as the Big Lebowski famously quipped, “the ability to do the right thing?” In that context, manhood is defined through deeds and actions, but is that all there is to being a man? After all, the idea of a blanket definition of “masculinity” in the 21st century is patently absurd, resting as it does on the assumption that human identities can be shaped by a singular cultural experience or molded via the reigning social values that are inevitably dictated by those who hold power in any given society. The former sentence is a highfalutin way of saying that men, just like women, are all individuals who develop in a vast number of ways depending on a vast number of experiences. The idea of complexity in gender identity, however, has historically not meshed well with rather simplistic cultural notions of American masculinity.