UR Here: Inscrutable Iowa

This is the month of masks. As the calendar veers toward the month’s end, more and more false faces and outré makeup will replace our regular countenances. Who is that? Who are you really?

In Iowa, I sometimes wonder if every day is Halloween. People from our state, as well as most Midwesterners, are stereotyped as “nice.” There is without question a certain politeness about midlanders. But what lies beneath the manners, the quiet demeanor? Are we all that “nice?”

Jason Rentfrow doesn’t think so. This University of Cambridge social psychologist (who hails from the U.S. South) has completed a supposedly exhaustive study of U.S. regional character traits. I’m always suspicious of studies, no matter how well-controlled or broad, that reduce human complexity to simple categories. But if we just go for a minute with Rentfrow’s results, he tells us that Iowans don’t crack the top 10 in any one of his five categories of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism (propensity for anxiety and stress), and openness. We actually score higher on neuroticism, the only negative category, than we do on openness, our worst category of all.

I don’t really know what all these broad categories mean in their particulars, if much of anything. I’m going on the summary of a Gannett newspaper article here, so that should tell you something. But I think, even from this thin veneer of information, we can say that, on the whole, Midwesterners aren’t exactly the most outgoing folks. There’s a reserve behind the smiles, a mystery behind the good manners. As the chorus of River City, Iowa sings to Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, “So, what the heck, you’re welcome. Glad to have you with us. Even though we may not ever mention it again.”

That great firebrand Carol Bly, whom we sadly lost to ovarian cancer last year and who never met a phony she didn’t like to eviscerate, takes the legendary “Minnesota nice” of her native state to task in one of her last essays (full disclosure: this appeared in the anthology I edited in honor of another lost sage, Paul Gruchow). She said, “Midwest sociability depends on kidding and a psychologically damaging informality.” We speak in low-key language, masking our hatred and judgment with kidding, with friendliness—or perhaps silence. Midwesterners often live a “practical, non-contemplative life of a culture that clearly prefers kidding to moral grief,” says Bly. Rather than hating and facing up to cruelty, we coat it with smiles and put it to bed with a lullaby. Avoidance is preferable to confrontation. I lived for two years in northwestern Minnesota and heard my share of That’s Differents.

I thought a lot about Carol Bly while I enjoyed a documentary at this past summer’s Landlocked Film Festival here in Iowa City, Sasha Waters Freyer’s This American Gothic. The film chronicles the efforts of some townspeople of small-town Eldon, Iowa, who are trying valiantly (and ultimately successfully) to build a visitor’s center for the American Gothic house, which appears in the background of Grant Wood’s iconic painting and still stands in Eldon as a State Historical Society of Iowa historic site.

While the film focuses on the sociology of a typical Midwestern small town in economic decline, some artistic commentary by the likes of art historian Wanda Corn and historian Steven Biel reviews for us the cultural persistence of the painting and some of its standard interpretations. Once we get past the parodies, the Green Acres theme song, and the corn flakes commercials, we are left with inscrutableness. Who are these people? What is going on with this father and daughter? What lies behind the stern farmer’s frown–defiance, cruelty, defense of the honor of his beloved daughter? What is deflected from the young woman’s slightly turned face and eyes that avoid direct contact with us–suitors, sexuality, shame, family oppression, or worse? As one of the critics asks in the film, the real question is, “What is going on behind that window?”

The townspeople of Eldon themselves know it’s all about the window, at least as far as the house itself is concerned. But behind all the cheery laughter, the funny costumes, the pitchfork-laden skits, the town picnic fundraisers, I wonder if that’s the extent of their insight into what “American Gothic” and what these stoic Midwesterners represent. One of Eldon’s traditions is the annual “Gothic Days.” A local tattoo artist interviewed in the film extols the virtues of his profits when he sets up a trailer at the festival, but when pressed, he clearly has no clue what “Gothic Days” is even celebrating. The film ends with the grand opening of the successfully completed new American Gothic House Visitor Center, but we don’t even get to see what is inside. What is going on behind those doors, those windows, those smiles, that politeness, that niceness?

For me, the most interesting and provocative aspect of Waters Freyer’s film are the “portraits” interspersed throughout the 60-some minutes. At regular intervals, we are treated to a lengthy, silent shot of two or more Eldonians, young and old, in their natural habitat, silently posing for the video camera. On the surface, these are amusing recreations of the still stares of our American Gothic heroes. But they are also oddly disturbing. It’s not just the incongruity of video footage serving as still picture. Rather, the townspeople’s mostly reserved stares challenge us to question whether we’ve gotten to know them at all in this visit to their community. What is going on behind those frequently uncomfortable stares? Is there the boosterish optimism of the town cheerleaders of Gothic Days and the new Visitor Center? Is there the rank pessimism that occasionally peeks out from behind the grins, the fatalism over what possibilities a 900-person town over 60 miles from the Interstate have to offer anyone?

Or is there something else? Something dark? Or something beautiful? It seems we’ll never know. After all, we’re nice here in Iowa. Or maybe not. Since we’re not so open, you’ll have to work harder at seeing behind the mask.