Whose Side is ‘Portlandia’ Even On?

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Augusta Quirk/IFC

Arguably, the two most iconic Portlandia characters in the show’s history are the airy, disaffected clerks at the feminist bookstore Women and Women First. But Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein will have to find a new place to film the sketch now that the real-life incarnation of the store, a Portland establishment called In Other Words, has severed ties with the show.

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The store's owners posted an explanation on their website. Apparently a recent filming of the show left an unaccounted mess and forced their neighbors to “close and lose business for a day without warning.” They also argue that the show has had a net-negative effect on the city and that the segments filmed at the store are “trans-antagonistic and trans-misogynist and have only become more offensive as the show goes on.”

“‘LOL Fred Armisen in a wig and a dress’ is a deeply shitty joke whose sole punchline throws trans femmes under the bus by holding up their gender presentation for mockery and ridicule,” the statement reads. “In a world where trans femmes — particularly Black trans women — are being brutalized and murdered on a regular basis for simply daring to exist, dude in a dress jokes are lazy, reactionary, and actively harmful. They’re also just straight up not funny.”

There’s currently a sign in the storefront that reads “Fuck Portlandia,” which makes me strangely happy. But there’s a lot to unpack here.

If the owners and staff of In Other Words felt that Portlandia didn’t reflect their values and wanted to distance themselves, that is of course totally fine. But Fred Armisen has been dressing in drag in the Women and Women First segments since season one, in 2011. Absorbing the stipends and secondhand fame for five years before finally mustering some serious political outrage feels slightly hypocritical.

That being said, I can also understand why they’re exhausted by the whole thing. Portlandia first succeeded because, while it was parodying the yuppie, highly concerned hipster whiteness of idyllic blue-state America, it always felt part of it, too. But Portlandia isn’t the tiny alternative sketch show it was when it debuted. It has Emmy nominations, Peabody awards, and national ubiquity. And yet they’re still making fun of people who work at feminist bookstores? It used to be fun and exciting, but now you’re just watching a couple of very famous people carelessly making light of gender identity issues. Liberal rage is obviously ripe for parody, but also, feminist bookstores are important! And it's becoming difficult to determine whether Brownstein and Armisen would even agree at this point. 

Again, I’m not sure In Other Words’ position is entirely valid. In their statement they accuse Portlandia for encouraging the mass displacement of the city’s communities, and blaming a television show for gentrification instead of lawmakers and zoning policies is… misguided, to say the least, but their resentment is understandable. You can only send-up a community you claim to love for so long before you look like the enemy. 

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