I was in San Francisco when this "story" broke, and I have some words of consolation for the heartbroken. I didn't hear a word about this until I got back home. Why? Because while the story got a bit of national press, no one cares what Sienna Miller thinks about anything.
Except us, of course.
In case you've spent the past few days under a rock -- or, really, anywhere in the universe except Pittsburgh -- here's what happened. Miller has been in town for the filming of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, an adaptation of Michael Chabon's coming-of-age/coming-out novel. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Miller called the city "Shitsburgh" (such Joycean wordplay!). Then she asked, "Can you believe this is my life? Will you pity me when you're back in your funky New York apartment and I'm still in Pittsburgh?"
Actually, I do pity her. Because her quote says less about Pittsburgh than about herself. It says she's kinda fatuous, and trying too hard to impress people with her alleged sophistication. Running down the provincials is an easy way to do that. I knew kids who did the same thing in college by making fun of the "townies." (The town in question incidentally, was Meadville, where Miller's father lives today. So there!)
But if someone wanted evidence that Pittsburgh is a hick town, they wouldn't need to hear Miller's remarks. They could just listen to the city's response. They could look at the sneering Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline about Miller's remarks: "Semi-famous actress dumps on the Burgh." (What's this? "One of America's great newspapers" faulting someone else for having delusions of fame?) Or missives like the following, posted in response to an online Us magazine story:
"[W]alk up to any native Pittsburgher you know and tell them their hometown sucks. After you pick yourself up off the ground, you'll realize that you don't mess with [a] 'burgh man."
Damn straight! We will totally kick the ass of anyone who says we're unsophisticated. Anyone who doesn't praise our friendliness should die and go to Hell.
Of course, Pittsburgh shouldn't be judged by what some steakhead posts online. But there is something typically Pittsburgh about all this outrage.
It is, after all, the flip side to the fetishistic glee we get from positive national attention. We have an unhealthy fascination with what the world thinks of us. Every mention of the city in The New York Times or Forbes inevitably prompts stories of our own, in which reporters cover the coverage. There's an entire cottage industry in coming up with Pittsburgh "branding statements" and ad campaigns. Actually, it's not a cottage industry at all: When the Pirates and Steelers sought millions of tax dollars for new stadiums, a key selling point was that they would market the city to the world.
This PR fetish is a local tradition. As David Cannadine notes in his new biography of Andrew Mellon (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), it dates back at least 100 years. During the early 1900s, he notes, the famous Pittsburgh Survey was commissioned to study the city's living and working conditions. The Survey discovered horrific dangers inside the city's factories, and an appalling lack of sanitary or human services outside them. But instead of changing the miserable conditions, local leaders tried to downplay them with a PR campaign.
"[T]he local press launched a vigorous counter-offensive, denouncing the survey's authors as ignorant outsiders," Cannadine writes; business leaders concentrated on "projecting a more positive image of the city across the nation and attracting new industries."
Let 'em eat PR!
Obviously, it's easier to spin problems than solve them. But the decades we've spent trying to plant a positive image are now bearing a bitter fruit: a bunch of headlines about how defensive we are. The Associated Press account of this brouhaha, for example, noted that when a comic-strip creator made a joke about how Pittsburgh smells, he got hundreds of angry e-mails. Including some death threats.
Miller's big crime is sounding like a would-be prom queen -- catty and desperate for approval. Looks like she and her critics have something in common after all.