History Piece

 
The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)

BEAUTY IN THE SERVICE OF A POLITICAL AGENDA

By Dr. Ruth Schwartz Cowan




Current Page: 1
  Next Page in Essay (page 2)
Jump To Page: 1 2 3 4 5


Power in the Land is very beautiful, so beautiful that it is sometimes hard to remember that it is also propaganda, political advertising: beauty in the service of a political agenda. The directors, the script writer, the composer—all renowned artists—were being paid to promote the work of a federal agency, the Rural Electrification Administration. Over, under and through its elegant photography, its poetic script and its delightful score, the film exaggerates in order to make its point, as all propaganda does, highlighting some aspects of the Parkinson’s lives while ignoring others.

The film actually has two political agendas, each intended for a different audience. From the moment of its inception, REA had been the subject of intense political criticism. Some powerful people, bitter opponents of the New Deal, regarded rural electrical co-operatives as socialistic institutions; they thought of the REA loans made to the co-operatives as unwarranted governmental interference in the capitalistic free market. Power in the Land was meant to speak to those critics and counter their criticisms. In addition, the film was addressed to the nation’s farmers. In the first several decades of the 20th century rural Americans had been moving from the countryside to the cities in droves—a demographic shift that worried federal officials a good deal. How will the nation feed itself, they asked, if the rural exodus continues? Will Americans become dependent on imported foods? What will happen if there is, as appeared likely, another World War?

Thus, REA was created, in part, to keep farmers from leaving their farms; to make farm families happier with farming by making their lives easier and their incomes higher. In service to this goal, Power in the Land was meant to advertise electrification as the one best way to achieve modernized farming.

When I show Power in the Land to undergraduates who have been raised in cities and suburbs, I usually introduce the film by identifying it as propaganda and asking the students to watch it critically in an effort to determine which truths are being highlighted and which are being cast in shadows. Our subsequent class discussions have been very interesting. Most of the students, media savvy as they have been trained to be, recognize the way in which music, action and text were designed (in, for example, the harvesting corn scene which concludes with the farmers striking their scythes in a post) to convince the viewer that the co-operative movement is wholly and traditionally American. Those students with some knowledge of the history of the 1930s also understand which criticisms of the New Deal that was meant to counter.

My students have a harder time, however, recognizing the ways in which the film distorts reality in order to advertise modernization to farmers. My students, of course, have no idea what farm life was, or even is, all about. Raised in post World War II affluence, almost none of them (except the recent immigrants from undeveloped nations) have even the foggiest notion of how people managed their lives without modern conveniences. Not yet heads of households themselves, they have no idea what consumer durables cost. Rich or poor or somewhere in between, they just assume that all houses, apartments and dormitory rooms, automatically come outfitted with indoor plumbing, central heating and refrigerators, if not washers, dryers and dishwashers. Not well versed in any of the social sciences, they just assume that gender roles are historically and culturally fixed: traditional, universal, maybe even biological, never changing. Men plow and plant and harvest (or something equivalent), wringing a living from the land, while women cook and sew and do laundry (or something equivalent) caring for the members of the family.


Current Page: 1
  Next Page in Essay (page 2)
Jump To Page: 1 2 3 4 5



Return To Top