Renn Faire: “Disneyland for Rednecks”

abandoned-renaissance-fair-26133

An abandoned Rennaisance Faire site near Fredericksburg, Virginia (Roadtrippers.com).

“Wiccan, as well as satanic, symbolism was in nearly every gift shop.”
— from a Yelp.com review of the Georgia Rennaisance Faire, quoted in Well Met (237).

Rachel Lee Rubin’s Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture is, obviously, not about contemporary Paganism, but the two topics cross paths occasionally, as the quote above shows. Reading made me think once again that most studies of Paganism in the United States, at least, tend to shy away from class issues, although gender issues are plowed through in all directions.

Yes, the “redneck Disneyland” description comes from someone in the book. And there is this quote from a participant about Renn Faire visitors as a whole: “The ones who hate their [mundane] jobs wear really great costumes.” When you think of a song like “Take This Job and Shove It,” what social group comes to mind?

Rubin traces the Renn Faire phenomenon from one created in the mid-1960s outside Los Angeles as a fundraiser for the left-leaning Pacific Radio network. So that was “countercultural” in the 1960s sense. But it is not the 1960s anymore. Who goes to Renn Faires? The (mostly) white lower-middle and working class, I would say.

Somewhat like the Renn Faires, the Pagan movement in America was mostly birthed by leftish intellectual bohemians (but not totally). Decades later, should the movement still be described that way? I don’t think so. But who is researching this question?

And apparently the “crackpot religion” of Wicca is one of those currently countercultural things to have found a home on the Renn Faire circuit, along with homosexuality and polyamory (216).

As H-Net’s reviewer wrote,

At least two questions drive the narrative and analysis of Well Met. One concerns the potential centrality of the Renaissance faire to our understanding of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Is the faire essential to the story of hippie explorations into communalism, antimodernism, and craft revival, as well as rock and folk music revivals? Rubin gives a resounding, and rather persuasive, yes. Another question that the author specifically poses in her introduction is, “To what concrete personal, political, and cultural uses can a group of Americans put a past that, for the most part, is not their own?” (p. 3). Answers to that question have evolved over the faire’s history.

There is (who knew? not me) a chapter devoted to a subgenre of romance novels set at Renaissance Faires, of which I can say only that that is not as strange as romance novels set in Amish communities, which is another subgenre.

8 Comments

  1. Kris Hughes says:

    Yeah. I find this movement baffling, as I also find the need to “costume” Pagan events in oldey worldey garb. Let’s by all means take our religion and place it firmly in a fantasy past! (No thanks!) As someone who lived in Scotland for 25 years, and made my living there playing Scots trad. music, I was invited to perform at a so-called Scottish “fesitval” somewhere in Colorado, a few years ago. Not only were the organiser and attendees unable to distinguish between Scots and Irish music and culture… yes, there were the Renn Faire booths! My weak protestations that Scotland is a modern country with supermarkets, urban decay and an actual living culture, of course, fell on deaf ears. Amurkins have a culture, it’s called LasDisneyVegas. I’ve given up wanting to participate.

  2. Mary Anderson says:

    I’ve always been confused by Renn faires. I keep thinking they’re supposed to be about the Renaissance, when they’re clearly modeled on the Middle Ages. That alone has led me to–rather arbitrarily–boycott them for as long as I knew of their existence. But now I’m even more confused by the “redneck Disneyland” quote and by your conjecture that people who go to Renn faires tend to be lower or working class. And how does this tie together with Wicca or paganism? Is this just a guess you’re making, or it is something that you’ve observed? And to Kris Hughes, I’d just have to say that American culture is real but undervalued, even by Americans. We are, after all, a fairly young country in terms of history (even though we can be obnoxiously loud and overbearing, like teenagers). Our cultural roots actually tend to be grounded in those poor and working class people–Appalachian music (I know, brought from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales), country, blues, r & b, hip hop. The sublime (Emmylou Harris) to the embarrassing (monster truck rallies) and all points in between. Many of us will never set foot in Las Vegas or Disneyland, nor do we want to.

  3. Chas Clifton says:

    Maybe the “Renn Fair” is always in the 15th century, which was “the Rennaisance in the courts of northern Italy but “the Middle Ages” in most of Northern Europe. After all, no one woke up in 1500 and said, “Yay, it’s the Renaissance.” (Here in the former province of Nuevo Mexico, the Middle Ages lasted until 1821.)

    My other point is that our view of Paganism is largely shaped by the people who write books — but are they truly representative? Does the average Pagan look more like the average Renn Faire attendee? And is that why you see so much Renn Faire-style garb at Pagan festivals?

    Really, the subject of Pagan costuming is worh a book in itself.

    Similarly, there is the strong crossover and interconnection of people between the Society for Creative Anachronism, the Renn Faire subculture, and the Pagan movement(s).

  4. Pitch313 says:

    I think that the redneck notion is somehow off the mark in describing Renaissance Faires as I have experienced them. Yes, they took place outdoors, but they weren’t at all rural or agricultural or themed toward the peasantry. They were suburban, commercial, New Agey, and inclined (steeply) toward the aristocracy. And, to my eyes, influenced by the entertainment industry. Showy, as theater things get showy and as actors/director get showy.

    These days, I would compare Ren Faires more with Cons, especially (in aspration, at least) with the bigger city Cons (think San Diego). Fandom. Cosplay. Gossip and access. Celebrities. So not redneck Disneyland but less well funded suburban ComicCon…

    I suspect that, more broadly, Ren Faires fall into the Re-constuction/Re-enactment category that also includes some varieties of Pagan endeavor.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Pitch, don’t equate “redneck” with “rural” necessarily. We’re talking class issues here — blue collar, pink collar — can be urban or suburban too. But not as nerdish/collegiate as Cons.

  5. Rummah says:

    A few years ago I was on my way back from a party at Pennsic, the annual big SCA gathering in Western PA. Suddenly everyone I was with was forced to stop because of a procession going by. Lo and behold, it was a Wicca procession going down the trail. No one but me recognized it, but they were respectful.

    • That’s interesting. Yes ago, a leading Gardnerian Wiccan HP and HPS who were also big in the Society for Creative Anachronism tried to recruit my wife and me for the SCA. (We were not interested.) One of the things they told us was that was that although there were a lot of SCA Wiccans, they were supposed to keep it undercover at SCA events. Evidently that was not always the case!

      Personally, I think that the SCA has had an overall negative influence in the North American Craft, encouraging to people to think in terms of Lord and Lady and to engagage in a lot of Euro-fantasy. I knew another HPS who was only happy being addressed as “Baroness,” her SCA title.