Flyover Country


"A couple of guys in first class on a flight
From New York to Los Angeles
...30, 000 feet above, could be Oklahoma
Just a bunch of square cornfields and wheat farms
Man, it all looks the same
Miles and miles of back roads and highways
Connecting little towns with funny names
Who'd want to live down there in the middle of nowhere?"
Jason Aldean, "Fly Over States"

Where do you live? New York? Awesome. L.A.? Awesome. Kansas City? Uh... where is that, like, in Idaho or something?note 

That's Flyover Country, also known as "the Heartland" or "Middle America" note  — American slang for the states which trendy coast-dwellers see only from the window of an airplane. Containing roughly half the country's population (if you're using a narrower definition) but much more of its landmass, this region includes everything between Las Vegas note  and Chicago at a minimum — and is often extended to everything east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Alleghenies (if not the Hudson River).

Sparsely populated, largely rural, and lacking in photogenic glamor, it rarely shows up in works which attempt to appear trendy or up-to-date. It gets much more play in political circles, however, as the quirks of the American electoral system make appeals to smaller states essential. When one talks about the "red state/blue state" divide in American politics, this is what is meant by "red state" — conservative-leaning rural/suburban areas where Walmart, chain restaurants, church, high school football, and the Republican Party are pillars of local communities. The phrase "flyover country" was, in fact, coined by right-wing talk radio hosts, to ridicule their imagined concept of what coastal liberal elites thought of the American interior.

Setting a show or a novel here can be shorthand for '50s-style social conservatism (and the common portrayal of this region by Hollywood in the actual Fifties did nothing to help), small-town insularity, or a crushingly unhip, even dorky ambiance — think Pleasantville or Napoleon Dynamite. However, it gets used at least as often to inspire nostalgia for Eagleland Flavor #1, a friendly, down-home environment full of old-time family values where all the women are strong, all the men are good-lookin' and all the children are above average.note  (Think Smallville, Friday Night Lights, or an '80s Spielberg/Amblin movie.)

Needless to say, the truth is a little more complicated than that. While the states of the central U.S. do skew more rural than urban, the cities therein are as cosmopolitan as any coastal town. There's plenty of culture, style, and nightlife to be found in cities like Minneapolis, Kansas City, or Omaha (a full list of oft-featured cities is included at the end), and they have a much lower cost of living than the coasts—even Chicago, the great metropolis of the Midwest, is cheaper than NYC or LA (although not by much). The "red state" perception is pretty off, too: although much of this region is a Republican stronghold, the Great Lakes region is either more or less solidly blue in presidential and senatorial races (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan) or seriously contested (Indiana and dear Lord Ohio), and some other states can be pretty competitive (Missouri, Iowa, and Colorado in particular, although even Nebraska and Kansas get in on the act sometimes).note  And even some of the smaller towns, like Boulder, Coloradonote  and Ann Arbor, Michigannote , have their own quirks. There are very few states in the US that don't have at least one significant metropolitan area.

Politically, the cities and their metro areas are also more liberal than the surrounding region. Many of them are (or were) industrial towns with a strong presence of labor unions and minorities, plus college students who stuck around after finishing. In fact, people in the surrounding, rural areas who don't fit in with the arch-conservative lifestyle will tend to relocate to the nearest decent-sized city. These factors frequently produce Democratic islands within states that are otherwise Republican strongholds. Many don't realize that Milwaukee was one of the hotbeds of the Socialist Party up until the second Red Scare, and while North Dakota does lean to the right, it has a publicly-owned banking system unique in the nation. (That said, social conservatism really is stronger here on average than on the coasts, even if economic populism frequently trumps it.)

Culturally also, the flyover region is a lot more diverse than popular folklore tends to credit it. Not merely Protestant in religion, its towns and neighborhoods may instead be heavily Catholic, Jewish, or (at least in the case of Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit) Muslim. To stereotype everyone here as "white Anglo-Saxon except for the blacks in the inner cities" is also grossly inaccurate; not only are most white Midwesterners of German rather than English stock, but the area's population since the early twentieth century has been an astonishing cross-section of ethnicities from all parts of Europe, and in some cases Asia too (the aforementioned Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi Moslems have been in Dearborn for an entire century, and there is a surprisingly large Thai-American community in Iowa). There are even quite a few Native reservations (no, reservations aren't all in Arizona and New Mexico), including the Lakota (Sioux) community in South Dakota and the Ojibwa (Chippewa) community in Minnesota.

These nuances and many more tend to be lost on Hollywood. Shows based in one of the coasts will lovingly show details of the landmarks and locales, while Midwestern locations are either fictionalized or used as a generic backdrop. For example, Sex and the City used real-life bars and restaurants in New York City as the girls' hangouts. Meanwhile, Garry Marshall, the producer of Happy Days and its Spin-Off Laverne and Shirley, never set foot in Milwaukee until long after both shows ended, leading to a horrifically inaccurate portrayal of the city that may have hurt its actual economic and cultural growth.

That all said, the depiction of the geographic landscape outside the cities can be quite accurate. The Midwest produces substantial portions of the global supply of corn, wheat, and soybeans (among other crops) so fields in every direction as far as the eye can see is an absolute truth for much of the area. Furthermore, large parts of it are very flat with no more than some low hills (there's a reason the center of the country is called the Great Plains), but flatness is not universal.

As mentioned above, if a show is actually based in one of the cities here, whether or not it's a subversion of this trope depends on how much research the writer has done (read: usually not much). However, the following tropes and locales of Middle America feature highly in the media:

  • Down on the Farm: Covers the majority of the region.
  • Everytown, America: When you need a generic suburb, you need only slap it in the middle of Indiana and call it a day.
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Illinois
    • Chicago, though this depends on who you're asking. It's big enough that many people consider it a separate entity, and nationally, it's spoken of by conservatives (especially those from southern Illinois) in the same derisive terms as the East and West Coasts, with The Mafia and Bomb Throwing Anarchists thrown in for good measure. However, it's still looked down upon by more provincial New Yorkers as a "wannabe" Big Applesauce, only with worse weather. Plus, the city is relatively isolated compared to New York and LA; outside the Chicagoland metro area are cornfields and Milwaukee. In other words, Chicago is stuck in a twilight zone on the edge of Flyover Country — too urban for Middle America, too Midwestern for the coasts. A sharp contrast to...
    • Peoria: Seen, for some reason, as the quintessential dull, banal Middle American city. The phrase "will it play in Peoria?" emerged in the vaudeville era to describe an act that would have mass appeal nationwide, especially in the heartland (Peoria was a major Midwestern stop for many vaudeville performers), and later became popular among marketers, politicians, and pollsters. Starting in The Sixties, it became a major test market, and to this day most American focus groups are based in the city (which is a rather outdated notion, as it now Missouri, not Illinois, that marks the official U.S. population center).
  • Indiana
    • Indianapolis: Home of the Indy 500.
    • Muncie: A small Midwestern city that, not unlike Peoria, would be another obscure burg if not for its very "averageness" turning it into a hotbed of sociological research. The husband-and-wife team of Robert and Helen Lynd selected it for their "Middletown studies" in the 1920s and '30s, and since then it's become a popular subject for pollsters and follow-up studies.
  • Missouri
  • Michigan
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Minnesota: Often viewed as being a Flanderization of every Midwestern stereotype, home of people with thick, Scandinavian-descended accents who embody the American version of Japanese Politeness, known (of course) as Minnesota Nice.
  • Ohio
    • Cleveland
    • Toledo
    • Columbus: Rarely seen or mentioned in fiction, but it's another hotbed of sociological study and commercial test runs due to its racial and age demographics closely mirroring the United States as a whole. Furthermore, the city lacks a strong regional identity, even compared to other Ohio cities. Basically, it's Peoria or Muncie as a major metropolis.
  • Omaha, Nebraska
    • A smallish (60th in the nation by metro population), somewhat geographically isolated city that still manages more exposure than you'd expect thanks partly to an oversized corporate presence (including Warren Buffett and his mega-holding company Berkshire Hathaway) and a fairly strong indie music scene (including Bright Eyes). Has even been in a few movies, though mostly due to the efforts of native son Alexander Payne.
  • Pennsylvania (outside of Philadelphia)
    • Pittsburgh
    • Pennsylvania itself has a mini flyover country. The state is often described as "Philly in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Kentucky/Alabama/Deliverance in beween," referring to the large rural zone in the middle of the state where coal mining, farming, and manufacturing make up the economic backbone. The nickname "Pennsyltucky" (or, more politely, "The T"note ) describes this region with either derision or Self-Deprecation.
  • Texas
  • Utah: Despite being located quite far from the Midwest, most stereotypes of the state, and of Mormons in general, are essentially Midwestern stereotypes cranked Up to Eleven. Mormonism did indeed spend many of its formative years in the Midwestnote , before heading to what's now Utah in search of a land without a pre-existing Christian population to disapprove of their religion. Many of the early Mormon converts in Europe also came from Scandinavia, not unlike the upper Midwest, and moved to Utah soon after.
  • Upstate New York: Technically outside the region, but often given the same treatment, especially by people from New York City. It is in fact quite different from most media depictions of New York; descriptions of it as a virgin wilderness in the works of James Fenimore Cooper are, in many cases, only slightly exaggerated.

The southeastern US, while sometimes considered part of the region, carries many of its own stereotypes and is often treated as a separate entity. For more information on that, see Deep South and Appalachia. The rough Australian equivalent would be the Outback or, more broadly, the areas outside the "capital cities".