By Jack Kredell
Somewhere around the time of Larry the Cable Guy hunting became a lot more than a seasonal pursuit. There were hints of the progression in the 90s, but overall it was a decidedly post-9/11 shift. As hunter participation was actually decreasing (and continues to decline), the visibility and commercial viability of hunting suddenly exploded. Hunting was now something more than a lifestyle: It was a brand.
You began to see as much camouflage in the mall as you did in the field. Decals of bucks with double drop tines, a characteristic rare enough in the wild that most of us will never encounter one, became plastered on the windows of F-250s everywhere. Camouflage went from performing the task of making you unseen to making you seen. Sure enough, pink camouflage was quick to follow for female hunters to be seen and counted, too.
Larry the Cable Guy’s use of redneck blackface made him a millionaire by branding the “blue collar” identity that was also the source of his comedy. People felt represented by him because he fully identified with the thing being made fun of: them.
After 9/11, as a result of cultural forces that are probably still too new to understand fully (social media being one of them), hunting evolved into a fixed and marketable identity with a defined set of politics. Hunting became just another popular identity, one of many in the popular cultural landscape. A reality television show about duck hunters becomes one of the most watched in TV history. For the first time, you could identify as a hunter (even without actually being one) and it made sense. It came with a known set of cultural and political affiliations. All you had to do was wear a Mossy Oak hoodie and people understood who you were. In a way, wearing camo is no different than wearing a your favorite team’s jersey. But what exactly is team hunting, and what does it represent?
In a surplus economy, hunting-as-subsistence is not going to be part of your average hunter’s identity. Very few us can make enough money to live by hunting or trapping. The one way that all of us can identify as hunters is through consumption. Some very smart people figured out that if there’s one thing that hunters seem to enjoy as much as hunting, it’s shopping.
But not everybody was hip to it. Fudds were born. Fudds resisted the rising tide of the monoculture by embracing a more austere post-war approach to hunting. For a Fudd, hunting means fair chase and a pre-64 Winchester Model 70 in .270. The arrival of the controversial AR platform made hunting a contested second amendment issue. If you came out against so-called black rifles, you were not only anti-hunting, but indirectly, anti-second amendment as well. Because hunting is not a right, hunters realized they had to bow down to second amendment politics (and its marketplace). Then Jim Zumbo came out against the AR platform and became the sacrificial Fudd. He was struck down by the outdoor powers that be, which seemed at the mercy of the new market for the AR.
This progression towards a popular hunting identity has lumped hunters into a monolithic group synonymous with powerful rights-based politics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the more unified a group is, the more leverage it tends to have. However, unified and homogenous are not the same thing. Groups that are too homogenous are weak because they alienate members who disagree as well as those like-minded non-members who would help the cause.
It’s at this moment when, consciously or subconsciously, hunting shows begin to appear that challenge the status quo. You can read the efforts of hunters like Steven Rinella, Randy Newberg, and Remi Warren as in no small part responding to those aspects of hunting that the post-9/11 landscape has downplayed, ignored, or even repressed. In Rinella, it’s the materiality of food consumption and its relationship to history and landscape; for Newberg it’s the egalitarian principles of public land hunting; in “Solo Hunter” Warren invokes a tradition of rugged self-reliance. Independent YouTube also contributed to the changing landscape of outdoor media.
These were not so much rebellions against the status quo of mainstream hunting media as proof that hunting is deeply varied in practice. Hunters do not all agree on what constitutes hunting, nor do we all agree on what the future of hunting should look like.
Which leads to the single biggest problem with hunting today: It is the culture itself that is prohibitive in the way we hunters get to decide how our economic and political power should be used. We can’t agree on the biggest threats to hunting because we’re not allowed to disagree.
Hunting is a deeply regional activity. A whitetail hunter in Iowa will face different roadblocks and conservation issues than an elk hunter in Idaho. This basic fact should invite differences of opinion, even irreconcilable ones, into the hunting discourse. Yet we’ve developed a climate where to disagree with one form of hunting is to disagree with the whole and be labeled an anti-hunter. This behavior is not what’s going to get us through the long nights ahead of us.