Thursday, August 9, 2007

Bluewashing the Mountaineer

I just read an interesting article in the Winter 2007 issue of the Appalachian Journal about a trend in media and popular culture towards the portrayal of the Hillbilly or rural stereotype. Back in the late '60s, there was a huge movement in pop culture toward the portrayal of mountain and rural life, for good or bad, as seen for example in television shows such as Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw, not to mention the extensive advertising of Mountain Dew's "It'll tickle yore innards" or "Get that barefoot feeling," ending, I believe, with the cancellation of the Dukes of Hazzard in 1984 (at the hands of a ratings battle with Knight Rider, a sleeker, more modern hot rod). Since then, the media's fascination with rural, redneck America has been in a lull. According to Douglas Reichert Powell, the author of this article, the country, rural, hillbilly stereotype is making a comeback, a renaissance if you will.

With the popularity of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there has been a revisiting of rural stereotypes in movies and television. Powell's main focus is on the television show My Name is Earl, which milks both the noble mountaineer stereotype (country folk are essentially good people) and the hillbilly fool (country folk are ignorant, white trash, and laughable) There is also the hillbilly as monster and sexual predator stereotype (see movies such as Deliverance, A Face in the Crowd, and Baby Doll), but that could be a whole other discussion by itself. I tend to agree on most points with Powell's argument, but I feel that the stereotypes are no more in the forefront of the media today than they have been in the past 20 years, or at least I feel he didn't quite make his point in the article. Stereotypes have always served the same purpose -- to allow society to recognize an individual by attaching a group label. Granted, stereotypes always contain kernels of truth. There are people in Appalachia with bad oral hygeine who married their first cousin and live in a trailer with three or more dogs under their porch. But that doesn't mean it's fair to attach those characteristics to everyone who lives in Appalachia. I agree the most with Powell that when shows such as My Name is Earl try to challenge a white trash stereotype, there is an irony there that "[the media] need[s] the legibility, the recognizability of the stereotypes they propose to undermine in order to get the audience undermining the stereotypes with them." Despite how bad stereotypes are, then, they serve a purpose and are necessary, even for the purpose to turn right around and challenge or destroy them. Though Powell did use the term "hillbillyland" in the first first sentence of his article, he didn't give credit to the author who coined the term, J.W. Williamson, and wrote the book on hillbilly stereotypes in the media, Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains & What the Mountains Did to the Movies (1995).

I close with this final thought. If the masses of America need stereotypes, simple labels, to define an individual or a character in a television show, what does that say about the imagination of the American public?

Source: Powell, Douglas Reichert. "'Bluewashing' the Mountaineer: A Recent Television Trend" Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review. 34:2 (Winter 2007) 206.


Mike said...

"If the masses of America need stereotypes, simple labels, to define an individual or a character in a television show, what does that say about the imagination of the American public?"

Not much for the general depth of thinging going on and everything about the greater culture of the human race.

As a nation and a planet, I believe that we have grown too fat and lazy to do much thinking for ourselves. It is so much easier in this day of digital this and high-definition that, to simply be told what to believe. A large portion of the population leans on what they are fed as accurate information instead of going out, gathering information and preparing their own stew of opinion.

Our opinions nowadays seem to iminate from the barrage of high-speed advertisements thrown at us. There is no way to accurately process this amount of information if you accually look at it. So, as a culture, we just take it at face value. If they tell us the war goes well, it goes well. If they tell us we need the newest version of iPod, who are we to argue? After all, they are the experts.

The same goes, I think, for the depiction of cultures and sub-cultures. If Hollyweird says it is that way, then it must be. They have highly paid researchers to uncover these things to make their programming and films as factual as possible, no? You can't get better credentials than that!

Oh well, like I have said before: it neither costs nor makes me a dime either way, what people think of my heritage. If anything at all, maybe it will cause them to leave me and mine in some form of peace. Why would they dare come around and take their chances with the likes of me? A barefoot,stump-jumping, first-cousin-marrying, toothless terror from Weshootfirst, Kentucky. Goodgodamighty, y'all!

Doug Reichert Powell said...

Hi David, I'm glad you found the article thought-provoking; I enjoyed reading your response. You're right, of course, that I should have doffed my cap more publicly to Jerry's fantastic book. But I figured it's famous enough among the readers of AppalJ that the indebtedness was clear enough that a footnote wasn't needed. I admire your blog and I hope you'll write more of this cultural criticism.