Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The "Hillbilly as Monster" Rears His Ugly Head Again

It's nothing new in movies. The evil hillbilly stereotype has been seen since the silent film era in movies such as Stark Love , later on in talkies such as Child Bride, and in modern classic horror films such as Deliverance. Recently in the past couple of years there has been a rash of horror movies set in Appalachia or using Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes to evoke fear or elicit a dark humor as in Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Descent. Once again, Hollywood is demon-hunting in the hollows of Appalachia. In February, a Pittsburgh casting company had an open casting call for "Shelter," a horror film starring Julianne Moore that began shooting in Pittsburgh this month. The call was for people with an "otherworldly" look, described in the script as people who were "insular and clannish," and because of this have an inbred look to them.

The Ku Klux Klan once made posters depicting black men as monsters kidnapping white women, and during WWII our own government printed grotesque and evil-looking posters depicting the Japanese as slant-eyed brutes. These depictions are clearly offensive by today's standards and should never see the light of day in any form of media. Though I am not making an equal comparison between ethnic racial stereotypes and regional stereotypes of Appalachia, I always find it curious that Southern and Appalachian stereotypes continue to be perpetuated in society today.

This is not a new debate, to be sure, and in many ways it has been continued in part because we've allowed it. It is still recognizable to today's media-stoked society, a society that thrives on labels and typecasts and token characters. Comedians like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy use stereotypes like these in their skits, but the difference is that they are considered "one of us." It's funny rather than offensive because we laugh with them.

I think it's safe to say, though, that Southern Stereotypes (take Baby Doll , for instance) as well as Appalachian stereotypes as evil, sexual deviant, or monstrous is in no way excusable, no matter how casting directors or movie scripts word it. There is a little justice in the world, though. West Virginia governor Joe Manchin's office objected to what it termed as an "insensitive casting call" on the part of the casting director of "Shelter." The casting director has since been fired. The movie is still being filmed as planned. The show must go on, right?

(from Brown, David M. "Film's Casting Call Wants That 'Inbred' Look". Pittsburgh Tribune Review Tuesday, February 26, 2008; and "'Shelter' Movie's Casting Director Fired." The Charleston Tuesday, March 18, 2008)


deborah wilson said...

Southerners, particularly those from the mountain regions, have been stereotyped in this way for so long, by media and writers, that many people believe that this is how we really are.

Not so. Over the centuries, inbreeding/incest has occurred all over the world. And among all countries and people, there will always be evil ones. They exist in every society.

For some reason people have given the inbreeding label to the people of Appalachia - and do they love to run with it when given the opportunity. I sum it up as one either being unable to distinguish fiction from fact (Deliverance) - and/or ignorance and disrespect of a people and their culture.

It use to bother me - but not anymore. I know my own heart and who I am.

Besides, the truth is that anything written or filmed within the horror genre sells. Given this, southerners and those of Appalachia are prime steak targets for the imagination and the wallet.

Thanks for visiting my blog, David, and I'll be sure to visit here, and Appalachian Writers, often.

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Anonymous said...

I just watched "The Descent" and noticed how a character turned on the radio and called the "sweet Jesus" music, shyte. Two characters then were horrified at the thought of going to a "barn dance" and "barn dance" was pronounced in a mocking southern accent. Totally gratuitous as the movie took place largely in a cave.

British movie, by the way, probably made by those who know next to nothing about North Carolina. Ignorance disguised as smug hipness. Pretty sad.

David Hampton: said...

I hope those characters met an untimely end. I wonder how many horror movies there are where the characters who make mean Appalachian or rural stereotypes get killed right away. It would be like the other unwritten rules of horror movies, "Don't run up the stairs, don't split up, don't have sex alone in the woods, don't be the token minority, and don't make fun of mountain people -- or you'll wind up dead."