Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What's in a stereotype?

Deliverance (1972).

I originally posted the link to the Pittsburgh Gazette article without comment, mostly because after I read it, I didn’t have much to say. I knew that it was a news story that belonged on Hillbilly Savants, but I also knew full well in what direction the response to it would go, and I had nothing to add to that discussion at the time.

So, after a due period of digestion, I thought I might offer a few thoughts that many of you may find surprising. You see, distinctly missing from my emotional reaction to this story is something that many of you have already expressed: Outrage.

No, I’m not outraged. In fact, it would be a stretch to say that I am in the least bit angry. More than anything I am concerned. I am concerned that inaccurate Appalachian stereotypes are simply allowed, or even encouraged, to flourish in modern media. As I’ve noted on this site before, it has been said that harmful stereotypes of the Appalachian region are the last form of accepted cultural bigotry in America. There is no way to measure the validity of that statement, but I suspect it’s far from false.

Key to this discussion is accuracy. No one would mind an Appalachian stereotype that read: Mountainous region with a shared cultural tradition, spawned from the isolation of independent mountain life, among a population that spans the entirety of American socio-economic, educational, and political spectra. That won’t make anyone angry because it’s about as honest an attempt at making a too-general statement that you can make. The problem is when images are taken from a small fraction of a people and are expanded to encompass the whole. As a society though, this is redundant. This discussion is the classic American rhetorical social struggle of the media age - and it’s time we get past it.

You see, as inaccurate as stereotypes are, they aren’t entirely void of truth. Stereotypes aren’t wholly fictional concepts inspired by the muses. Stereotypes started somewhere. Somewhere, somebody observed these characters and behaviors and reported them as typical for the region, and that’s where the lie began. Still, the simple truth is that the people we interact with everyday (and, of course, our own selves) all inhabit characteristics that an outsider would associate with the hillbilly. That cannot be ignored. Let us not forget, we named our blog after it!

Further, none of us can deny that we use these very stereotypes in order to stimulate our own amusement. Do we not enjoy listening to and singing songs about moonshine ("White Lightning," "The Ballad of Thunder Road"), or age-old mountain murder ballads ("Knoxville Girl," "The Banks of the Ohio")? Do we not make and consume art that includes images of bearded men in overalls, and jugs labeled with the tell-tale "XXX?" Do we not use these images to stimulate tourism in the region in places like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (The WaRsh House, Hillbilly Golf)? So, we - the outraged - engage in the perpetuating of these ideas, and of course in doing so we've done nothing wrong. But if we are going to recognize these images as symbols of our shared culture, then surely we can help to overcome when these myths transcend symbolism and become misguided belief.

While stereotypes are indeed unfair, if they present some degree of truth, we must recognize it. What we, as Appalachians, must do is come to grips with how these images are both accurate and inaccurate, gauge what problems this presents, and respond by educating ourselves and others with the truth about our region. I’d say that Hillbilly Savants is a fine start.

What these casting agents did was to flaunt their own bigotry, and they should be made aware of their stupidity. It takes an appalling degree of gullibility and ignorance in this day and age to actually let your notions of a region be dictated by a mythological stereotype. Still it happens everyday, and the fact that this type of bigotry is condoned in today’s media is the crux of the problem. It is our duty as Appalachians, as Hillbilly Savants, to lead the charge against this ignorance.

33 comments:

Michael Tod Ralstin said...

It is a unique feature of human intelligence to hate one's victim. -Tacitus

We can trace these stereotypes to the local color writers of the post Civil War era. The political and economic motivation for these smear jobs came from the fact that the magazines and newspapers that these writers worked for were owned by the very same robber barons who were trying to swindle these “mountain people” out of their newly valuable property. That and humans seem to love a lurid story true or not.

The English did the same thing to the Irish and the Nazis did the same to the Jews. I reckon that we have it easy by comparison but it is still unjust and brutal. So I refuse to accept any validity of this stereotype. Some of the other stereotypes that are valid like clannishness, should be celebrated. And this is what I see as the role of HS.

Some of the Appalachian stereotypes are untrue and sickening such as inbreeding. Others are true but viewed by the general public as negative like our clannishness or our fatalism. A few are positive such as our bravery. But some such as our ability to be happy with fewer material possessions should be admired but are not. They see someone living in a trailer or double-wide. I see someone who is not leaving such a big carbon foot print.

Buzzardbilly said...

Yes, all stereotypes are based on grains of truth. If you've read Harkin's "Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon," you'll see that the 'inbred' stereotype traces back to an inaccurate assumption in an article written by a doctor in NC early in the 20th Century.

When it comes to adult literacy, dialect, poverty, etc., yes it does make sense to look at the claims, find their basis in reality, and work to solve that problem.

Where inbreeding is concerned though, it is just plain wrong. Inbreeding is not considered normal in any part of American culture. This is the kind of thing members of a subculture need to rail against for being wrong.

Steven said...

I can't understand why there's no formal "defamation league" for Appalachians. We need a champion... someone to confront these things head-on. Other cultural groups have them.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Steven,
I would suggest that there is no Appalachian Defamation League as a result of the Appalachian culture - consider that Appalachians define themselves as "Americans", rather than as "ancestral group"-Americans at the highest rate in the Union in polls. Now, I am not saying this is right or wrong, but it is interesting given that it has real political consequences - Appalachians have isolated themselves from their ethnic origins to a substantial degree (at least in terms of their politics) and have not yet redefined themselves as a new American neo-ethnicity on a huge scale. Again, I'm not saying this is right or wrong, merely interesting. I wonder, as cultural revivals for ethnic groups throughout Appalachia (e.g. African, Irish, Scottish, Italian, Polish, Czech, and so forth), not to mention a unique Appalachian identity (none of which need wholly usurp other identities, including our American-ness, our state-identities, our religious identities, and so on) begin to emerge, what the political-economic organizational consequences will be.

Steven said...

Great points, Eric. I suppose I was thinking more from a technology, mobilization standpoint.

Seems like it would be easier than ever to have a "flash mob" of Appalachians with a collective voice of opposition to stand against stereotypes.

Where's the Mother Jones of our generation?

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how Appalachia changes with social networking, too. Mass media erroded our dialect and global economics assaulted our communities.

Will the web help revive those without the geographic ties? I mean we all found one another on a blog about Appalachia, right? :)

Of course, it's free publicity for any group that wants to use opposition to get "column inches" in the press. I mean, P.T. Barnum was on to something when he said "all publicity is good publicity."

Interesting stuff.

Jeremy Peters said...

To follow up on this string, WV Governor Joe Manchin has weighed in on "Shelter".

As a result the casting director has been fired.

Read on in the Charleston Gazette.

Steven said...

Thanks Jeremy! This may be terribly insensitive of me but, good! Let's hear it for the Film Office of WV and Governor Manchin's staff. Woot! Thanks for sharing that link. :) Makes me feel like there's a little bit of justice in the world.

Folk Face said...

steven

you said "Mass media erroded our dialect and global economics assaulted our communities."

Exactly. So it is already us against them.

And although it would be great in some ethereal feel good non-empirical way if everyone stopped making deliverance jokes or what have you, it wouldn't change a single thing about our realities. Only the perception of those realities. My point being that we can already change our perceptions, and don't need outsider approval or hollyweird or nu yawk support.

no one in appalachia explicitly asked for the mass media explosion (or even further back TVA and electrification), it was done to us. if you are willing to make generalizations about who the doers and who the doees are then it is even more obvious that within 'us' there are large segments of our populations that are essentially victims. Not in an a psychological sense but as a function of the entire social ontology of the region.

Appealing to some common denominator hey-we're-people-too sense of equality or justice in an attempt to change outsider perception just legitimizes outsider influence. Screw Them. We don't need them and never have, and every time we quibble with them over image issues we are handing away our own freedom.

i'd rather work for voluntary isolation, myself.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Hmm - all interesting, and it brings up some thoughts that this fella' has been thinking about for a long time; specifically, the complications of helping a "traditional" culture to survive. After all, most cultures disappear, leaving at best vestiges of their former uniqueness in the cultures that assimilate them. To survive, a culture has to take steps to remain competitive - economically and infrastructurally it must develop, politically it must become savvy, and socio-culturally, well, it has to do many things. For instance, it must institutionalize its ceremonies and traditions, consciously conveying a sense of pride and dignity with them to each new generation; it must broaden its socioeconomic self-definition, recruiting new, fully dedicated members; it must ensure that those cultural elements it actively inculcates do not contradict necessary political and economic ends, and so forth. Industrialization and modernization are not bad - they are absolutely necessary if we want our best and brightest to stay here - it is a reality for us as much as it is undeveloped regions everywhere. But equally, we must develop our sense of self - I'm not necessarily saying nationalism, but a dignity in place. Now, that is already happening - I think it has been gradually for a few decades, and since the 1990s the trickle of cultural awareness has become a flood. Television shows, movies, books, advertising campaigns, and so on barely portray the hillbilly as negative anymore (in relative terms) to even the early 1980s (I remember being ashamed, without knowing why, when I was only a whippersnapper), a general national awareness is developing that recognizes that it isn't okay to exploit Appalachians for the profit of other Americans (that is to say keep us impoverished in order to guarantee cheap raw materials for the Eastern industries since transportation costs from the Third World would be higher). The quality of our music and artists is being recognized as well, and our higher education is finally gaining the recognition it deserves (from the Mason-Dixon line to Tennessee/Alabama border north-south and the Cumberland Plateau to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains alone there are in excess of 130 institutions, serving a very small population). Tourism is up, and while it may be argued this doesn't add tremendous job-security or value to an area, if it is managed properly by local and state governments, it does guarantee that our natural environment is sustainable for at least partly capitalist reasons. And so on. Are we changing? Yes. And the changes will continue. Change is in and of itself neutral - if we are unprepared and naive about what the effects a give political, economic, or social decision might have, we will pay the consequences - for instance, the decades long period in which the small-farmers were systematically crushed by natural resource harvesters who signed. The Smokies and the Blue Ridge were largely saved from this by Federal development projects (which of course still pushed out many small farmers) and tourism (ditto). Sigh. But, then, Appalachia has always had a dynamic political economy and culture, not to mention an economically and culturally diverse one - frankly, that is our best hope along with regional pride - to be otherwise is to become only an echo of a people with a destiny, either a museum piece, a long line of ghost towns, or a fully assimilated culture remembered only in books and documentaries and vague cultural references - like tens of thousands of other cultures that were unprepared to adapt to their new situations.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Sorry, just to add, what I mean to say is we need to develop in such a way as to guarantee the survival of our traditional economic activities in a sustainable manner - that means diversity of sector not just across the range of the Appalachian mountains, but in each subregion as well. We need to look at our success stories (Knoxville, Chattanooga, Roanoke, Floyd, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Radford, and Abingdon all come to mind) learn the PROCESSES and duplicate them (though not necessary the specifics). We need to encourage our people not only to take an active part in politics but to inform themselves about it, economics, and society, and not just here, but on a global scale - we must know our pond. We need to encourage our people to participate in, well, everything and anything - not only develops a sense of community that just makes life better, but it leads to locals finding solutions to local problems. In other words, we need to do all the things humans do in democratic-republic societies when we decide they want life to be better and are willing to work at it.

Steven said...

It's certainly an interesting debate -- and probably one reserved for Eric's world of academia, I suppose. Frankly, I could go either way... why care? Why not care?

I think my personal perspective is that the Hillbilly Aesthetic (as I like to call it) is something with a certain amount of hypocrisy tied to it. I mean have you ever BEEN to Pigeon Forge, TN?

What are we telling the outside world about our culture when every other building has a moonshine-toting, bare-footed, bucktoothed Snuffy Smith wanna-be on it? And why can't we embrace that? It's a terrible dichotomy.

Our Goblin Market said...

I think Eric should be out CNN rep. :) Great discussions and great ideas from all. My question is to the suggestion that we forget about who is on the outside. Do we also not rely on the support of the outside for growth, financial security on a large scale, cultural identity defined as unique, etc. This question could be presently seen on a national scope also. Is this a question of Isolationism or selected separation?

Folk Face said...

Funny, I think of Knoxville and Asheville and Chattanooga as colossal failures of planning and development.

I should mention that my discussion is predicated upon the ecological Shit Hits Fan (SHF from now on) scenario that would reset activity to the null. Subsistence farming, etc. This position requires the seeming hypocrisy that i type it to you on a computer. That is easily answered by noting that I did not create this computer and whether or not I used one they would still exist, QED for any other piece of technology. Tu Quoque fallacies are boring ways to argue.

There is not much arable land left in these cities. When and if SHF, there will be trouble. Development and planning that does not account for SHF as the bottom line/ null set of sustainable expectation is, at the end of the day, just a carefully crafted apologist statement for bending over and taking some more Reconstruction.

Our Goblin Market said...

One more thing to ask which continues from my last comment and reflects Steven's points. When I spoke of separation I also mean the fact of language and cultural icons including the xxx bottle, the bare-footed, bucktoothed Snuffy Smith and so on. We create these things icons to isolate our own definition, to create a cultural uniqueness but most of us do not agree with the stereotype and try to push past that identity. I feel that it is important to deal with the outside world because to see any of us one must look past Snuffy Smith. To me this is the problem

John Louis Kerns said...

Cheers, Dr. Smith. Well said. I just can't get on board with the idea that Appalachia needs some sort of anti-defamation league. Must we also join the tired rat race of victimization? Do we need angry, red-faced talking heads cozying up to any camera he can find in order to lambaste anyone that dare use the term hick or hillbilly? That doesn't interest me. However, measured tactics for promoting accurate notions of our culture and using them as assets to compete in a global marketplace does interest me.

Great discussion. Let's get up a panel and do a podcast!

Steven said...

As I confessed in folk face's blog... I may be a bit hypersensitive, too. I seem to recall that my NOVA friends and more urban-living friends can really "get a rise" out of me if they say four words.... "squeal like a pig." :) So, yeh, a anti-defamation organization might be a bit too much -- seeing that we'd have to start with the a large portion of bluegrass and our own tourist attractions. Ugh.

Have I mentioned that I really DO enjoy this blog. I'll probably go back to lurking though. :)

Rebecca Clayton said...

Here in Pocahontas County, a lot of us feel that anything that scares away real estate developers and rude tourists is a blessing. We've been particularly fond of the "Wrong Turn" movies, set in the Greenbrier back country. If those skiers speeding toward Snowshoe Resort think we might be inbred hillbilly cannibals, so much the better!

Jeremy Peters said...

I agree with folkface's assessment of sustainability with regards to our unsustainable urban centers.

The last real SHF event, the Great Depression which most of our grandparents lived through, saw masses of starving people in bread lines in the cities. Their Appalachian counterparts, who made their own bread, as well as most everything else, lived pretty much as they always had. They knew who they were and how they lived.

I wager that a depression today would be markedly different. With the exception of the old timers who can still grow their own food and make their own stuff, our generation of Appalachians would be just as helpless if the grocery store shelves emptied out.

To go back to outside vs inside perspectives, we are increasingly becoming less aware of our inside perspectives--who we are, and who we were. And because of that, we are ripe for definition by those from outside our region who take creative license with our culture.

To boil my thoughts down, I can't wait to get home and spend some time talking with my Mamaw.

Folk Face said...

Jeremy

If what we agree upon is true, doesn't this mean that the stereotype/image issue is irrelevant? In other words, it is a distraction that hinders a healthy internal perspective by forcing a defensive position against outsiders. This is exactly what opens up Appalachia for more exploitation.

Since posting here and there about this, I have been pointedly reminded that this hillbilly stereotyping is a major force in maintaining the status of the major exploiters in our region (coal, tourism/hospitality, etc). I think that while this may be true, it's not clear to me what the causal chain entails.

The fact that many of our generation would be helpless if the grocery shelves were emptied is a sing we have already lost part of the battle. Wasting energy and effort on changing Hollywood freak show perceptions is a great way to cede more ground to the exploiters who just want to buy a nice little holler to build a third home in, etc etc.

Folk Face said...

Rebecca

thanks for lending the air of legitimacy to my rantings. I've found that many many many of our people have drunk the kool-aid regarding the necessity of 'development' and 'sustainability' (see Professor Smith's comments above). The global community notion is a certified death warrant for a local or regional identity and spells the end of any sort of post SHF possibility for our people.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Well, it should be said that yeah, I do believe that development is necessary - absolutely. But I also believe that the Boy Scout principle is also necessary. That is to say, everyone should have at least key fundamental skills under their belt in case of an emergency - notably hunting, fishing, farming, electrical wiring, construction, plumbing, and so forth. Be prepared. I also am anti-suburbia - I believe that sustainable development means you have urban and rural, and not much in-between. Our model of development since the invention of the interstate is problematic in nearly every instance.
And why do I believe that development is essential? Well, I can tell you in the simplest of terms. What I study is simply this: what predicts and/or causes political-economic regime changes and crises. The best predictors? (1) Inept and tyrannical governments, (2) discriminatory socio-economic policies and attitudes, and of course (3) underdevelopment or rapidly fluctuating economic stability, normally as a product of dependence on natural resource acquisition or single-crop farming. The latter, of course, is the definition of Appalachia's economic system today, whether we like it or not - to imagine otherwise is a fallacy, and will lead us to policies fixing the wrong problems.
It should also be noted that relative underdevelopment is an invitation for exploitation. If we doubt that, we can of course point to any number of worst case examples (e.g. the outright conquest and essential obliteration, culturally and otherwise, of thousands of peoples all over the world). That said, exploitation can take a more "subtle" track as well. Why do outside actors exploit our land, make a profit off of degrading our environmental quality, and consciously try to argue for "development" that only adds low-paying jobs and removes unsightly things from their territories (e.g. prisons)? Because we are relatively underdeveloped and so desperate for capital to fulfill even the most basic infrastructural needs (e.g. schools, roads, airports, police, firemen, etc.) that we either invite them in or simply can't find the energy to put up a fight. Oh, and many of our politicians being corrupt exacerbates this, but that is another post.
Finally, the Great Depression keeps being thrown around as the worst case scenario, what we should remember is that in the highly developed United States the death rate only increased slightly - in underdeveloped, primarily agricultural states, the death rate shot up. Why? Developed states have the ability to create emergency apparatus capable of managing crises for extended periods of time. Are these infallible and can they be trusted infinitely? No. A new "sack of the barbarians" or "black plague" moment will come - it is inevitable. But to blame the very development is incorrect - it is overspecialization of the local economy that is dangerous, and nothing does that as effectively as underdevelopment.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Oh, and by the way, I love this debate - if I could get my students to do this, I'd be in seventh heaven, a pig in slop.
e.-

Oh, And Jeremy, e-mail me/call me and give me your number - my phone died the other day and I lost it (oh, and leave a message - it doesn't save unknown numbers for some reason. Dang Motorola).
e.-

Folk Face said...

I believe that sustainable development means you have urban and rural, and not much in-between. Our model of development since the invention of the interstate is problematic in nearly every instance.

With all respect, this is the kool-aid drinking that I am talking about. Urban living is not sustainable, it is dependent upon exploitation. I say this from a suburban neighborhood in Knox County, just so that we get the tu quoque 'go live in the woods then' fallacy out of the way.

Giving in to the model of inevitable development (while probably realistic) just opens up a slippery slope argument that can and will always be exploited by outsiders using the same sort of divide and conquer tactics as they have always used (including the hillbilly stereotype issue).

What I am trying to emphasize is that subsistence farming is the null. Modes of existence above and beyond this are subject to diminishing return laws that encourage wastefulness and class warfare and end in the subjugation of local economies into a hierarchical model. See La Grange and the Farmers Federation vs USDA in the 40s for a fine example of what happens to OUR people when command and control infrastructure is installed in such a way that autonomy is handed to outsiders: you have the federal government willfully and intentionally enacting policies to destroy subsistence.

This is in my view a fundamental crime against humanity, and it is implicit in the development model you suggest. Any model that does not return people to the landscape and landscape to the people is undesirable in the long run, no matter what the immediate effects are.

folk Face said...

Of course I am ignoring, so far, whether or not this realistic. This debate is a contest of ideals, and I wish to establish that bending over and taking a bit more Reconstruction is not the best choice, before we begin the discussion of how to proceed.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Ah, see, I agree with you on most of your points - ideally. That said, I don't believe that this is a decision that can be made in the realm of ideals - of course, I am a classical Machiavellian-Hobbesian-Malthusian realist (my ideological bias). And stuff.

Anonymous said...

Well, now I'm confused. It seems that your course of action belies your ideals. I don't have to accept that one must always be internally consistent... but the danger in allowing Outsiders to define these issues for us seems to me to be an enormous threat. Not sure how working with the devil will be in our favor.

That said, I'd love to hear your explanation.

folk Face said...

that was me.

Eric Drummond Smith said...

Ah, because I believe that "ideally" and "ideals" aren't the same. For instance, "ideally" I would never kill anyone, but if someone threatened those I love, I would not hesitate too. In the same sense, while I believe that ideally it would be great to have a culture of everymen farmers in the vein of Mr. Jefferson, it simply isn't possible any more - heck, it wasn't possible then. Thus, while I love Jefferson's rhetoric, I abide by Madison and Hamilton far more often. And inconsistency between ideals and pragmatic principles is inevitable - ideals keep us from sacrificing everything we believe in, realism keeps us from sacrificing everything we already have. It isn't perfect, but then I believe those who aim for perfection, well, they usually lose.

Also, just curious Folk, would you be interested in writing here more permanently? I think you've shown your skills, and I think our readers would be thrilled.

Steven said...

I'd like to see more from Folk Face and more on this very topic. I'm really interested in how new technology plays into this and what the role of this community is/will be.

More importantly, I'd like to see us all get together physically some time in the future. Have a few laughs and a bit of fun just being hillbil... er.... being Appalachians and fans of this blog.

BTW, one of my flickr contacts manages to take some very poignant photos of tourist-specific artifacts in and around Appalachia. They are demonstrative of the debate. I'm linking to them not to insight anger or to fuel the fire, but solely to point out the hypocrisy of it all. Or the irony.... either way it's an interesting study in anthropology (if I can call it that).

Jacob Krejci's Photos

folk face's sib... said...

Any of you folks go to the Appalachian Studies Conference? It would be a great place to get some debate going... and it's coming up this month!

www.appalachianstudies.org

Folk Face said...

steven there are some great photos on that page. thanks for the link.

Eric said
while I believe that ideally it would be great to have a culture of everymen farmers in the vein of Mr. Jefferson, it simply isn't possible any more

Why. Not.?

If I am right, then that is the ecological tipping point, right there. Even if I am wrong, we have observed what a nation of shopkeepers has made us. Slaves. Ain't it great, I'll buy the drinks, someone somewhere is making them for us and they are doing it cheaper than we could ourselves. And so it goes. As I said upstream, this is quite the slippery slope. I'm not convinced there is any purchase along the entire axis, and the question of But can we really do that? is louder than This is what we guiltily know to be true and I say guilty because we type that, or write it using the light of coal or flooded places. We all do it. This is the source of self-loathing (hating the victim) that is most commonly medicated by discussions of how inbred Hollywood thinks we are and How Dare Those Bastards. What we Can Do (email some casting director) instead of what we Should.

I'm fairly confident that this internal leakage of principle is corrosive. The division of labor has changed the ontology of the individual in such a way that I dimly perceive is in some way determined by the relationship of such a person to the natural landscape instead of the relation to labor in general.

gotta run. I'd be interested in discussing this further and even contributing or cross-posting on this or other topics.

Kris McCracken said...

Some really good points you've raised here. We've got similar issue in Australia and the representations of Tasmanians in the mainstream. Sadly, it also occurs on a devolved level with the representations of people from the North West of Tasmania (like myself) within Tasmania!

On a side note, I enjoy your blog and always get something out of your posts.

Shannon Hodgins said...

Um, I'll never say I'm having a "Deliverance" hair day again.

I'm from Alabama, and folks STILL have the perception that we're somewhat racist and quite the redneck. It's frustrating as I'm so very opposite of this view.

I just prove 'em wrong day by day.

What if they threw a casting call, and nobody came?
Shannon