Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Must pop culture always stereotype the South?

This op-ed piece in the New York Times a few days ago, headlined "The South Ain't Just Whistlin' Dixie," argued that the South is still depicted rather simplistically in television and movies. Citing reality television hits such as "Glamour Belles," "Lizard Lick Towing," and "Sweet Home Alabama," Karen Cox argues that such "promise new insight into Southern culture," but actually "depict a typecast South: a mythically rural, white, poorly educated and thickly accented region that has yet to join the 21st century."

Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, asserts that '[t]hese stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists. Even worse, they deny the existence of a progressive South, or even progressive Southerners."

Now I don't consume much television, but a few days after reading Cox's op-ed, I happened to watch the very first episode of the hit FX drama series "Justified," about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. The series is set largely in Harlan County, Kentucky, which is quintessential Appalachia. As I watched the episode, I found myself considering to what extent it caricatured the place and its people. While I found some Appalachian stereotypes, e.g., ill-educated white supremacists, the depictions of the people and place were more nuanced than I expected. For example, the team of marshals with whom Givens works includes an African-American woman, and the show depicts Lexington and city life, too. Indeed, I liked the way that the plot connected rural with urban, and the way it used rural realities such as lack of anonymity to craft the story line. Even "white supremacist" Boyd Crowder may be more complicated than he seems at first blush, with Givens suggesting that Crowder's really in that game for money, not because he's a "true believer" in white supremacy. So, for example, when Crowder fire bombed a black church in Lexington, Givens suggests he did so because the minister was dealing drugs, and a competing drug dealer had simply paid Crowder to eliminate the competition.

Certainly, I find myself looking forward to future episodes.

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