Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Urban white knight

This weekend, the remake of the 1984 classic movie Footloose opened at the box office. Both the original and the remake feature exciting dance moves and music to match. But beneath the story, one finds a pervasive rural-urban tension. The story is loosely based on a true story and takes place in a rural town. The zealous town council, led by the towns reverend, enacts a slew of restrictive, puritanical rules. These rules are spurred by the death of a young teenager, the reverend’s own son, in a drunk driving accident. 

Urban audiences watching the movie judge this town, which prohibits dancing and rock and roll, as being far to extreme and backward. In enters a handsome and "upbeat" senior named Ren, who moves into town from urban Chicago with his single mother. He can't believe the ban on dancing and rock music and makes it his mission to give this town a senior prom. I still remember watching the original and clapping when he goes before the city council. He used the town's religious beliefs, which served as the backbone to the restrictive laws, to thwart those same laws. He reads several Bible verses that claim in ancient times people would dance to rejoice, exercise, or celebrate. 

Now Ren may be a young urban cool kid, but he could very well be many of the urban elite discussed by Professor Joan Williams, Professor Lisa Pruitt and redneck writer Joe Bageant (whose recent death and contribution to the rural dialogue are discussed here and here). As Lisa Pruitt points out in her law review article, The Geography of the Class Culture Wars, the “Missing Middle” (aka working class), those living in the “flyover states” or the large group who fall into both categories" are not always receptive of the liberal (usually urban) elites telling them how to live, judging their lives, and expecting them to take government handouts. The urban white knight often thinks that he or she has the solutions to fix rural problems. While Ren is successful in converting the town to his ideology in Footloose, this plan mostly backfires in real life. This lack of understanding of working class perspective is in part the reason working class whites have left the Democratic Party, according to Williams in her most recent book.

 However, there are some striking differences in the remake that show movement in the right direction in Hollywood's portrayal of rural America. For one, it portrays the townsfolk more as over-caring parents than over-religions zealots. This shows an appreciation that both urban and rural parents can overreact in order to protect their children from harm. In addition, according to Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today, the movie was more grounded by the fact that the setting was switched from "a fictional white-bread Utah burg to a small rural town in the heart of racially integrated Dixie." This joins the recent re-emergence of television shows highighting Dixie, including “Glamour Belles,” truTV’s “Lizard Lick Towing”, CMT’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the show "Hart of Dixie" (of which a blog post was written about earlier today). According to Karen Cox in her opinion in the New York Times,
[these] shows promise new insight into Southern culture, but what they really represent is a typecast South: a mythically rural, white, poorly educated and thickly accented region that has yet to join the 21st century.... These stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists.
However, Footloose seems to defy Cox's stereotyping of Hollywood's stereotype of the South. The original director, Pitchford, was pleased at the diversity and struck by this disparity between his version and remake. "I was surprised by how truly diverse this one was and how white ours was," he says.

These small steps seemingly suggest that the writer and director were hoping to respect rural communities while highlighting the importance of appropriate teen rebellion and angst. Commentary from the director speaks a different story. Writer and director Craig Brewer noted that the original was inspired by a true incident, yet because "the U.S. has split into blue states and red states, ... the story has even more relevance today” than 30 years ago. He also says, “[m]any towns in the U.S. are like Bomont. We’re dealing with religion, and the genuine belief that souls will go to hell because dancing is a sin. The city fathers want to make their towns safe places for their children. These laws are created for protection.” While the remake veers from some of the negative stereotypes of the South, it seems the rural prejudice Susan Wloszczyn admonishes are still imbedded within those who wield the pen and those behind the lens.


JWHS said...

This also makes me think about the innovation issue that keeps coming up in class. Foremost on my mind, is that while Footloose and progeny are certainly lower form of innovation, isn't this innovation something we've pinpointed as necessary for rural environments?

JLS said...

I agree with your comments about what this sort of story says about our political culture. I worry a lot of about what so-called "liberal elites" from the coastal states can misconstrue about rural or "flyover" areas. And vice versa.

I never really thought about how many movies are made about "the city mouse" going to the country. It seems that usually the message goes both ways--the city dweller brings innovation to the town and the town teaches the city dweller some morals.

Namora said...

The post and movie left me pondering over the role of the church in rural culture. The church in this fictional town has a very dominant place in the culture of the town. I think that is not paralleled in urban communities for the most part. It is striking to me that many rural communities don't have a movie theater, but have multiple churches. It also seems as if the church act to reinforce community norms and as a place for social activity.