Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Popular culture and popular conceptions of rurality

A passage in one of this week’s reading assignments piqued my curiosity. In David L. Brown and Kai A. Schafft’s essay, Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century, the authors state that North Americans and Europeans broadly possess anti-urban and pro-rural sentiments. Intuitively, upon reading this, I felt that it must be incorrect, or at least the statement, “North Americans and Europeans hold favorable opinions about rural areas,” incompletely describes general sentiments concerning rural areas.

My view regarding this statement stems from popular culture’s depiction of rural areas, or at least what I have gathered from its depiction. I have noticed a consistent trend in Hollywood, wherein horror movie milieus, for instance, are rural areas (e.g., The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Children of the Corn, The Village, Deliverance, Misery, etc.). It seems to me that a rural milieu is almost essential for a horror movie to have its desired effect of instilling fear in the audience.

I have also noticed that popular culture tends to depict rural inhabitants as philistine, politically backward, and generally uneducated (e.g. The Beverly Hillbillies, Cletus Delroy Spuckler from The Simpsons, Duck Dynasty, etc.). Anthony Hopkins’s infamous monologue, as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, perfectly encapsulates this attitude in its most vitriolic form. The sophisticated and intellectual Lecter lashes out at Jodie Foster’s character, Clarice Starling, calling her a “rube,” a country bumpkin. The monologue is worth quoting:

You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you... all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars... while you could only dream of getting out... getting anywhere... getting all the way to the FBI.

Obviously, my observations do not necessarily conflict with Brown and Schafft’s argument. They only conflict with the argument if we presuppose that popular culture’s depiction of rural areas is a direct reflection of popular sentiment. This is certainly a possibility; I think it is fact. However, it is common knowledge nowadays that popular culture is not only a reflection of popular sentiment, but that also it is a manufacturer of ideology.

It seems to me, as Brown and Schafft articulated by referring to the attitudes of “literary giants,” popular culture plays a large role in shaping general conceptions of rural areas. The engineers behind popular culture seek, of course, to make a profit as well as to inculcate values and modes of thinking within the populace.

I would like to further explore the relationship between popular culture’s depiction of rural areas and the general sentiment concerning rural areas.

I am willing to concede, for the sake of discussion, that it is true that the majority of Americans hold pro-rural beliefs, yet I ask: why have these beliefs not been tarnished by the pervasive negative portrayal of rural areas in popular culture? Could this be explained by the fact that popular culture more emphatically depicts rural areas under a positive light? Western heroes, like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne’s various characters (e.g. the man with no name, Josey Wales, Rooster Cogburn, etc.), are emblematic of Hollywood’s powerful infatuation with rural frontiersman. Or could this be explained as Americans simultaneously holding pro and anti-rural beliefs?

I do not think that this is a matter of one popular depiction negating another. I think this is a matter of different depictions producing different sentiments regarding rural areas, which, despite their difference, work in unison for one ideological end. Americans hold simultaneously pro and anti-rural beliefs.

On one hand, many films, television series, and popular songs produce a fondness for the rural because of the rural area’s presentation as technologically and legally untouched. The rural represents a divergence from the daily technological and bureaucratic drudgeries of industrialized, urban life. This depiction serves to enable the average blue-collar and white-collar urbanite to vicariously experience the rugged frontiersman’s apparent freedom and peace. 

On the other hand, horror films and the depiction of the “idiocy” of rural life serve the purpose of reigning in this vicarious sense of freedom, to make it covetable yet not so covetable. Horror films and others like them propagate that the countryside’s lack of institutional and technological development makes for a terrifying landscape. It is a place for all sorts of crimes to go unnoticed, as the state and communication with urban centers are almost non-existent. So, in a sense these depictions create a feeling of a need for law and order despite the freedom glorified in other forms of popular culture.

I conclude from all this that this issue is not cut and dry. It is impossible to say that Americans and Europeans generally hold either pro or anti-rural views. The methods through which the dominant means of education and communication inculcate ideology are far too complex to summarize their effect in one sweeping assertion.


Charlie said...

One of my favorite films, Forrest Gump, celebrated its 20-year anniversary of its release this past summer.

Interestingly, the film has a strong dichotomy of rural and urban; rural areas for the most part represent purity and innocence, and urban areas reflect the opposite. As far as I can remember, scenes of the main character's childhood, marriage, and raising his own son occur in rural Alabama. In contrast, scenes of drugs and the Vietnam War protests are depicted within an urban context.

Charlie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ahva said...

Perhaps this is a product of my suburban upbringing, but I too was initially perplexed by the reference to the "rural mystique" in the course readings. I have never held idealized notions of rurality. I love nature and the outdoors, but I would not necessarily call that an attraction to rurality. Rather, I always associated rural America with small populations and geographical isolation, neither of which appeal to me. I spoke to a few friends (all of whom are young and grew up in urban and suburban settings) about the concept of the rural mystique. There seemed to be a general consensus: we love the idea of "getting away" for a weekend or short vacation to a quiet, remote area with plenty of natural beauty. But none of the friends I spoke with had idealized notions of rural life (far from it, in some cases). I wonder what role, if any, a person's age plays in determining their identification with the rural mystique. I get the sense that those of us who grew up in or near a big city and are now young adults have not yet tired of urban lifestyles. Young people, myself included, seem to be attracted to the hustle and bustle, glamour, entertainment, and distractions offered by a cosmopolitan city like San Francisco or New York. Perhaps as they age, urban and suburban folk come to better appreciate the quieter and slower-paced lifestyle often associated with rurality. In any case, I agree that this concept of the rural mystique is not "cut and dry." Any understanding of pro- or anti-rural attitudes must take into account a number of variables, including that of popular culture and, perhaps, age.

Damon Alimouri said...


I think you make a very interesting observation. But, it's really important to remember that in Forrest Gump, the main character, is mentally infirm. He is portrayed as clumsy, naive, and indelicate.

What does this say about this movie's presentation of rural folks? I do think that Forrest's mental disabilities serve to endear him to the audience. But, it can be toxic to idealize witlessness.

Moona said...

Building off of what Ahva mentioned. I agree that it seems that older generations of Americans are the ones that tend to idealize rural areas and rurality, and the reverse seems to be true for younger generations. This may be due to something as simple as age, and the desire to settle down as one gets older older versus the desire to socialize and engage in certain activities that are more available in urban areas while one is young. However, I think it might also be a matter of shifting values. Society today is much more technologically advanced than it has been before. And today's generation often crave the next big thing, the newest iPhone or the most technologically advanced laptop and so on. As a result, it seems that people today value and desire that fast-paced, hip, urban lifestyle more than they do the quiet, serene rural lifestyle (idealized though it may be).

Juliana said...

Interesting point, I agree with how you characterize Hollywood's depiction of the rural. One thing I have also noticed is the conceptualization of the rural as existing on a binary -- on the one hand it's extremely romanticized (like in the new season of ABC's the bachelor being marketed as a small-town farmer), or on the other hand it's completely caricatured as completely backwards. I'm not sure if the answer is somewhere in between, but I think a huge part of the problem is lack of education and exposure.