I have heard it said that the white Southerner is the last “safe” stereotype in America. There’s even a term for it: “hicksploitation.” You can poke fun at a white Southerner and nobody will bat an eye because, hey, it’s true, right? However, it’s also said that humor is often one of the first forums to shed light on tough social issues; if that’s the case, then what does it say about life as a poor white Southerner?
Network television has made a fortune in a new niche of entertainment featuring the lives of Southern working families on shows like Buckwild (MTV), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC), and Duck Dynasty (A&E). Never mind that there isn’t a single show that portrays socioeconomically comparable families or groups of ethnic minorities in a similarly negative light: shows like Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta (VH1) and The Real Housewives of Atlanta (Bravo) tend to focus on the wealthy black Southern circle. One proposed show that would have broken the mold, All My Babies’ Mamas (Oxygen), was so vehemently put down by the public–specifically, advocacy groups and civil rights activists–that the network cancelled the show before it ever aired.
But in the last decade, focus has shifted to a darker and even more desperate aspect of Southern life: Appalachia. Portrayals of rural America are disturbing; just look at the 2010 Academy Award winning film Winter’s Bone or the character Pennsatucky, also known as Tiffany Doggett, on Netflix’s newest series Orange is the New Black. Even the desolate setting of District 12, located in a futuristic Appalachia, in Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games. It’s terrifying–inbreeding, crystal meth, harsh environmental conditions, lack of resources and capital–life is dangerous at every turn.
Here’s the kicker: impoverished, uneducated, rural white Southerners have no advocate. They are silent victims, not only of their own condition but also victims of a history where being any kind of white is better than being any kind of minority. In return, the demographic group is perpetually overlooked and underserved. Unlike in other disenfranchised groups portrayed in the media, there is no empathy for the victim. No, the white Southerner has the reputation of being a “safe” stereotype, one that it is okay to comically abuse. Wrong. These people, shown through the lens of fame, hint at a much darker truth in America.
The rural, impoverished, white Southern communities in Appalachia as a whole suffer more from problems of economic depression, violence, mental health and affective disorders, disease, and chronic drug abuse than the rest of America. One article presented in class discusses the shocking drop in life span in uneducated poor Southern women. People living in appalachian America are assumed to be a backwards, hopeless, unwelcoming, and undeserving group, contained in an isolated, lawless, pastoral mountain community.
What, then, is the pop cultural appeal of Appalachian culture? I would guess that a largely white audience sees an opportunity to express latent fears and desires regarding their own whiteness. God forbid that, in today’s culture, anyone suggest that a white, employed man could be a victim. God forbid that anyone suggest that whites also suffer. A long history of white authority makes a newly self-aware population err on the side of caution when expressing concerns about class and race. Appalachian America takes whiteness to all its extremes, depicting struggle in terms of race, religion, and region. It allows white America to vent on our own issues with impersonal distance, and opens a forum to reflect on and discuss the flaws and troubles of our lives at the expense of further marginalizing Appalachian-America.