Southern stereotypes have persisted
Region identified as "Bible-thumpin'" and "gun-totin'," despite complexity
Movies such as "Deliverance" have played a role in spreading image
Media and politics somewhat to blame, says singer -- but with reason
His name is Gerald Lester Watson Jr., but he goes by Bubba.
The newest Masters champion is a proud Bulldog, a graduate of the University of Georgia. He owns the General Lee, the Confederate flag-emblazoned car from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” And he loves God and his momma: He thanked the former and hugged the latter at the tournament’s final playoff hole.
How much more Southern can you get?
“Bubba’s name echoed as much through the pines on Sunday as the roars. He was embraced in this Southern town as if he drank, smoked, hunted and fished,” wrote the Augusta Chronicle’s Scott Michaux, before adding, “In truth, Bubba doesn’t do any of those things.”
That’s the thing about the South. It’s got all those stereotypes, but it confounds you at every turn.
Never mind that Dixie can be as polyglot as any other part of the United States, with rising Hispanic and south Asian populations, the world’s busiest airport and a thriving movie and television business. Never mind that Lowcountry South Carolina has little in common with the Florida Panhandle or Tennessee foothills, or that there’s a growing purplish tinge among what’s usually seen as a collection of dyed-in-the-cotton red states.
A century and a half after the Civil War – and more than a generation after the presidential election of Jimmy Carter was supposed to herald the awakening of a “New South” – the lower right-hand portion of the U.S. of A. is often pigeonholed as a tobacco-spittin’, Bible-thumpin’, gun-totin’ (and worse) backwater. So go ahead, fry up the buckwheat cakes, spoon out the grits and cue the mockery. It’s nothing new.
Stereotypes “are very longstanding,” says David Davis, a literature and Southern studies professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, observing that they predate the American Revolution.
Like most stereotypes, he points out, they’re based on people from one group or class judging people from another group or class, then generalizing based on those judgments – in this case, wealthier, more urbanized Northerners looking down upon poorer, more rural Southerners. Though African-Americans were a major subject of Southern stereotypes a century ago, in the last few decades “African-American caricature has become less acceptable and white Southern caricature has taken its place,” Davis says.
Why do the stereotypes persist?
Because they’re constantly in play, Davis says. “We have one [group] that is imagining the South as an alternative space within the United States – less modernized, less educated, more racist. It’s America’s Jekyll to its own Hyde,” he says. On the other side, he says, there are Southerners who take pride in everything they consider disparaged, from the Confederate flag to country music.
Davis, a native of Butler, Georgia (population 2,000), observes the word “Southern” has come to be associated with opposition to the American norm. He teaches Southern studies, so students often ask him, “What is Northern studies?”
” ‘Northern studies’ is American studies. ‘Southern’ is the opposition to that,” he says.
Or, as the North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton put it, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.”
The South and the movies
Sure, other regions of the country have their own labels – New England is full of flinty Yankees, Southern California is sunny and vapid, the West has rugged, outdoorsy types – but the South, above them all, remains another country.
It was another country, for one thing – the breakaway Confederacy of the Civil War. Its past is still romanticized, even as it has become as suburban, chain-stored and wired as the rest of America.
The tension between rural and urban, past and present looms large in many works about the South, particularly the film “Deliverance,” which came out 40 years ago this year.
Based on a 1970 novel by James Dickey – himself a well-off Atlanta boy – the story concerns four businessmen from the big city who head to north Georgia for a canoeing trip through land about to be swallowed up by a dam project. They get more than they bargain for, grappling with challenging rapids, set upon by suspicious locals and fighting for their very lives.
But though “Deliverance” explores a variety of themes, the lasting images of the movie remain its stereotypes: the inbred-looking Banjo Boy (Billy Redden) who plays “Dueling Banjos” with Ronny Cox’s character, and the mountain men who rape Ned Beatty’s character, demanding he “squeal like a pig.”
In that respect, says University of Tulsa cultural studies professor Robert Jackson, the film is “powerful and pernicious.”
“It’s had a tenacious hold on people’s imaginations, establishing the hillbilly as a kind of menacing, premodern, medieval kind of figure,” he says.
Even at the time it was made, the film’s portrayals weren’t thought of highly by residents of Rabun County, Georgia, where the movie was shot.
With rare exceptions, “every character … was portrayed as very limited,” the wife of one local actor told Atlanta magazine in an oral history of the film. “And that didn’t make us feel good.”
That feeling hasn’t changed in 40 years, says Sarah Gillespie, a Rabun County native whose family has deep roots in the community.
“There are still a lot of people here locally who have hard feelings about the stereotypes the movie represented,” she says.
Even today, Hollywood tends toward clumsiness when showcasing the South, engaging in broad cliches and broad accents with such films as “Steel Magnolias” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Last year’s hit, “The Help,” included a number of prissy, upscale female characters, the kind of Southern women who say “Bless your heart” as a way of inserting the knife, and was criticized for its sanitized look at the civil rights movement.
“The movie would have us believe that the racism of the time was the stuff of bridge clubs,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris.
‘History without all the baggage’
Such criticism really comes to the fore when the subject turns to “Gone With the Wind,” the 1939 blockbuster that gave the Civil War a sentimental sheen, as critics such as Roger Ebert have pointed out.
And yet, that nostalgia is key to understanding the fascination with Southern stereotypes, says Elizabeth Cook, a singer/songwriter and DJ for SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel.
“People are all so romantic and nostalgic about the culture. People everywhere think of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ” she says.
Popular culture has a way of oversimplifying everything, says Tulsa’s Jackson. He observes that television’s representations of the South – Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” – seldom delve into the challenging issues underneath.
“Mainstream network television is basically designed for 12-year-old viewers, so it’s designed to be toothless and fun,” he says. “What that means is that there’s an invocation of history without all the baggage.”
That’s the kind of thing that drives Patterson Hood crazy.
Hood, the leader of the Athens, Georgia-based band the Drive-By Truckers, has thought about Southern images deeply. A number of Truckers’ albums, including “Southern Rock Opera,” “Decoration Day” and “The Dirty South,” have been devoted to “bucking the myths” of Southern stereotypes. A series of songs on “The Dirty South” took an alternative view of “Walking Tall” sheriff Buford T. Pusser – a determined foe of the gamblers and moonshiners in his Tennessee county – while the title cut of “Decoration Day” was about a longstanding family feud.
He blames the persistence of Southern stereotypes on the twin bogeymen of media and politics – but admits that both reflect certain truths.
“I think the decisions my fellow Southerners make in the voting booth makes us look like dumb-asses. We vote like stupid rednecks, so it’s easy to pigeonhole us there,” he says.
A fan of Bill Maher, Hood finds himself with mixed feelings when the “Real Time” comedian takes a shot at the region: “I’m tired of the constant barrage of his Southern stereotype jokes, but he’s covering politics, and when he sends [Alexandra Pelosi] to Mississippi to interview people, she doesn’t have to travel very far to find the dumb-ass to talk about our Kenyan Muslim president, so of course he’s going to air that.”
Cook, the DJ, makes herself into the joke, as she did during an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Her background could be easily mocked – her father served time for moonshining, and she’s one of 11 kids with a family of half-siblings – but she understands the humor in the situation.
“[My family has] always been very open and honest about our sordid past and our sordid present,” she says. And the judgment of others doesn’t bother her: “I embrace who I am. Everybody experiences prejudices.”
Cooking something new?
There are other signs that the stereotypes are being turned inside out and used in unusual ways.
Rabun County’s Gillespie is among those spearheading the Chattooga River Festival this June. The event, which was created to help preserve the river where “Deliverance” was shot, is commemorating the 40th anniversary of the film with appearances by actor Ronny Cox and a variety of other musicians. She notes that the film was key to making Rabun County a tourist draw and helping the Chattooga snare a “Wild and Scenic” designation protecting it from development.
“The movie put the area on the map,” she says.
Hood points out that Southern cooking has become nationally known – not just the kind popularized by Paula Deen, but inventive versions created by such restaurants as Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, and 5 & 10 in Athens, Georgia. And, he adds, Florence, Alabama, fashion designer Billy Reid has made a national splash.
Then, of course, there’s literature and music, of which the South has a rich history. Authors William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, among many, dealt with the South’s contradictions in thoughtful, universal ways; their tradition has been carried on by Ron Rash, Jesmyn Ward and Daniel Wallace.
That’s the thing about stereotypes. In the end, they’re too glib, too shorthand-quick to summarize a region – or an individual. That should be obvious from Bubba Watson himself.
Yes, he’s from small-town Florida, and he’s already been described as a good ol’ boy. But he’s also a man who doesn’t drink, smoke, hunt or fish, as Michaux noted. He carries a pink driver in honor of his father, who died of lung cancer. He’s married to a native Canadian; the two recently adopted a child. Not exactly … stereotypical.
And don’t expect to see cheese grits on next year’s Masters menu.
According to Sports Illustrated, when asked what the new green jacket holder will serve at next year’s champions’ dinner – the traditional honor for a new Masters victor – Watson’s wife, Angie, predicted In-N-Out burgers.