Thursday, July 31, 2014

When the Southerner Became Flat: Southern Stereotypes in Media

As I mentioned previously, I recently finished a massive list of 250 classic movies. They mostly came from the US and spanned the 1910s until today. Last night I started to re-watch the Shining and noticed something really unimportant. Shelley Duvall's character has a southern accent, albeit not a very good one.
Well so what?
It struck me because she was a women with a southern accent who is dynamic, detailed, and interesting - a rarity in modern Hollywood. She goes totally against the grain of current portrayal of the southern accent and I started to wonder how long I've been accepting a southern accent as short hand for flat, unintelligent, one-dimensional, and/or racist characters.
I'm sure this didn't help

Growing up in Florida, the Southern accent has not been present every day. As most 'true' Southerners will tell you The South ends a little below Georgia. Nonetheless, the accent has been a hugely present. In my life, I've known teachers, police-officers, assholes, clerks, fools, and businessman who all talk the talk. Like any speech variant, it's speakers come as all kinds. Regardless of my respect for people below the Mason-Dixon, I find myself guilty of accepting the medias one-dimensional and lazy character of drops their g's and lengthen their vowels.

So I looked back and tried to determine when the Southerner became flat, trope-filled place-holder.
Naturally, we're all tempted to look at the Civil War, but it starts earlier than that. Like any country, if there are regions, there are jokes about those regions.
While the history of the North and South's depictions of one another is really interesting, a want to skip ahead to when American media was less regional and popular fiction began to take hold.

Southerners really took the spotlight in literature with the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s. Authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Margaret Williams wildly popular novel 'Gone with the Wind' brought former plantations and agrarian ancestry onto the popular American conscience. These are all novels that take place in the South written by Southerners, so the characters fall along the whole spectrum of complicated and morally ambiguous to the flat.

A Book with a stronger economy than Grenada
It's not until the silver screen becomes popular that people write character from the former Confederacy without having been from it themselves. But again, when?

In the 1940's, 50's and early 60's major motion pictures that took place in the south were mostly adaptations of stories written by Southerners (Gone With the Wind 1939, The Glass Menagerie 1950, A Streetcar Named Desire 1951, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958) and held fairly close to their source material.
While Disney's Song of the South did come out in 1946, it portrays its characters as broad character archetypes of the time who happen do live in Georgia.

However, it was quite racist
The 1960's introduced more stories in the area that were not written by those they sought to portray. In 1967 audiences were given two future classics - Cool Hand Luke, and In the Heat of the Night. Neither of these were written (source material or screenplay) or directed by native southerners. Regardless of origin, both films feature complex, interesting, and intelligent characters.
In the Heat of the Night, however, had more impact on how America viewed the South. The story of a black cop working in a racist and xenophobic Mississippi town came out during the Civil Rights era and became an overnight success. Here we see the first germs of stereotype of racist and gun-happy that really take hold in the American zeitgeist.
The themes of xenophobia and guns with Southerners come back without apology in the pulp thriller Deliverance. Grey scale morality and characterization is totally tossed aside for villain and survival storytelling. Here the public image of the Southerner takes a severe hit despite the violence occurs between men who are all from Georgia.

The 80s follow the theme from In the Heat of the Night and top-grossing films with Southerners become about race (The Color Purple, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning). Unintentionally, this presented an idea to the larger audience that the South was a place of constant racial strife and the residue of racism was put on the South in the public mind.

In the 1990's the modern Southern stereotypes start to conceal into one cohesive archetype as Southerners get more one dimensional in film, TV, and cartoons.
By far one of the worst offenders is Adam Sandler's The Waterboy. Set in Louisiana, every character bares a strong (and often absurd accent) and is always shouting in broken English to display their fanaticism toward football, religion, or both. The main emotional conflict is that Kathy Bates hates education.

And everyone eats snakes and alligators
In 1994, Forrest Gump showed the world a young man from Alabama who was not only unintelligent and naive, but who was actually mentally handicapped. While the intention may have been to prove Forrest's innocence it still remains as a mental association of the South with stupidity.
Shortly before this The Beverly Hillbillies got their own movie which manages to flatten each character so thoroughly, each line became transferable between the characters.

Television at this time would often feature characters who were naive/unintelligent/racist using the Southern accent as shorthand. Seinfeld had a character whose entire personality was ignored because Jerry was only interested in her accent. Drew from The Drew Carey Show dates one of the most simplistic portrayals of both women and Southerners.
What's worse about this is that Southerners in television are quickly becoming one-scene characters to provide joke fodder and then disappear.

This quickly trickled into cartoons, both for children and adults. Every Simpsons character with (any) accent is most often a caricature of their homeland.

Guns, anger, and accent - no effort needed
King of the Hill features characters who are extremely deep, thoughtful, and complex but nonetheless has an entire cast that would go against character to support a stereotype joke.
The Powerpuff Girls has a villain who's entire being is summed up in overalls, stupidity, and a banjo.

And these days, the worst offender is reality TV. In the last few years we've seen a glut of Southerners working blue collar/bizarre jobs on camera and fulfilling every bad stereotype about the South.
Hillbilly Handfishin', Swamp People, Duck Dynasty, American Hoggers, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Big Shrimpin', Rocket City Rednecks, and anything with Paula Deen.

People will always speak differently and humor about that is fine and can be hilarious if handled rightly. The problem with this portrait of the American South is that it puts every Southerner into a box devoid of characterization and devoid of depth. And when people lack depth we stop seeing them as people.

No comments:

Post a Comment