Are “rednecks” funny? America seems to think so. We have “you know you’re a redneck if… ” jokes, The Jerry Springer Show, mulletsgalore.com, and on and on. The media’s commodification of rednecks has been accompanied by the upward mobility of traditionally redneck tastes and entertainments. Harley Davidson paraphernalia, trailer park rock, white trash cuisine, professional wrestling, NASCAR: all these have an increasing camp/ironic value for the hip middle class. Now Hollywood is getting in on the act with movies like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (historic rednecks) and Joe Dirt (contemporary rednecks).
Why the interest in rednecks? Well, back in graduate school, one of my cultural studies friends had a theory about the “vanishing redneck.” Since television became a fixture in the majority of American homes, he said, American culture has lost its colorful ethnic, regional, and class diversity, and become a sprawling, homogenous middle culture thoroughly unified and standardized by mass media. Middle culture is not the middle class, middle-America, the middle of the road, the middle brow, or any other specific middle-ness, although it includes all of these. It is, rather, the tendency of the middle class and their middling culture, given the power of the mass media, to gobble up, incorporate, and re-process every alternative cultural form so as to arrive at a kind of all-consuming apotheosis of middle-ness. Everything from fashion and home decor to linguistic patterns, political ideology, and social norms is seized, re-processed, projected from sitcom central and absorbed by middle culture. Finally, as the radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s was successfully incorporated into middle culture and became its “politically correct” ideology, no radical edge, no counter-culture, no alternative to the middle remained.
Only redneck culture, with its poverty, poor taste, and manifest political incorrectness, stood outside the middle, beyond the pale. In a sense, redneck culture is the reactionary past of middle culture: rednecks retain the outmoded ideologies (sexism, racism, homophobia) that middle culture held fifty years earlier. So the middle needs redneck culture to define itself in terms of what it is not and to flatter itself with the evidence of its progress. Yet redneck culture is constantly being absorbed by the middle. At the vanishing point of “real” redneck culture, a simulated redneck culture must emerge in the media to take its place. Enter Kid Rock, Eminem, Joe Dirt.
Joe Dirt‘s humor focuses on the bad taste (mullets, acid-wash jeans, double-wides), inappropriate behavior (violence, cruelty, incest), and politically incorrect beliefs (homophobia, chauvinism, sexism) that middle culture sees as redneck hallmarks. The saving irony in class comedy is that when a superior class laughs at their social inferiors, they lose the niceness that defines their superiority and expose in themselves the pettiness, cruelty, and prejudice that they would mock in the other. Unfortunately, Joe Dirt is a little too polite to expose its dark side in this way and just laugh at rednecks. But it wants to laugh at rednecks in a nice way.
To shield us from the negative side effects of class mockery, Joe Dirt erects a clumsy edifice of denial and avoidance that entirely dissipates the movie’s comedic energy. First, mullet or not, David Spade is just not a redneck. Since we are never really laughing at a redneck, but at a movie star in a redneck costume, we are washed squeaky clean of snobbery. Second, Joe is the one good redneck in Joe Dirt only because he is so obviously not really a redneck. All the more “realistic” redneck characters, like Joe’s bullying rival (Kid Rock), are thoroughly base: cruel, violent, sexist, alcoholic, stupid, and untrustworthy. These characters remind us that, although we are making an exception for Joe, our basic prejudice against rednecks is justified. Third, there’s a nasty example of middle class snobbery in the Howard-Stern-Without-The Humor-type radio DJ (Dennis Miller) who broadcasts Joe’s autobiography and shows us that although we may despise rednecks, we should not be mean to them.
Incorporation is the name of the game here. Rednecks may be funny, but they carry a kryptonite-like charge (Eminem anyone?) in their raw form. They must be processed correctly to become safe for middle culture consumption. So what is the appropriate attitude to choose when objectifying rednecks for comedic purposes? Who should be our role models? Why the DJ’s audience: a youthful, attractive middle spectrum who are seen listening to Joe’s story and moving, as the story unfolds, from amusement to sympathy to admiration for Joe and his triumph over the adverse fate of being born a redneck (the ultimate signs of Joe’s successful incorporation into middle culture: by the end of the movie he has written a bestseller and his mullet has been restyled into dreadlocks—he has crossed over).
Now that we know who we are and where we sit (we’re the middle culture audience and David Spade’s our movie star pretending to be a redneck) we can get down to some incest, shit, and bestiality jokes. After all, we’re peeking into the trailer park where anything goes, right? Some of Joe Dirt‘s humorous set pieces:
1. Joe screws his sister (Jamie Pressly), oops… well, not really, but he thought she was and we were titillated by the idea while being reminded that only rednecks would ever want to do such a thing.
2. Joe cleans toilets for a living, eats lunch off a huge turd, and is covered in shit from an exploding canister of crap (really, rednecks and shit just go together).
3. Joe woos his true love Brandy (Brittany Daniel) by applying cooking oil to her dog’s testicles and caressing them with a spatula while she watches approvingly (kinky, but not really… there is a good reason for this activity, including all the juxtaposed shots of dog genitalia and blonde Aryan beauty). You may (not even) be a redneck if these jokes strike you as funny.
There is, however, one moment of surreal brilliance here. Christopher Walken performs a cameo that confirms his comedic genius, while reducing the rest of this dull little movie to ashes. Wait for the video, and fast-forward to the scene where Walken dances with a mop down a school corridor, threatens to stab a fire hose in the face with a soldering iron, and asks his reflection if his mother can sew, before launching a vicious head-butt at himself. “Tell her to sew that!” Now that guy is no redneck, but he’s funny.