[21 September 2011]
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
My family is from all over the South — Mobile, Montgomery, Atlanta, Chapel Hill — so I’m always quick to defend the region against nasty cultural slights, whether it’s a lack of culinary appreciation for fried okra and biscuits with gravy or having to endure hearing yet another New York actor do a bad Southern accent.
On the other hand, I’m not a mindless defender of Southern backwardness, like James Frazier at the Washington Times, who has penned a lengthy essay defending Mississippi against the hordes of Hollywood liberals who have, as he puts it, “cemented the state’s image in American culture as a brutal, benighted backwater teeming with violent bigots.”
Of course, we could just end this argument right here by saying that if you’ve ever studied the history of Mississippi, home of such virulent racist demagogues as Sen. Theodore Bilbo, Gov. Ross Barnett and Sen. James Eastland, you’d know that the state’s image as a brutal backwater teeming with violent bigots is well deserved, having been cast in stone by its own actions long before Hollywood had anything to say about it.
That brings us to “Straw Dogs,” which barely opened over the weekend, making a paltry $5 million and earning a measly 38 Fresh Rating at Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that its days at the multiplexes are numbered. But is the Rod Lurie-directed film a slap at the South, as Frazier and other conservative critics have argued? The remake of the Sam Peckinpah classic does offer a number of uncomplimentary Southern stereotypes, substituting Mississippi rednecks for the British working class tormenters from the original film.
According to Frazier, Mississippi has spawned a host of great writers and musicians, but “in the imagination of Hollywood, Mississippi has long since ceased to be a place and become instead a facile metaphor for violent racist bigotry and hostility to outsiders.” He recruits a gaggle of academics to back up his theory, with Kathryn McKee, associate professor of Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, saying that “the idea of Mississippi has functioned in the American imagination as a kind of holding bin for negative things about the nation.”
That may have been true in the days past that gave us “Mississippi Burning” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.” But what about “The Blind Side,” which presents a very idealized vision of a Mississippi family that helps raise a homeless football prodigy? Or “The Help,” now a huge box-office hit, which offers an upbeat take on the ability of black maids to stand up for themselves in the midst of the racial upheaval of ‘60s era Mississippi?
Frazier acknowledges their presence, but views them as exceptions to the rule. But I think he’s missing a much bigger trend. If you watch reality TV, you see far more negative stereotypes about the South in such shows as CMT’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and tru TV’s “Lizard Lick Towing,” where the South is viewed as such a backward, thickly accented region that many of the shows have subtitles for their characters, worried that a well-educated reality TV viewer wouldn’t understand what they were saying.
Reality TV doesn’t make any pretense about pushing the cultural envelope. If it portrays the South as benighted, it’s because it thinks that is what its audience wants to believe. I suspect that the South is often portrayed as a poor relation because most of America needs to feel superior to someone, so why not the South as a good starting point?
But it’s a stretch to say that “Straw Dogs” is part of Hollywood’s overall hostility against Mississippi, just because the villains in the movie are rednecks. Conservatives are always up in arms about some new Hollywood excess, just as they were when they greeted “Avatar” with a storm of complaints that it was somehow anti-American because its military characters were portrayed as warmongering invaders. Stereotypes are everywhere in storytelling. Rod Lurie may be guilty of a lack of imagination, but he’s not guilty of giving Mississippi a bad name. The state did that all on its own.