Film

What Is the Stereotypical 'Real American?'

Picture such a creature in your mind and see how it compares to the one in mine: White. Well-fed. Armed. Christian. I’m seeing Boss Hogg in Bermuda shorts, Foghorn Leghorn in a business suit, Britney Spears in a monster truck.

Talk of secession is all the rage in America these days. Since President Obama was reelected, just shy of a million Americans have added their names to petitions asking that their state be allowed to exit The Union. In a grand and delicious coincidence, we also happen to be commemorating the 150th anniversary of our most horrific struggle, The Civil War. It’s perfect timing for our story-teller-in-chief, Steven Spielberg, to come out with his take on our Great Emancipator, which I wanted to see but never got around to, and if I could ever bring myself to do a column that was for once either timely or relevant, you’d be reading about that right now.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the image of America, the face it creates in our minds to personify the nation. Because I think the real reason a little less than half of Americans are coming unglued at the prospect of a black, liberal president is that America's national image is undeniably in the process of changing. In short, Americans are having an identity crisis, because the image many of us hold of ourselves is well past its sell date.

It’s Hollywood’s fault, as usual. Since the beginning, they sold us a ludicrous myth about what “Real Americans” are supposed to look like and talk like and believe. So instead of struggling to define ourselves as a strange and modern people, we’ve settled for believing in our own stupid stereotypes.

Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg in Dukes of Hazard (1979)

What is the stereotypical “Real American?” Picture such a creature in your mind and see how it compares to the one in mine: White. Well-fed. Armed. Christian. I’m seeing Boss Hogg of The Dukes of Hazard in Bermuda shorts, Foghorn Leghorn in a business suit, Britney Spears in a monster truck. Are we close? If so, how terrible is that? The US has the most diverse population the world has ever known, and yet our popular image is molded on outdated caricatures that, in reality, represent a fraction of our national composition.

The fact that so many of us have internalized this southern fried image of ourselves bothers me. It bothers me because it's false, because it other-izes too many of us, and because it signifies the ascendency of an ideal that comes from the most un-American of places: The Confederacy. Our national image, for too many of us, is modeled on long gone white Southern plantation owners, with all the baggage that implies.

You’d think that since the North won the physical war back in 1865, it would have won the cultural one, too. But it hasn’t turned out that way. The Southerner-as-Archetypal American motif bloomed in the ashes of the Civil War, partly because the North integrated sooner, partly because of the opening of the West, but mostly because of Reconstruction. When Lincoln was assassinated, it touched off a generations-long recrimination against the South that vindicated Southern resentment and stoked Northern guilt. As the North grew in population and industrial power, it essentially forgot the war, while Southerners never did. (Still haven’t, last I checked.)

Ever see that Mel Gibson movie The Patriot (2000)? Yeah, I know—different war, just bear with me. It got all kinds of flak over its ultraviolent war scenes, its bizarre notion of patriotism, and its shamefully revisionist take on slavery.


But as I watched an old VHS copy of it recently, I noticed a more overarching problem in its nonchalant elevation of the Southern ideal. To my eyes, The Patriot looks eerily like another Hollywood epic, one that did more to rehabilitate the South’s image than any anything—D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.


The Birth of a Nation was the first blockbuster, virtually inventing the cinematic language that Hollywood still speaks. A stunning and visionary creation, it electrified audiences upon release in 1915, grossing an unheard of $5 million and proving to a skeptical world that the new medium of film was capable of igniting passions like no other art form ever could.

The problem was (and is) that Griffith’s take on the Civil War and Reconstruction constitutes one of the most vile and offensive visions of America ever recorded. It depicts the Southern cause as a noble struggle against tyranny, and features blackfaced actors menacing white women and drunkenly plotting the ruin of the oppressed white landowners. In the end, the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save the day, and a new nation is born, though it isn’t a physical country so much as a state of mind. It’s a mental fiefdom built on medieval principles of chivalry and honor, powered by slave labor and wrapped in an Old Testament, authoritarian religion that values power and glory over compassion and goodwill.

The effect of Birth of a Nation on the American psyche is impossible to overstate. It sparked riots and was banned in several cities, but it also captured the popular imagination, actually bringing the Klan out of hibernation and rejuvenating the Confederate image. Griffith’s undeniable technical skill served to validate the film’s message, each scene a flickering lie, a love note to a history perverted. Although Griffith professed bewilderment over the trouble his masterpiece caused, he stood by its basic premise, that the Confederacy was composed of noble patriots, not the greedy, racist traitors they actually were.

Griffith’s premise has, of course been constantly and for the most part, effectively challenged in popular culture. Yet it persists in subtle and powerful ways. Our national delusion that Southerners are the most Americanest of us all has been stoked by Hollywood for 100 years, in a straight line drawn from Griffith to Gibson.

In The Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich, Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a wealthy farmer and former Indian fighter who avenges his sons’ murder at the hands of the Redcoats by staging a bloody guerilla campaign. Aside from the revenge angle, The Patriot is in many ways a remake of a later D.W. Griffith epic, America, which borrowed much of its story from The Birth of a Nation. The telling difference is that instead of setting the action in Yankee New England as Griffith did, The Patriot is set in South Carolina. And instead of being a mere farmer, Gibson’s character is a plantation owner who, against all historical logic, owns no slaves.

What makes this so jaw-droppingly improbable is the fact that South Carolina was the most pro-slavery state in America. It was the first to join the Confederacy, and it was where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. While the white landowners of South Carolina were fighting for their independence from the British, their black slaves were desperately trying to defect behind British lines where they could gain their freedom.

But whether nefariously or as a ham-handed plot device, The Patriot twists the situation into one where Martin’s black workers (who describe themselves as “free men,” yet are clearly subservient to him) have to run and hide from the British because they don’t want to be taken off the plantation (!). Got that, kids? The Revolutionary War happened because those evil abolitionist Brits tried to pry good plantation jobs out of the hands of free Southern blacks.

Even Mel Gibson, who defended everything else about The Patriot, called its whitewash of slavery "a copout". But what’s perhaps even worse is that the rest of the movie contains bits and snatches of fairly accurate history, and these work to cloak the film’s twisted assertion in a veneer of credibility.

This is exactly where D.W. Griffith went wrong, by using his technical mastery to project a beautiful and stirring image that was rotten at its core. In his cruelly revisionist The Birth of a Nation, the KKK rides in to rescue the South, reestablishing white rule and chasing every last carpetbagger back north of the Mason-Dixon.

The end of the movie presents Griffith’s vision of just what kind of nation has been born: We see a cotillion amidst the Spanish Moss of a beautiful old estate. White people waltz in the courtyard, admiring each other over pitchers of lemonade brought by smiling black mammies, while other slaves happily tend to their end-of day chores. The Patriot has a remarkably similar scene, set in a swamp colony where Martin’s former (ahem) employees have established themselves after escaping British freedom. There’s still white people waltzing and black people filling pitchers of lemonade for them, but these are free men. See the difference?

Yeah, me neither. It’s the same whitewashed history that leads to the same idealization of that same Southern landowner who’s come to personify us as a nation. In a way, the image of the South that Emmerich puts forth in The Patriot is even more insidious than Griffith’s, because if one believed it were accurate, one would wonder why in the world we fought the Civil War at all. By opening up this cinematic/historical alternate universe, The Patriot wipes away every bit of ugliness that we brought onto ourselves by dealing in slaves in the first place. It portrays the American Revolution as a time when blacks and whites fought together against tyranny, and leaves viewers with a gauzy impression that blacks were free once it was over.

If one can swallow that for a moment, the whole modern secessionist worldview comes into focus. They either don’t know or don’t want to believe the truth about who we are as a nation, where we’ve come from, and where we have to go in order to fulfill our revolutionary promise. They don’t want to acknowledge the injustices of the past or honor the work so many have done to correct it. They want to be at that cotillion for the rest of their lives, and damn it, they want to be the ones waltzing. Who cares where the pitchers of lemonade come from or who has to clean up the mess, as long as it isn’t them.

This brings us back around to the reality that America's national ideal is changing. The talking heads are all over it: witness Bill O’Reilly as he breathlessly frets about an emerging new white minority, or that fat druggy Rush Limbaugh with his “You can’t beat Santa Claus” shtick. What they and their followers can’t see is that their image of America is based on a tower of dramatic falsehoods.

But it’s a tower that’s falling, and fast. I don’t know what this century’s typical American will end up looking like. I only know it doesn’t look like last century’s model. And I, for one, am glad of that.

Boss Obama! Image (partial) by © Christopher Koppes of Cauldron Graphix


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.