Appalachian stereotypes

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The Appalachian region and its people are mostly viewed negatively due to the "Appalachian Stereotype." According to Stuart Hall who is a scholar of cultural and visual studies a stereotype can be described as using images, tools, and identity to understand why people make certain judgements.[1] These are generalizations that people, especially those that live outside the region, have towards the place and its inhabitants. Notably, the mainstream media has played a significant role in promoting these stereotypes.[2] This is because the majority of them only concentrate on the negative side of the region, posting bad pictures as a representation of Appalachia. Therefore, the pictures posted and the information published concerning the Appalachians and their culture misguide the audience. The rest of the world ends up referring to and viewing Appalachia as the worst place to live. For instance, some stereotypes have come from the belief that individuals in Appalachia are illiterate, lazy, and racially homogenous. These words erase Appalachia’s real picture as a diverse region with a rich culture and friendly people.[3][4]

History of the Appalachians[edit]

The real identity of Appalachia consists of a diverse and rich culture. Before the other races, the Native Americans first inhabited the Appalachian region, such as the Powhatan and Cherokee groups, moved there.[5] The people of Appalachia can trace their ancestral background from the large migration of Scotch-Irish where their ancestors used to live. The previous stereotypes in their ancestral lands made them move.[6] These immigrants were also discriminated against in their original region of settlement, so they decided to move to the Appalachian Mountains.

Appalachian Mountains

Also, the Scotch-Irish moved to their new region, which is Appalachia, because it resembled their previous bushy environment and thus reminded them of their origin.[7] Furthermore, after the immigrants had settled in the Appalachian region, the African-Americans who were set free from slavery also migrated and became inhabitants of the place. This is where diversity started taking shape in Appalachia as people from different backgrounds and places of origin settled in the Appalachian Mountains, although the media does not reveal this part.[8] The population kept on growing as more communities migrated to Appalachia. One of the biggest populations that the region ever recorded was around 1870 to 1950.[9] As of 2014, approximately 42 percent of the population of the Appalachian region consists of minorities.[10]

Notably, the increased population growth resulted from the expansion of coal mining that attracted various immigrants. The people wanted to be part of the coal mining business and improve their living standards.[11] Contrarily, the Appalachian inhabitants lived under low life standards due to poverty. The Appalachian economy is poor, with very low-income levels that can barely sustain a decent lifestyle. In his article concerning the Appalachian history, Smith states that he has “never seen is national coverage that portrays this place as the home of rich legacies of radical labor organizing”.[8] This explains why the majority of the people of Appalachia are said to live in poor conditions, and every time the media wants to refer to a poor economy, use the Appalachia region as the ideal example.

Cultural perceptions of Appalachians[edit]

Appalachian individuals are perceived largely to be impoverished, white, rural, and rough around the edges. NPR describes the stereotypical portrayal of Appalachians as "children in sepia-toned clothes with dirt-smeared faces. Weathered, sunken-eyed women on trailer steps chain-smoking Camels. Teenagers clad in Carhartt and Mossy Oak loitering outside long-shuttered businesses."[12] This greatly erases the presence of minority groups and educated individuals in Appalachia that do not align with this image.

The traditional Appalachian dialect and accent also comes with a slew of stereotypes and consequences for those who bear it. Those with Appalachian accents or use Appalachian dialect are perceived to be less educated and less wealthy.[13] These stereotypes harm the access to opportunities and impressions of Appalachian people outside of Appalachia. As a result of these negative stereotypes, thousands of people from the Appalachian region face judgment and, intense scrutiny on a daily basis. [14]

Discrimination against Appalachians[edit]

Discrimination against the Appalachians is significant enough that some municipalities, such as Cincinnati, have enacted laws making it illegal to discriminate against peoples of Appalachian identity. [15]The Human Rights Ordinance policy was passed in 1992 by the City of Cincinnati, proclaiming it forbidden to discriminate against characteristics such as race, national origin, sex, religion.[16] [17] Before the policy was declared, the U.S. District Court declined the admission of Appalachians in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[16] Even the Appalachian dialect plays a role in inspiring these stereotypes; those who have never been to the region can still recognize the specific twang typical of the area.[18] Some people even view the Appalachians as illiterate, hostile, and uneducated due to an ongoing media portrayal.[19] Discrimination against women in this region is also a very big issue. Due to Appalachia being known for their coal mining industry it makes it difficult for women to find well-paying jobs. Many women have to settle for working "unskilled" labor. [20]

Appalachia's social, cultural, and economic features establish an identity that consistently defines characteristics that infuse prejudices and distinguishes them from other minority groups. The Appalachians are often victims of locational prejudice, where people often discriminate against due to their location and where they identify as home. The people of Appalachia are stereotyped as the poor White minority, tending to fuse Appalachia into one community, one state, which would make Appalachia the third largest state in the nation due to population. [16]

Derogatory terms against Appalachians[edit]

Derogatory language against Appalachians includes the terms "Redneck" and "Hillbilly." These terms often come up in comedic use, stereotyped as the role of the "hillbilly fool."[21] The term "Hillbilly" was first coined in 1899, around the time coal industries made an appearance in the Appalachian communities.[22] In reference to Appalachia, the utilization of the word "Hillbilly" has become such a commonplace that the term is often used to characterize the sociological and geographical happenings of the area. A major example of this occurrence is the characterization of the emigration of residents of the Appalachian Mountains to industrial cities in northern, midwestern, and western states, primarily in the years following World War II as the "Hillbilly Highway". The term Redneck is often met with pride among mountain people.

For many years, the term "Mountain Whites" existed as an official Library of Congress Subject Heading. Criticized for its false representation of Appalachia as a racially homogeneous region and because it was a term applied by outsiders to a group of people who do not necessarily identify as a specific ethnic group, it was replaced with the subject heading "Appalachians (people)."[23]

Representations of Appalachians in popular culture[edit]

  • The 1972 film Deliverance is set and filmed in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia. It features negative stereotypes of Appalachian people, portraying the people as inbred, backwards, and dangerous. It depicts the region's poverty and explores Appalachian stereotypes. The 2012 documentary The Deliverance of Rabun County explores how the film affected the people in the region, and how they felt about their portrayal. Many of those interviewed for the documentary felt resentment for the way in which they were portrayed.[24]
  • The horror series Wrong Turn (film series), consists of seven individual movies released between 2003 and 2021. Each film in the series is set in various locations throughout rural West Virginia and follows the story of a group a travelers who get lost in the backwoods of the Appalachian mountains. Stereotypes of Appalachia are most depicted in the film as the inbred and cannibalistic monsters who hunt and kill the group of travelers throughout each movie.
  • The Duke boys in the feature-film version of The Dukes of Hazzard state that "actually, we prefer to be called Appalachian Americans" when a group of urban (Atlantan) African Americans calls them "hillbillies" in response to their Confederate flag and perceived blackface.
  • In the 1991 horror film The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster stars as FBI Agent Clarice Starling, who is from a small town in West Virginia. The villainous Hannibal Lecter uses her Appalachian upbringing as psychological leverage, mocking her accent, asking if her father was a coal miner, and telling her that she is "not more than one generation from poor white trash."[25] Starling's character also appears in the 2001 sequel, Hannibal, as well as the 2021 television series Clarice.[26][27] Her character is adapted from the books The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal by Thomas Harris.
  • Starting in 2004, Saturday Night Live had a recurring skit called Appalachian Emergency Room, which drew on negative stereotypes of rural Appalachians. Seth Myers, Maya Rudolph, Kenan Thompson, Amy Poehler, Darrell Hammond, and Chris Parnell all appeared regularly in the sketches. Notably, Johnny Knoxville appeared in one skit.
  • The FX TV series Justified (2010–2015), which was set in Harlan, Kentucky, featured various "unsavory characters" running afoul of the law, including "a moonshine-making Appalachian matriarch of a law-defying hillbilly family" and the Dixie Mafia.[28] The series received praise from some critics for its complex characters that went beyond stereotypes.[29][30]
  • The MTV reality television series Buckwild, which ran for one season in 2013, has received criticism for painting the young adults of Appalachia in a bad light—the most notable of this criticism being a letter from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to the president of MTV written a month before the show aired.[31]
  • The memoir Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance received substantive attention upon its publication in 2016. The book twice topped The New York Times Bestseller List,[32][33] but it has also been criticized for overextending generalizations of Vance's individual experience to all of Appalachia.[34] In 2020, Netflix released a film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy directed by Ron Howard. It has been criticized for many of the same issues as the book.[35]
  • Often positioned as a direct challenge to the generalizations of Hillbilly Elegy, historian Elizabeth Catte published What You're Getting Wrong About Appalachia in 2018. In the book, Catte asserts that "the story of Appalachia cannot be separated from the story of the United States and the historical forces that have shaped us."[36]
  • In 2019, scholars Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll co-edited an anthology called Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy through West Virginia University Press.[37] The anthology features writing from a number of authors across the Appalachia region.
  • The legislation, War on poverty launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson, aimed to eliminate America's poor conditions, had published images of impoverished Appalachians in order to gain financial support. Appalachia was one of the major focuses for nationwide assistance.[38][22]


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