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Hillbilly Elegy: Appalachian Stereotypes

The resource guide for the 2017-18 Common Experience book selection, J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy"

What is a Hillbilly?

Appalachian Stereotypes

The Appalachian region has long been associated with a number of stereotypes and misconceptions that have their way into popular culture. Although these stereotypes have existed for years, Hillbilly Elegy has certainly stirred up a great deal of discussion about the people, culture, and life experiences in the Appalachians. This page serves as a starting point for making observations about these stereotypes and offers differing viewpoints as a possible entry point into the topic. As you explore, you might think about other ways Appalachian stereotypes have either been perpetuated or countered.

What is a Hillbilly?

Often used as a derogatory slur, J.D Vance embraces the term to define a geographical and cultural affinity among the poor who grow up and live in places such as the Appalachians. One way to analyze both the stereotypical and insider version of a term such as "hillbilly" is to observe the many ways it is used and portrayed.

Common Appalachian Stereotypes

The short clips below demonstrate some of the ways in which Appalachians are stereotyped in popular culture. As you watch these clips, try to get a sense of what each has in common. What do they demonstrate in terms of region, race, intelligence, culture, and societal norms?

 

The Beverly Hillbillies may be a lighthearted fish out of water comedy about about a simple Appalachian family that moves to the ritzy Beverly Hills region, but it also poked fun at the intelligence, customs, and language. Certainly, the idea of the "hillbilly" was largely embellished. 

 

The Dukes of Hazzard was a popular television show about the adventures of the Dukes, a family of former moonshine runners who are always getting in trouble with the law. The Dukes are rebellious regarding the laws and norms of society. Although full of high adventure, the show has been criticized for romanticizing the idea of law breaking, rebellious "rednecks" or "hillbillies," incompetent and corrupt police, and supporting the confederate flag, which appears on their 1969 Dodge Charger. Some have even criticized Daisy Duke, replete with her Daisy Duke shorts, as a character built by misogyny and a commentary on the lack of female virtues of women in the region the show depicts. 

Deliverance has long lived in infamy as a movie that promotes ridicule, fear, and othering of Appalachians. If the Beverly Hillbillies were comical and the Dukes of Hazzard were mischievous, Deliverance is an outright horror film about hillbillies. Most of the "locals" in the film are made to both look and act unintelligently, with several hints that many of them are likely inbred and/or morally deficit. Much of the story revolves around the characters from the city being stalked, sexually assaulted, and otherwise terrorized by the locals. In the end, the main characters are told to never return, a note that many viewers took to heart in real life as they feared the same fate may happen to them in real life. Dueling Banjos remains as one of the most famous scenes in the film.

 


Most dictionaries offer relatively little in the way of a definition for a hillbilly, yet so much has been offered in the way of books, films, and various other forms of media that demonstrate what a hillbilly should look, sound, and be like. This brings up the critical question of what separates stereotype from fact, and what goes into fleshing out a term that is so scantly defined?

J.D Vance on What is a Hillbilly

J.D Vance offers his definition of a hillbilly and of hillbilly culture. As you watch the video, think about how Vance approaches a definition in terms of race, culture, geography, heritage, and ideology. You might think about how Vance's perceptions of the term compare and contrast against both popular culture notions of a hillbilly and the notions of others from Appalachia. Vance often uses the term "hillbilliness." What do you think Vance means by this usage of the term? Where does Hillbilly Elegy fit in the discourse of the definition of a Hillbilly and the whole of Appalachia? Moreover, Vance's viewpoint discussion may provide an opportunity to think about all of the factors that create meaning behind the definitions we create.

 

Another view

Appalachians Comment on Stereotypes

The clips below provide another side of the story with regards to common Appalachian stereotypes. In 2017, W. Kamau Bell traveled to Appalachia in his show, United Shades of America to get an inside perspective on the local residents' feelings regarding common stereotypes, and to present an alternative to the narrative that Appalachians are simply white, uneducated, poor hillbillies.

 

In this clip, W. Kamua Bell introduces the Appalachian region and interviews several locals in Eastern Kentucky. While there, he learns what locals have heard others say about the typical Appalachian. Notice the setting as well as the interviewees' attire, mannerisms, language, and responses. Do these people fit the popular description of a "hillbilly?"

 

W. Kamau Bell learns a little bit about the factors that create poverty and depression in Appalachia as well as the interviewee's vision for what he would like the community to become. Like many other areas of the country, several Appalachian communities suffer from difficult economic situations. This interviewee seems to reject the idea of his community deteriorating into the sort of abject poverty that typifies the hillbilly stereotype.

 

Appalachia is often thought of as a whitewashed region with very little demographic emphasis on other races--a notion that many feel should be reconsidered. In this clip, W. Kamau Bell interviews an African-American coal miner who shares his experience of living and working in Appalachia. During the interview, it is revealed that there is a larger and more active black community than most people give credit. He discusses this misconception though a short story about how the black community outnumbered and repelled the KKK, who foolishly bought into the whitewashed stereotype. He discusses the community as diverse and caring for one another.