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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Saturday Night Live Hillbilly Exploitation

I watched some of Blake Shelton hosting Saturday Night Live last night. In a span of fifteen minutes, I witnessed so many stereotypes of hillbillies being exploited that I really couldn't continue to view the show. The words "grossly overboard" came to mind. I thought this content was particularly ironic considering Shelton's country roots and rural upbringing. I guess since he was hosting, NBC thought it was open season on us, the folks of Appalachia.

Shelton was born in Ada, Oklahoma and moved to Nashville when he was 17 to become a country music songwriter. He is now a very successful country music singer, and he is also known for his role as a judge on the televised singing competition The Voice. I would say he qualifies as a hillbilly and profits from doing so. That is fine. I have nothing against Sheldon or his success.

I fully understand that Saturday Night Live survives through its satire, and the show is renown for poking fun at practically every sacred institution, lifestyle, and belief in existence. I love so many of the Saturday Night programs past and present and their talented casts of comic personalities in classic skits. I think we should and we must laugh at humorous characterizations of ourselves. We need comic relief to endure reality.

Nevertheless ...

Overemphasis on cornball residents of Appalachia sometimes offends me. Watching Saturday Night, I couldn't help but wonder about how many viewers do see Appalachia as an area in which these comical, hackneyed judgments realistically define the people. To me, there is no doubt that we, the people who live here in Appalachia, suffer from being viewed by a relentless stereotypical image fueled with oversimplified opinion and prejudiced attitude.

More than any other area in America, our home is considered a backwoods, backward embarrassment to the rest of the nation. We do endure the pain of many who laugh "at" us, not "with" us.

Granted, some of the negative regard is well-earned. As poverty, health problems, drug abuse, and poor education are common to Appalachia, outsiders have difficulty understanding how we can't just "grab our own bootstraps and pull our own lazy-asses out of trouble." They seldom consider we lack the necessary resources so prevalent in other thriving areas of the country -- jobs, caring and concerned leadership, strong economic support, and... dare I say it?... a large number of lack an absolute belief that a positive attitude and hard work will produce any long-term change that will elevate both our national standing and our depressed standard of living.

You have to live in Appalachia to comprehend the common threads that both bind us together and hold us back from greater prosperity. The people that comics and denigrators love to call "inbred hillbillies" are actually a composite of proud, stubborn people steeled by generations of hardships. We have become sufficiently hardened to our environment and used to existing in unfortunate circumstances. Survival is not a silly game or a reality television show here -- it is daily life in a hand-to-mouth struggle for existence. By the way, the influx of television shows portraying us as moonshining halfwits and feuding hotheads are bothersome, indeed.

In many Appalachian communities, the glory days of the past provide no additional promise for a better future, and those who do preach that happy days will soon return are regarded as either politically motivated liars or wild-eyed dreamers, largely for good reason considering their abysmal track record.

Most of us would have no idea how to find a good, full-time job in our communities, much less how to believe in a bright tomorrow, so we construct a "hodgepodge, hardscrabble" means of living and remain in the hills and valleys we love so much -- the places our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents called home. And, we do this as we continue to watch so many of our brightest sons and daughters leave the area for greener pastures, knowing full-well they will never return to establish residency and help uplift our depressed area.

Scholars argue that the term hillbilly originated from Scottish dialect. The term hill-folk referred to people that preferred isolation from the greater society and billy meant “comrade” or “companion." It is suggested that “hill-folk” and “billie” were combined when the Cameronians fled to the Highlands. This is a storied, bloody, and noble history of those who resisted attempts by the Stuart monarchs to control the affairs of the Church of Scotland.

Cameronions followed the teachings of Richard Cameron (1648-1680), a militant Presbyterian leader. Cameron had called for war against Charles II and was eventually hunted down for his part in the murder of Archbishop Sharp of Saint Andrews after a significant reward was placed on his head.

During a bloody engagement at about four o'clock in the afternoon Cameron's followers, who had become known as the "Hill Men" were overwhelmed by superior numbers. Bruce's dispatch reported, "The dispute continued a quarter of an hour very hot; the rebels, refusing either to fly or take quarter, fought like madmen..."

(M. Grant. The Lion of the Covenant. 1997)

Cameron was killed in the fray. His head and hands were severed from his body and taken to Edinburgh where they were shown to his father who was already imprisoned in the city.  Cameron's head was displayed aloft on the end of a pole, and then his head and hands were affixed to the Netherbow Port for public display.

Known also as "Society Men", "Sanquharians," and "Hilimen," the Cameronions initiated a separate church after establishing a religious settlement in 1690, taking the official title of Reformed Presbyterians in 1743.

Word connotations do change ...

You see, the word hillbilly is most often employed now as a derogatory term for our poor subculture. It is believed hillbilly first appeared in American print in a 1900 New York Journal  article, with the definition: "a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him."

The stereotype is two-fold in that it incorporates both positive and negative traits: “Hillbillies” are often considered independent and self-reliant individuals that resist the modernization of society, but at the same time they are also defined as backward, violent, and uncivilized. Scholars argue this duality is reflective of the split ethnic identities in “white America."

(Anthony Harkins. Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. 2004)

We "hillbillies" of Appalachia live with constant exploitation. In truth, Appalachians do not subscribe to a single identity. Yet, since stereotyping is profitable, entrepreneurs continue to open ever wider the window for potential revenue. The media often supercharges negative connotations as it benefits financially in promoting the cultural distortion. 

Fun is fun, and, of course, we often laugh at ourselves while joking about stereotypes; however, we have become the poster image of the genetically deficient, Deliverance people -- inbred, racist, toothless, and ignorant to the core -- as lampooned by anyone who believes in social assassination for the sake of profit.

I hear you. "Thompson, get off your soapbox and don't take it so seriously." OK, OK. So, just consider these comments from an old hillbilly who rankles when contemptible people buy into putting us into unfavorable pigeonholes.

I am a hillbilly who believes in giving proper respect to fearless folks who endure hardships the rest of the nation never know. At the same time, I abhor those who live in Appalachia, who call themselves "hillbillies," and who believe that sloth, abuse, and ignorance are admirable birthrights. They make their own brand of refuse that litters our natural beauty.

If you feel as if you must defend yourself against stereotypical "hillbilly" beliefs, you understand my actions when I turned off Blake's Saturday Night Live show. It really gets old considering yourself a member of a geographical group considered by others to have the intelligence of a cardboard box. I bet no one has the audacity to criticize the rigid Appalachian character of common sense, ingenuity, and rawhide tough endurance.

One thing is certain: a true hillbilly will fight opposition to his last breath. Born of the pioneer spirit, hillbillies cherish freedom and liberty while defending their natural homeland and their long beliefs. Some have faults they still battle, yet battle they will. You see, living with considerable outside opposition all their lives, they remain a clannish lot quick to question a gifted horse and just as quick to accept an honest, trustworthy friend.

If you don't know Appalachia, really know Appalachia, you don't understand the difference between outsiders who poke a little fun and outsiders who wield a diatribe of abuse. By the way, America, now most of us do have running water, inside bathrooms, and husbands or wives who aren't first cousins. We even take baths and graduate from colleges and universities on occasion. And, we're working on figuring out why the rest of you have that funny accent we hear so frequently on the two channels of network television we can receive.

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