I’m pleased to announce that my book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture is coming out in paperback. You can pre-order now through UNC Press for the book’s release in August. Fun reading and great for classes!
News recently broke that George Jones, whose distinctive voice and behavior made him a legend in country music, died today at the age of 81. I have fond memories of listening to his music with my Maw Maw Crum back in West Virginia. His nicknames “the possum” and “No Show Jones” hinted at his looks and the impact his alcoholism had on his performances. Yet no one can dismiss his unique voice or his impact on country music. Rest in Peace, George Jones.
Celebrity culture is an interesting phenomenon. We come to know a celebrity’s public persona and many people assume they “know” the person. And in some cases, the celebrity assumes that “the people” know him or her.
Enter Reese Witherspoon, or better yet a drunk Reese Witherspoon, whose celebrity persona is “America’s sweetheart.” Except that this past week the nation learned something about her true personality when, while driving in Atlanta, her husband James Toth was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. She was in the passenger seat and instead of keeping calm and letting the officers do their job she got out of the car to announce to the officer “Do you know my name?” This was followed by “You’re about to find out. . .” Blah, blah, I’m an entitled Hollywood actress who should get special treatment and I have lawyers. Um, Reese, this is being videotaped.
Since this is a blog about the South, I wonder why it is that southern women often get the title of “America’s sweetheart?” We’ve had Mary Lou Retton (West Virginia), Julia Roberts (Georgia), Taylor Swift (from rural Pennsylvania–also known as North Alabama–and in country music she might as well be from the South), Britney Spears (Louisiana) and Reese Witherspoon (Tennessee). There have also been a number of beauty queens from the South who’ve won Miss America.
I have a theory that white southern women who supposedly exhibit a certain feminine innocence and charm, not unlike the southern belles of old, are still held up as models of femininity for the nation. Even if their private behavior isn’t innocent, very often their public personas suggest that they are well-behaved, models of traditional womanhood. So, when they show their human frailties (Britney Spears) or that they aren’t sweet at all (Reese Witherspoon) it seems like they’ve taken a big tumble from their pedestals. Except they shouldn’t have been placed there to begin with. It’s a precarious perch and they were bound to fall.
It is inherently problematic to assign southern women the title of “America’s sweetheart.” Southern women are not the mythic creatures of traditional femininity, nor do they embody the behavior that Americans and the media continue to portray them as having. They are, like other American women, fallible human beings who can sometimes behave poorly.
I’m pleased to be able to participate in the annual Historic Natchez Conference this week from Wednesday, April 17 through Saturday, April 20th. The focus of the meeting is “Civil War to Civil Rights.” I’ll be speaking about my new project about a murder case that made national headlines in 1932. It’s known locally in Natchez as the “Goat Castle Murder.”
William C. Davis, professor of history at Virginia Tech, is giving a keynote address. He is the author of Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America (2003).
The conference will be headquartered at the historic Eola Hotel. As with many small towns with nary an airport in sight, folks there know how to show people a good time.
If you ever get to visit Natchez, you should. As they say there, “Natchez is in this world, but not of it.” Seeing is believing.
On April 1st, Shain Gandee, one of the breakout stars of MTV’s “Buckwild” died along with his uncle and a friend. After going mudding, Shain’s truck became stuck in the mud so deep that the tailpipe on the muffler became clogged. Because it was cold that evening (and perhaps they had been drinking), the three men probably turned on the heat and fell asleep, and subsequently died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The show was controversial for its negative representations of West Virginia, even drawing ire from Senator Joe Manchin. But during its first season “Buckwild” attracted an audience of 3 million viewers per episode. And what did the young folks who were being exploited by MTV earn? A measly $1,000 per episode. That’s right. All of you people out there who think reality television stars are making money hand over fist (because they know what they’ve gotten themselves into) need to read this again carefully: $1,000 an episode. Viacom-owned MTV on the other hand, reaped some handsome profits.
Now, in the wake of Shain’s death, MTV has canceled the show. Why? In a press release, the network reasoned that the show could not go on “given Shain’s tragic passing and essential presence on the show.” In effect, his “essential presence” meant that “Buckwild” without Shain Gandee affected Viacom’s profit margin, but nothing near what they made off of this young man’s life.
The kicker is that the producer is furious about the cancellation. According to an interview featured on HuffPost TV, J. P. Williams (who plays up West Virginia as his birthplace) is determined to save the show, going so far as to say that “My job is to protect these kids.” Say what? He exploited them to line his own pockets and not even the death of one of them is enough to keep him from being self-righteous (or being worried about his own bank account).
I was in West Virginia last week visiting with family and learned that MTV had NOT offered to assist Gandee’s parents with funeral expenses. Instead, fellow West Virginians stepped up to the plate and held a “Shain Gandee Memorial Mud Run” to help the family. Meanwhile, the network is going to have a memorial special to honor Shain, which will likely have a large audience and squeeze a few more dollars of profit from this poor soul.
All I have say about that is shame on you, MTV.
Brad Paisley‘s controversial new song “Accidental Racist” is causing a media stir and backlash creating what is euphemistically called a “shit storm.” Essentially, the song is that of a good ol’ boy who wants to show his southern pride and not have to apologize to the black guy who is waiting on him at Starbucks for doing so. He’s “just a white man, living in the Southland” who wants to wear his red shirt emblazoned with that innocuous symbol (not), the Confederate battle flag, because really, he’s just a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his generation didn’t own slaves. Damn, Brad, even Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to remove the flag from their concerts because of the flag’s ugly history–you know, the one associated not just with slavery, but with segregation and let’s not forget the Ku Klux Klan. Although in the end, Skynyrd’s legions of white fans shamed them into keeping it because it’s about “heritage, not hate.”
This is essentially Brad Paisley’s argument. Poor guy feels caught between “southern blame” and “southern pride.” Well, Brad, there’s a good reason for that and if you had done your homework, which you said you’re just doing now in order to defend yourself, you wouldn’t have written lyrics asking a black man to give you a pass for wearing that battle flag on your t-shirt with all of the political baggage that it carries. And why THAT symbol of southern pride above all others? Can’t you pick another one? Did you have to choose the one co-opted by hate groups? And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?
And teaming up with LL Cool J did not help matters. He’s drifted a long way from “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics. Instead, he joins in with ridiculous rhymes of his own like “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’” and “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” LL, don’t you think you’re making a sweeping generalization suggesting that all black men wear do-rags and gold chains? Then, incredulously, he gives a shout out to Robert E. Lee, offering a “RIP.”
Take a listen.
The one line LL has correct is “can’t re-write history, baby.” No, you can’t. And these two men should have familiarized themselves with the history of this country and of contentious symbols like that “red flag” before releasing this song.