Clapping Back: West Virginians and the Power of Social Media

Geo-map-USA-West-VirginiaLast night, as hilarious memes of Chris Christie at Donald Trump’s press conference circulated on social media, the Daily Show tweeted the following:

It’s one of a genre of “jokes” about the state that comedians have relied on for decades for a cheap laugh. Before social media, about all West Virginians could do was shake their heads and express their frustrations among family and friends.

Not any more.  Social media has changed the rules of the game.  People from the state may not have the national audience that Trevor Noah has, but they can certainly clap back when it’s called for.  And boy, did they clap back.

And then my own:

I may not agree with all of my West Virginia kin on a variety of topics, but I’m pretty sure we are all in agreement that it’s time to put this worn out excuse for “funny” to bed.

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Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

sugarbaker
Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.

The Daily Show and Tired Southern Tropes

Al Madrigal
Al Madrigal

I love The Daily Show, I really do.  But when it comes to segments about the South, they often do a piss poor job of it. The latest example came from correspondent Al Madrigal who did a story on the dispute between Georgia and Tennessee regarding state borders and the water supply. (Watch the segment here.)

Georgia essentially wants and needs access to the water provided by the Tennessee River, and in typical Daily Show fashion, the actual story was less important than Madrigal’s effort to highlight the stupidity of local officials.  This is nothing new, because the show’s correspondents are often satirizing politicians.  Where it fails is in its pitiful attempt to poke fun at the South, which can be done, but with more intelligence.

Instead, it’s so lame, it’s as if the writers dialed this one in. Want to discuss the South? Incorporate banjo music and, these days, mention Honey Boo Boo.  Want to suggest that rural southerners are inbred? Incorporate a clip from Deliverance. Need to establish that people are ignorant? Mock their accents to their face or include “man on the street” interviews with people who fit the stereotype.  It was on this last point where The Daily Show showed its hand, because it was clear to anyone with a keen eye that a couple of those interviews were plants, what I’ll call “hicks for hire”.

Unknown Hinson
Unknown Hinson

First, there were the two men in camouflage: one held a shotgun, while his friend offered a bug-eyed look. These two were obviously playing to the camera. Second, there was the guy who had mutton chop sideburns, slicked back hair, and sunglasses circa-1970s Elvis. The tip off that this guy was playing to the camera was his Unknown Hinson t-shirt.  While the studio audience in New York was laughing at this guy, I knew that he was saying things Al Madrigal needed to pull the piece off. And he was probably having his own laugh at Madrigal’s expense.  Like Unknown Hinson, he was portraying a character.  Everything he said played to stereotype on purpose.

So, suffice it to say, I’m disappointed with The Daily Show’s latest attempt at satirizing the South.  As usual, the writers relied on worn out tropes about the South and not only was it not amusing, it wasn’t even funny.

About “Ask A Slave”

This is a thoughtful response to the video sensation “Ask a Slave.”

Interpretive Challenges

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information…

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