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.

Advertisements

What it means to be a “soul sister” in a southern kitchen

dora-charles-paula-deen
Dora Parker, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.” Photo credit: New York Times.

I encourage readers of Pop South to read today’s New York Times op-ed by Rebecca Sharpless providing historical perspective on Dora Charles, the woman Paula Deen called her “soul sister.”

Ms. Charles, who helped open Deen’s restaurant Lady & Sons as well as train other cooks who worked there, was recently interviewed by the Times about her relationship with Deen.  That interview is, in many ways, even more revealing about who Paula Deen is than the deposition she gave in the lawsuit brought against her by a white woman, Lisa Jackson.

I also encourage you to read Rebecca Sharpless’s book, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (UNC Press, 2010). It’s a great read.

Historic Natchez Conference: Civil War to Civil Rights

Boxwood Garden, Natchez
Boxwood Garden, Natchez

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).

Inside the Eola Hotel
Inside the Eola Hotel

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.

Longwood Plantation, Natchez
Longwood Plantation, Natchez

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.

Double Divas or Our Cups Runneth Over with Southern-based Reality TV

As I’ve said many times, the explosion of southern-based reality television series make it difficult for me to keep up.  One of the more recent is Lifetime‘s Double Divas, starring Molly Hopkins and Cynthia Richards, owners of LiviRae Lingerie in Kennesaw, Georgia. Lifetime may refer to it as a “docu-series,” but that’s just a highfalutin term for reality show.

The premise of Double Divas is that Molly and Cynthia are out to help women, one bra at a time, who’ve been frustrated in their effort to find one that fits.  Their motto “no bust too big or too small” is the premise of their business, although there’s nothing particularly southern about that. Women from all over the country can appreciate a well-fitted bra.

While Lifetime describes the show as one that brings “southern charm and hospitality,” a claim made by many southern-based reality shows, what makes it “southern,” in my opinion, are Molly and Cynthia’s accents.  Having grown up in the South, I truly appreciate a southern accent, of which there are several variations.  Yet sometimes it seems that Cynthia lays it on a bit thick with hers, almost to the point where I have to hit the mute button.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if the production company is behind the exaggeration.

NorthSouth productions, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, (and Knoxville?), produces this show and others in the greater Atlanta area, including Say Yes to the Dress, where a strong southern accent seems to be a requirement. The company also produced You Don’t Know Dixie, a show that promoted southern stereotypes, as I’ve written about previously.

Despite the exaggerated accents, there is something very likeable about Molly who seems genuinely interested in helping women find a bra that boosts their confidence as well as their breasts.  And while Cynthia’s accent can get on my last nerve she, too, seems to really want to help women by creating the right bra for them.

I think women are watching this show (and heading to LiviRae Lingerie in droves) because so many of us are eager to get a bra that fits. That’s no joke. Even I might make the trip to LiviRae for that reason.  Still, you don’t really need a southern accent or characters to sell you on that simple truth, but in the world of reality TV it’s a big part of what sells the show.

DNC Watch: Charlotte Businesses Play the Southern Card

As Charlotte inches closer to playing its role as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC), stories of what makes it a southern city (or not) have been trickling in over the last month.  Many of the local news stories, and even stories appearing in other online news outlets, let us know that business owners in the Queen City are actively playing the southern card.

During the early part of the 20th century the musicians of Tin Pan Alley, many of them Jewish immigrants, wrote reams of sheet music about the South. The cover art lets you know exactly what is meant by “That Southern Hospitality.”

In this case, it usually means using phrases like “southern hospitality” or “southern charm” to describe what’s being sold.  As is often the case, these terms are tossed around without considering their historical antecedents in the plantation South.  Today, however, such terms are co-opted for purposes of profit, which is more in keeping with Charlotte’s identity as a “New South” city.

So, what does the “southern card” look like?

The Sacramento Bee (among many other news outlets) published the article “Fashion Travel Tips for the South” informing both RNC and DNC delegates what they should wear to their respective conventions.  “Whether you’re a first-timer or a convention pro, you may still be new to modern, Southern style,” says Arlene Goldstein, vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction for Belk stores–headquartered here in Charlotte.  Now we know this was a Belk PR piece that was picked up in several news outlets and ties back into the company’s re-branding of itself as the store with “Modern. Southern. Style.” Still, what is “modern, southern style” except brand messaging with a nice ring to it.

The DNC logo that Kelli Koepel describes, in part, as showing off Charlotte’s “southern hospitality.”

Then there’s Charlotte’s SouthPark magazine, which recently published the article “The DNC Means Big Business.”  In it, Kelly Koepel, owner of the branding agency that created the Charlotte DNC logo played the southern card this way: “Woven throughout the image is this message: ‘Charlotte is a beautiful, clean city with a high quality of life where you’ll find both the expected comforts of Southern hospitality and exciting evidence of a forward-thinking, can-do Southern culture.'” There’s the hospitality again, with some “can-do” thrown in.

African American business owners are also playing the southern card in ways that may surprise you.

Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, is hosting a plantation party for DNC delegates from southern states. Photo credit: The Charlotte Observer

Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, was hired to host a party at Rosedale Plantation for delegates from Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. “I’m such a history buff, and I wanted to take the history behind Rosedale Plantation and incorporate it in every detail,” Caldwell exlained. “I wanted to make the guests feel like they were back in time.”  Does this mean there will be slave interpreters waiting on folks?  It is a plantation, after all.

Local television station WCNC recently showcased another African American business owner in the news feature “Southern charm on Display at delegate welcome party,” focusing on a venue in the city they claimed “oozes southern charm.”  The Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights will be hosting a party for the DNC.  Historically, ideas of “southern charm” and “southern hospitality” have been associated with well-to-do white women–quintessential southern belles.  Yet, the Wadsworth estate is owned by a black woman, Shirley Fulton, and even she is playing up the southern card of old.

As she puts it “I think it’s going to be a lot of genteel southern hospitality because we want to show them Charlotte, [in] particular, and North Carolina in general,” adding “People know that they’re stepping back in time and if you look around at the furnishing, there is almost nothing modern here, so you get that feel of southern charm.”  Genteel. Southern hospitality. Southern Charm.  Stepping back in time.  Say what?

I wonder if she considered what “stepping back in time” means for African Americans like herself?  As a business owner Fulton is indebted to the southern civil rights movement such that I doubt she really wants to step back in time, because instead of owning the estate she’d be cleaning it.  Yet, it’s a savvy business move since most of the delegates to the convention are white, some of whom probably expect to experience a version of “southern hospitality.”  (The white reporter added, “no doubt they’ll be saying ‘y’all’ on their [the delegates] way out.”  Um, I doubt it.)

Clearly, Charlotte-area businesses believe that playing the southern card is good for their bottom line.  Still, as a historian, I know that what people believe is “southern” can cut both ways–and not just the way of hospitality and charm.  I’ll be looking at the flip side in a future blog post.