For four decades Ned Beatty has been the unofficial spokesmodel of Appalachian tourism. Even if Beatty, scrambling around in the woods wearing his tighty-whities, isn’t anchored in your somatic memory—even if you have no idea who Ned Beatty is—you know what his character endured in the 1972 film Deliverance. Four words: "squeal like a pig." With that scene, Appalachia, a complex, beautiful, troubled region running from Mississippi to New York and home to 25 million people, became synonymous with a rape joke. The image of backwoods Appalachian viciousness wasn’t born with Deliverance—the Appalachia of the American imagination took form following the Civil War, when urban journalists scribbled about the hardscrabble mountain primitive for such publications as The Atlantic—but the film did present the most lurid, popular modern image of the hillbilly grotesque.
Every so often, Appalachia shows up as the setting for a TV show or a movie, but most of these projects have bought into Deliverance’s trifecta of ignorance, poverty, and violence. If Appalachians manage to escape depiction as sadists, they’re shown as rural buffoons, a la "The Beverly Hillbillies" or "The Dukes of Hazard." We’ve been enduring one of these periodic outbreaks of pop-yokelism over the past few years. The Hunger Games heroine came from a coal-mining region “once known as Appalachia.” In Williamsburg half the residents dress like they live in Letcher County, Kentucky, and drink $13 “moonshine” cocktails. Most pervasively, second-tier cable networks have produced a rash of Appalachian-inspired shows. Last year the History Channel threw its historiographical heft behind a mini-series based on the near-mythic Hatfield/McCoy feud. FX’s popular “Justified” mines eastern Kentucky local color and mountain vengeance. And on Tuesday, the Discovery Channel will premiere the third season of “Moonshiners,” a “reality show” about illegal whiskey distillers and the cops that chase them.
These recent shows, to their credit, don’t reenact the depravities of Deliverance. That film's gothic, flamboyant sadism has given way to a kind of desperate self-reliance that seems, by comparison, realistic. Yet almost without fail, these shows offer and buy into a vulgar buffet of Appalachian caricatures: overalls, shotguns, racism, vigilantism, dental corruption, and exotically hick accents. Popular culture has always traded in the currency of reckless caricature, but when it comes to Appalachia the image has always been less exaggeration than outright fantasy. That it’s taken this long to rise to the level of caricature is progress of a sort.
Mass-market renderings of Appalachia do contain elements of truth. The region is poor. Formal education is sometimes a luxury. You can find women with whiskers or men with corncob pipes, and one’s as likely as the other to be toting a shotgun and a mason jar brimming with moonshine. Appalachians don’t necessarily cotton to outsiders, who can be anyone beyond shouting distance: I’m a Kentuckian, but from Louisville, on the western border, which makes me as native to Appalachia as a Ukrainian. But the fundamental characteristic of our cultural Appalachia, what has historically made it so terrifying and fascinating to the rest of the country, is its staggering isolation—geographical, economic, social—and this is almost entirely imagined. Appalachia is not an island of lost teeth. In truth, many Appalachians live in small to mid-sized towns, shop at Walmart, and drive on interstates. They work at jobs and own cell phones. But the tenacious fiction of a radically isolated Appalachia has long fostered the belief that the region is a 205,000-square-mile pervert sanctuary. Appalachia, when we’ve thought of it at all, has felt like a place simultaneously forgotten by, and hostile to, American progress and modernity. So although these recent TV shows remain cheap and exploitative, they do at least tend to portray a region connected to the rest of the country’s challenges, rather than existing in an aggressive, slack-jawed vacuum.
While not as popular as the now-canceled "Buckwild"—a sort of "Jersey Shore" meets "Jackass" in West Virginia—“Moonshiners” makes this connection between Appalachia and rest of the country most directly. Since the show debuted two years ago, viewers have seen an overall-wearing, vowel-drawling hick bound across the Virginia countryside looking for a spot to brew moonshine, police in hot pursuit. But Tim Smith, the show’s star and primary moonshiner, is a different breed of hillbilly than we’re used to. He fits comfortably in the mold of a do-it-yourself entrepreneur. Smith, like most of us, suffers from the national economic malaise, yet he relies on a regional solution. He makes booze. He makes money. He tries to avoid the taxman and the law while expanding his sales. What’s more American than that? Smith looks positively Emersonian compared to the ghouls of Deliverance.
From banjo-savant nightmare to quirky small business owner in 40 years? That’s a tremendous improvement for the pop-cultural hillbilly. It’s tempting to attribute this change to Appalachia's increased connectivity—especially in the digital age—with American culture at large, providing a more nuanced view of the region. But such familiarity doesn't necessarily breed tolerance, at least not any more than it does derision. And besides, we still think about Appalachia through the same old clichés. We haven't been educated to the realities of the region so much as softened toward the stereotypes. So what, at the root, is different?
What’s changed instead is our relationship to isolation. The very thing that made Appalachia a horror story, or at least a land of dumbasses, has evolved into something that we find laudatory, charming, and most importantly, endangered. It’s in Appalachia that the invasions of the contemporary world—cell phones, ubiquitous surveillance, insidious immersion marketing, strip mall monoculture—has been, in our minds, kept in check. Everything—everything—is so abundantly available in America, but often lacking in character. In the distorted Appalachia of the cultural imaginary nothing is abundant, so what’s there feels uncompromised. And the isolated economic systems of Appalachia seem largely immune to the interconnected, seemingly omnipotent financial systems that have been malfunctioning for five years.
There has long been a confusion between simplicity and authenticity—the latter being a fraught, elastic concept. For the Williamsburgish consumption enclaves that dot the country, authenticity has become the signature paranoia of the age, hence the fascination with artisanal, small-batch anything. And "out there," in the countryside, the simple life has long been seen as the authentic America. What seems to be overlooked, at least in the popular precincts of American culture, is how much economics dictates the look of authenticity. Within (or despite) the enduring poverty and perceived backwardness, Appalachia seems to boast some pure, historically isolated bastion of this simple, authentic America. The historical and continuous mis-imagination of Appalachia has allowed the region to retain an aura. It now has on its side that fact that it’s viewed as a place that has never changed, and this lack of change seems like strength.
Of course, the region does change, and so does our cultural imagination of it. Take "Moonshiners." The first two seasons followed the inter-county bickering over, and obstacles to, distilling and distributing moonshine. The plot was itself a distillation: of American capitalism. Building a still and making liquor for your neighbors is pure supply-and-demand. This crude model is exactly the opposite of how most Americans apprehend the economic structures of our lives, and the first two seasons of “Moonshiners” thrived on this fact, on the alluring purity of basic economic exchange in a time of insecurity.
But the third season starts with Tim Smith journeying to Kentucky to go into business with a legal bourbon distillery in Kentucky. Smith is leaving behind his heritage—both his father and grandfather made moonshine—and moving into uncharted terrain, the “adventure” of the above-board. “Moonshiners” is still concerned with work and profit, but the terms of success have changed, and standard, regulated notions of economic success have moved into the foreground. The show continues to feature other whisky makers, and the vigilante violence that the show has always played up (gotta protect your still!) remains, but the central figure, Smith, now acts to integrate himself into the wider world—to become legit.
"Moonshiners" no doubt intends for this to storyline to be fundamentally hopeful. Smith is no longer just making do during hard times; now he's chasing the American dream. But that he has to leave home to achieve success perpetuates the stereotype of Appalachia poor, isolated backwater as well as the myth that Americans of modest means have such control over our economic future in this slightly improved, but still hobbled economy. The former may be insulting to Appalachians, but the latter ought to be equally insulting to all of us.
Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, City University of New York. He writes about books and culture for a number of publications, and he’s on Twitter as @Whalelines.