Here’s a little personal tidbit: I come from a small town in Central New York. It’s a fairly liberal and prosperous enclave in the midst of a mostly rural area, much of which has been depressed and impoverished for years. My parents are artists and academics, but I went to public school with everyone from farm kids to the children of doctors and lawyers. If you were to come to my hometown, you would see a certain slice of quintessential Americana: the village green with a white gazebo, the little shops on the main street, the local taverns and pizza places, the volunteer fire department. We’re the sort of town with one stoplight.
What you would not find are homey locals who sound like they come from Kentucky and dress like they stepped out of The Beverly Hillbillies, or Duck’s Dynasty. We do not mosey up to bars and ask you if you’re city folk. Many of us have lived in New York City. Many of us own a TV.
I don’t know what’s the matter with Hollywood when it comes to rural America. By rural America, I’m pretty much talking about everything out of cities or suburbia, which Hollywood has decided is made up primarily of cows, rolling fields and pickup trucks from the 1980s. Rural Americans seem to fall into two categories in Hollywoodland: the racist/sexist/homophobic hick, or the charming/adorable/heartland/connected to the land hick. Both are equally offensive.
I’m sorry to say that this has nothing to do with politics. Many of the films that bother me in their representations of rural America are the sort of social empowerment and reform films that I happen to agree with on a political level. Films like Promised Land, a story about hydrofracking and its effect on small-town America, and Winter’s Bone, about poverty and family in the Ozarks. Films like Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, which deals with the changing cultish mentality of some splinter Christian groups in upstate New York. As someone who has had her fair share of experiences with Christian youth groups and evangelical mentalities – and can see an evangelist coming from a mile away – I was looking forward to that film. But then I discovered that apparently everyone from rural upstate New York sound like they come from Texas.
At their best, these films raise the the issues of rural poverty, the slow destruction of the farm, the mistreatment of the impoverished. But the inhabitants of the Ozarks and the inhabitants of the Catskills come off the same – folksy, a little dumb, a little gullible, enmeshed in regional and ancestral conflict that feels more like the 1880s than the 2010s. The filmmakers seem to view rural America as an elaborate sociological study, as though they’re trying to ‘tell the truth’ about ‘these people,’ as though rural America is a civilization just discovered by enlightened city folk. Even when Hollywood tries to be understanding and liberal and depict the trials and tribulations of life in rural America, the films very often come off as either overly simplistic or patronizing.
It’s where the city people go to ‘get back to nature,’ to re-discover the meaning of their lives, where the cynical become better people by defending those who, apparently, cannot defend themselves. The lead gets good advice from a wise old man in flannel, looking out over the land his granddaddy left him. Then there’s the pretty school teacher, who knows all her kids and cares deeply about them, who moved out here to escape from the big city, becomes the source of comfort and domesticity and the prizing of the American home. Or, alternatively, the rural world is a netherworld of vice, incest, domestic violence, bigotry masquerading as Christian values, and racism. Contemporary Hollywood has reinvented rural America into the frontier – in the absence of frontier civilization that needs defending from the encroachment of big cattle, small-town America needs defending from the encroachment of the city. Enter the righteous gunslinger, or well-meaning city boy, there to save the day and redeem his soul.
This is not to say that there isn’t something in the beauty of small town life, or that there aren’t problems with racism, bigotry and poverty in rural America. But the view that Hollywood films take are so simplistic and, more offensively, so patronizing, that any real pretensions to social change or the depiction of real conflict becomes subsumed. Americans from Kentucky do not sound, look or act like Americans from upstate New York. Everyone with a tractor does not wear a baseball cap and use phrases like ‘My Daddy left this farm to me.’ Despite the strongly held beliefs of the filmmakers of Winter’s Bone, there are grocery stores in the Ozarks, and they are not all filled with squirrel meat.
This is prejudice. This is a view of an entire country as interchangeable, something to be investigated and documented the way we make documentaries about chimpanzees. No wonder so many rural Americans distrust people from cities. And the depictions do affect that way we perceive others in real life. The city in film might be a center of rampant consumerism and soul-sucking jobs, but it remains more important than the interchangeable heartland. All the folks empowered to do something come from the city. New York and LA are constantly being depicted as the only cities in America, and certainly the only important one. I come from the city, where the culture is. You come from the country, where the nostalgia is. We don’t take kindly to your sort ’round here.