The face of Appalachia: the history of mountain stereotypes
The face of Appalachia has long been a white, disheveled, toothless one.
At least, it has been in the minds of the public-at-large. Gun-brandishing, shirtless, overall-clad, white men stand in front of their hidden cabins, ready to eviscerate the first animal, or yankee, they see, while their sons chase oxycodone pills with moonshine and make eyes at their cousins.
Generalizations, assumptions and negative stereotypes about Appalachia and the people who live there have long been a bane on the people of the region. So long, actually, that rural stereotypes actually pre-date European Appalachian settlement.
“It really goes back long before the modern day understanding of Appalachia and the modern settlement of Appalachia,” said Ron Roach, the chair of the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. “The urban areas looking down upon the wilderness areas, which often are mountainous areas.”
Roach referenced the Aesop Fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” in which the town mouse judges the small, plain accommodations of the country mouse.
“This image of the hillbilly, the mountain rube, now, to some degree, these images were applied to people in all rural places, especially in the south, but it really seemed to be concentrated in the mountain areas of Appalachia and the Ozarks,” said Roach.
According to Roach, the infamous term “hillbilly” would rear its head in American folk music and literature sometime around the 1890s. No one is sure where the term originated from, but it is believed to be a combination of the words hill, due to the mountainous region in which the people lived, and billy, a Scottish word for friend.
The term hillbilly did not start out bad. In fact, Appalachians capitalized off the word.
“They have a whole class of music they call hillbilly records,” said Roach. “That label is put on early country music, the string band music. In the 1920s you even had a fairly well-known string band from this area which included Charlie Bowman from Gray, Tennessee, called the Hill Billies.”
The Appalachian bumpkin stereotype, served up to modern audiences by popular shows like the Beverly Hillbillies and the Andy Griffith show, embody the original meaning of hillbilly. After all, nobody was a better hill friend to the good people of California than Jed Clampett.
From music to tourism, the people of Appalachia didn’t seem to mind being hillbillies. At least, not until the connotation turned ugly.
“It went on, that image - that stereotype - of the hillbillies became the most probably pervasive image applied to Appalachia,” said Roach.
During the 1960s, photojournalists and videographers swarmed the mountains of Appalachia looking to capitalize on the poverty of the region. Documentaries and photo essays framed Appalachia as an isolated, frozen-in-time culture of poverty.
“They were really playing on a couple of images,” said Roach. “One was this theory of a culture of poverty that has largely been discredited now, and it was not only applied to Appalachians, but it was applied, for example, to Puerto Rican communities, minority communities, and it was sort of this idea that people are poor because of their culture and the way they lived.”
The framing of Appalachian poverty coincided with Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, and the rest of the country, who were buying the photo books and watching the shows, took it all in. In the eyes of the public-at-large, not only were Appalachians ignorant, but they were poor, and it was all their own fault.
And in 1972, the connotation behind the word hillbilly got even uglier with the movie “Deliverance.”
The movie, which is set in northern Georgia, is based off a novel by James Dickey by the same name; however, the movie cuts out much of the deeper meanings of the novel, instead choosing to focus the narrative on the infamous rape scene.
“James Dickey’s son was watching the filming and he called his father and he said ‘They’re totally focusing on this (rape scene),” said Roach. “‘That’s going to be what people talk about with this movie. That’s what’s going to be the story with this movie,’ and he was horrified by it, because there were other important messages in the book he felt were being missed.”
The rape scene is the most well-remembered part of the movie. That, and the light it painted the people of northern Georgia and greater Appalachia in.
“Deliverance has spawned an entire generation and an entire industry of sort of the scary Appalachian image,” said Roach.
From “Wrong Turn,” to the Hillbilly character in “Dead by Daylight,” “Deliverance” tacked on a far more sinister group of character traits to the list of what defined a hillbilly.
Not only were hillbillies ignorant and crippled by poverty by their own volition, but they were now violent, depraved and hyper-sexual. Such was the prevailing narrative until 2016.
Que J.D. Vance’s memoir turned Netflix hit, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Vance writes about “a culture in crisis” and his upbringing in which his mother struggled with drug use, and his grandparents were verbally abusive. Rather than calling it a “family in crisis,” Vance paints the whole Appalachian region with his own personal genetic brush.
“A lot of them assume that this is an accurate, true depiction of all of Appalachia and obviously it’s not,” said Roach. “It’s just one person’s perspective on their particular family.”
So, now, hillbillies are ignorant, poor, depraved and addicted to OxyContin, and Appalachians have had enough.
But how do real live Appalachians set the record straight about what life is really like in the region? Roach said it starts with education.
“Education is a big part of it,” said Roach. “We need to talk about Appalachia. There are things to emphasize about Appalachia. Number one, that it is, and always has been, diverse.”
Talking about the real history of the region, alongside the real people of the region, is the only way to combat the negative stereotypes that have plagued Appalachians since before they were even Appalachians.
“There is definitely a different narrative that that we need to be stressing,” said Roach. “Yes, Appalachia has had higher poverty rates than the rest of the country. It still does, although we’ve made a lot of progress. But it’s also an incredibly interesting place with incredibly interesting people with a rich cultural history and culture that is a lot more diverse than people think, and it has a lot to offer the rest of the world.”
And when the rest of the world begins to look Appalachia in its face, they’ll find it still has all of its teeth.