Getting the south.

Foot Fist Way

AP

I have been thinking a lot recently about portrayals of southern characters in popular culture. The thoughts were sparked after I listened to Louis CK’s commentary on the “Travel Day/South” episode from the first season of Louie. During the commentary, Louis CK defends himself against criticism from southern viewers who took offense at the cartoonish characters portrayed in the episode, which features a visit to Alabama. His defense is essentially that he portrays characters from New York as jerks and he’s never heard complaints from New Yorkers about their portrayal on the show. It’s an interesting point, but one that’s ultimately short-sighted.

The central premise of Louis CK’s argument ignores the fact that southern characters are almost always treated as buffoons, racists, kind-hearted simpletons or something else less than a complete human being in popular culture. This has been the case for decades. While New York certainly has its share of film or TV caricatures, there are 100 New York characters who are simply portrayed as identifiable, regular human beings for every portrayal of New Yorkers as rude, self-centered and violent. This isn’t the case with southern characters. The distinction is an important one.

The major problem I have with most southern characters in pop culture is not simply that the portrayals are condescending, contemptuous or worse, it’s that it gets shit wrong. While there are countless embarrassing examples of southerners on TV and film, it does feel like there are more recent examples of TV shows getting shit right. Few television shows or movies get the south better than Danny McBride and Jody Hill have with Eastbound and Down and Foot Fist Way. McBride typically plays a dunderheaded loudmouth from the south, but the portrayals are dead on. The mood is right, the supporting characters are right and the surroundings are right. Even the dumbest characters are given a humanity beyond their accents or status as “the other.”  McBride’s characters are terrible people of mythical proportions, but they’re not simple cartoons. They are awful people who really exist in the messy, confusing world of the south.

Justified is a good example of a show that’s hit-or-miss on southern characters. Walton Goggins, the greatest southern actor today, nails the southern pathology, accent, psyche and wit. Goggins is a delight and brings a level of grit, naturalism and authenticity that regularly brings to mind Warren Oates. A more recent influx of characters in season four have been a bit more suspect, including an atrocious attempt by Patton Oswalt to shoehorn his brand of clever nerdy references into an impotent law enforcement hanger-on with a godawful southern accent.  Oswalt’s accent borders Walking Dead for its inconsistency and laughable attempt at hitting certain words (“PO-lice” for Oswalt) extra hard as a substitute for finding a natural, consistent accent for a character. Joseph Mazzello has some charisma, but doesn’t appear to have spent much time in the south before portraying a snake-handling tent preacher. It’s an unfortunate turn for a show that gets characters right more often than not.  The show’s sense of place has always felt a bit phony as Pittsburgh and California are silly stand-ins for rural Kentucky. It never reaches the laughable location depths of a show like Memphis Beat, but it frequently misses the mark.

I certainly don’t claim to be the ultimate arbiter of all southern portrayals; there are much more important battles to fight. But it’s something I have trouble watching when it’s done wrong. On the bright side, there aren’t any real cartoonish portrayals on the level with Beverly Hillbillies or Dukes of Hazard that come to mind in 2013. In film, Winter’s Bone featured an excellent performance from Jennifer Lawrence, who felt right from the beginning of the movie until the end. However, I do think it’s important to demand some level of accountability from performers, writers and directors when portraying a group of people, particularly when they clearly aren’t familiar with the subtleties of that group of people and fall back on easy caricature. It’s why Louis CK’s comments are so difficult to stomach. While you could argue that the portrayal of Alabama on Louie was purposely over-the-top as a way to show us the world through the eyes of an outsider like Louis, there’s still something patently false about it. In the end, I don’t think the south should receive any hand-holding from creative people. I just think it’s about time more people got it right.

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2 Responses to Getting the south.

  1. Brandi R. says:

    Jennifer Lawrence is from Kentucky. I wonder if that influenced their choice when choosing her for Winter’s Bone.

  2. Adam says:

    Louis is a comedy show, he’s making jokes, analyzing the characters like its some intense drama makes you seem like a buffoon

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