Modern day experience with white trash stereotypes is, as with most modern cultural
phenomenon, disseminated through movies and television.
The images society has created fall into two conflicting categories. Most often the working
class white is a whisky-drinking, abusive, violently racist, uneducated,
macho, close-minded, dirty, fat, insensitive, monster-truck show watching, hunter who is better
laughed at than associated with.
Yet at rare instances, one encounters
the poor white as honest, hard-working, honorable, simple, loyal, God-fearing and patriotic.
And here exists the dichotomy of white trash versus good country folk.
American society has used the working class white to alternately allay they fear of faltering
morality or to bolster their confidence in the correctness of the modern lifestyle. Examples of this
tendency occur in the typecasting of working class whites in television series as well as film.
Stemming from the disillusionment of
Vietnam, Watergate and other corruptions of the time, we can trace a movement of "good
country folk" in the television shows of the seventies. Programs like "The Andy Griffith Show"
and "The Waltons" provided a simple, honest way of life that appealed to viewers as an escape
from the cynicism and the loss of moral absolutes that was becoming prevalent in society. Once
again, America turned to the South as the appropriate setting for such nostalgia.
At around the same time, we also have popular Southern sitcoms like "The Dukes of Hazzard"
and "The Beverly Hillbillies", playing on the more typical stereotype of uneducated, criminal
(Duke brothers constant battles with the corrupt Boss Hogg) characters with sub-standard eating
habits and speech patterns. We also find sexy yet innocent women protected by their families
Daisy and Ellie May. "The Beverly Hillbillies" proves that even when poor whites stumble upon
money, they retain their low class ways, and are useful only for the purposes of humor. "The
Dukes of Hazzard" gives a solid continuation of redneck stereotypes, tempered
with the idea that the Dukes are "never meanin' no harm" as the theme song implies.
The use of violence in film and writing is often a hallmark of social passion. During the 1930's
there was a movement to expose the brutality of the lives of working class whites. Yet often the
attempts to give aid were actually forms of condescension and control. That is commonly the
effect of the literature and case studies of the time. John Ford's film adaptation of The
Grapes of Wrath is the strongest example of dignified poor white media portrayal. Henry
Fonda and Jane Darwell, echoing the themes of Southern agrarianism, are rural saints attacked by
the forces of modern, capitalistic society.
In recent years, the popularity of poor white imagery has come in two forms. One is the
simple, idiotic portrayal in the humorous sketches of Jeff Foxworthy (a middle to upper class
actor -- not
a redneck) and the brass unorthodoxy of Roseanne, or the dark and perverse killer in movies like
Deliverance or Sling Blade. Though
the complex and human character in Sling Blade is much easier to accept than the
sodomizing mountain man in "Deliverance", both characters portray a warped sense of morality
that is equated to their Southern, poor white upbringing. The father of the killer in "Sling Blade"
surrounded by religious iconography and he and his wife blatantly use religion to justify their
horrific treatment of the child and the murder of an unwanted baby that is born to them. The
depth of ignorance necessary to explain the character's behavior is only fitting in the environment
of the poor white. Filled with domestic violence and dark secrets, the
Southern small town setting ensures that such events would not take
place in any other context.
Deliverance may be the most well know and damaging film centered around poor
whites, in this case "hillbillies". Deliverance embodies all the fear of urban modern
America concerning what is most primitive and dangerous in the character of man. The conflict is
between modern mainstream capitalist America and the lurking potential of evil in mankind...an
evil which has been left behind to remain only in those mountaineers most remote and ignorant
of civilization. In the film, urban macho man takes on the raw brutality of nature and its
inhabitants with no respect and pays the price. The punishment is one of male on male rape by the
embodiment of poor white trash, confirming mainstream America's fear of the poverty stricken
The view from inside the working class is much more complex. The working class white is
operating off his own cultural, family and individual biases; yet coupled with these are the
pervasive, historically assumed ideas that violence, racism and fundamentalism are somehow
inherent in his class. Even if one becomes aware of the layers of identification applied to
and most people do not, a battle against your own heritage is difficult at best, and usually
impossible. The class to which we are born, in which our family circulates and our formative
years are spent, is the guiding principle with which we view other groups and their cultural
within our life experience.
Films that show poor whites as violent people who attack wealthy citified whites allow the rich
to justify their treatment of "white trash" by portraying the poor whites as racist, criminal and
uneducated. This allows other typically marginalized groups to join upper class whites against
the "white trash". This justifies upper class stereotyping of poor whites and serves to aid in
relieving upper class white guilt over
treatment of "others" in the past.
The hatred and condescension of the poor seems to be the last available method of prejudice in
our society. Just as Americans have made an effort to educate, understand and alter the treatment
of marginalized groups and alternate cultures within our society, we have held on to poor whites
as a group to demean. Making assumptions about groups of any sort on societal and biased
definitions is flawed in any situation. As with other groups, there must be an effort taken to use
an open mind and individual code to ascribe merit to those in our world.