II. Resurrecting the Outlaw Hero


While The Dukes of Hazzard may not be a realistic device with which to study Southern culture, the success of The Dukes as a television commodity deserves attention. Critics never hesitated to assault the show, but at the same time, people across the nation never hesitated to tune it in every Friday night at 8 p.m. Questions as to why the Dukes sold so well, and who bought it, have interesting answers and implications. For Southerners, the show served as a remedy for the bruising that their egos took during the civil rights movement. The Dukes appealed to outsiders because its release was so well timed, offering them just the right image of the South at just the right time. After two decades of disenfranchising the South from the rest of their nation, Americans acceptance of The Dukes helped to mark the end of an era of division.

The cover of The Dukes's story album
The Dukes' popularity shows in the standard Nielsen ratings and also in other, less typical areas. It ranks as the 62nd most popular television series of all-time, and Waylon Jennings' theme song, "Good Ole Boys," is one of only five to sell a million singles. [23] The show finished in the Nielsen top 20 for four consecutive seasons, finishing at No. 2 in 1981. [24] The Top 20 streak would probably have continued if Duke boy actors Tom Wopat and John Schneider had not decided to sit out the 1983 fall season because of a contract dispute. Wopat and Schneider filed a lawsuit for $25 million against Warner Brothers, alleging that the company shortchanged them on royalties from the $190 million worth of Dukes toys, games, and clothes--sales "considered to be among the most lucrative in TV history." [25] When Wopat and Schneider left and CBS tried to cast replacement cousins Coy and Vance, The Dukes plummeted from the top 20 and never made it back, making the show a victim of its own success.

Ben Jones, as Cooter, peers at Roscoe
The Dukes were so popular, that even majority leaders of the United States Congress have had to contend with it. Ben Jones, who played the friendly mechanic Cooter on the show, ran against Georgia incumbent Pat Swindall for the House of Representatives and lost after Swindall attacked Jones' Duke-style brushes with the law and troubles with alcohol. But Jones took on Swindall again in 1988, and won the seat, serving in the house for four years. He lost in the 1992 election, when he faced off against Newt Gingrich after the two incumbents' seats were combined during reapportionment. [26]

Even in 1996, with the return of The Dukes on The Nashville Network, the series still remains popular. After nearly ten years off of the air, the series came back in February, and scored a 1.5 in the Nielsen s airing at 7 p.m. TNN is currently drawing more 18-34 year old viewers at that time slot than MTV. [27] The Evidence of The Dukes success lies evident in more realms of American culture than perhaps any television show that preceded or followed it.

McGee puts stock in television as a tool that "can be used to pry out more information about society" because "television imagery reveals information about American social issues-ethnic stereotypes, sex roles, violence and others." [28] By answering the question as to why The Dukes succeeded, and who they succeeded with, interesting "information about American social issues" presents. The caricature of the South created in Hazzard County possessed something for everybody, a break from reality that Americans from across the country enjoyed taking.

It is unsafe to assume that The Dukes' fan base came from outside of the South, and that Northerners and Westerners relaxed on Friday night to chuckle and say, "'We are smarter than they are. Look at those dumb, silly, banjo-playing hicks." [29] Some Southern critics of the show would like that to be the case, labelling shows like The Dukes "the most intensive effort ever exerted by a nation to belittle, demean, and otherwise destroy a minority people within its boundaries," [30] If either of these assertions were true, then Southerners would have chosen not to tune in every Friday at night with the rest of America to watch themselves take a beating. The ratings of May, 1980, provide a perfect example that this is not the case. That month, the Dukes scored an overall Nielsen of 19.9, but scored twice as high (26.7) in the South as they did in the North (13.4). [31]

Orrin Klapp, in Heroes, Villains, and Fools, writes of the deterioration of the hero, or the role that imperfect heroes have as audience conciliators:

In some [heroes] in which on the surface, everything is 'all right,' there may be trouble beneath.... a hero can have compensatory functions, to console people, as it were, for a recognized lack of what the hero represents. [32]

The Dukes on the prowl
Bo and Luke, clearly the heroes in the show, were not college educated or consistently employed for that matter. The Duke boys lacked the polish, intelligence, and uncompromising moral character of a standard hero. They were simply "good ole boys" who "wouldn't change if they could," as Jennings' theme song preaches. Happy with their circumstances and purportedly unable to alter them, The Dukes implied to the average Southerner that they could believe the same thing, making the Cash s hell of a fellow ideal seem much easier to attain.

In the North and the West, what kept The Dukes from the fate of its predecessors was perfect timing. The outlaw-hero had long been a common icon in the South. George Ward, in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, traces the roots of outlaw-heroes in the South

from the Regulators of South Carolina, the first organized vigilantes in America, to Luke and Bo Duke of The Dukes of Hazzard, honorable outlaws have been celebrated in southern folklore, popular culture, and high arts. [33]

Cash talks of the "social schizophrenia" of the Southern character, between hedonism and puritanism, violence and chivalry, wanderlust and tradition. [34] Ward believes that "nowhere has this split psyche been more apparent than in the southern outlaw-hero and nowhere else have these contradictions been so reconciled." [35] For the entire decade of the sixties, the only representatives of this outlaw dichotomy had been national enemies like Bull Connors, George Wallace, and the Klu Klux Klan. The outlaw hero took a shellacking in the sixties, and events in the seventies helped give the Duke boys a chance to bring put the hero back onto the end of outlaw.

The Duke family pose with Cooter
Kirby chronicles the evolution of events in the seventies as a sign that the media was changing their portrayal of the South from "hostile to a very friendly Dixie." [36] Events of the previous twelve years set the stage for The Duke's success. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a native Georgian country boy, ascended all the way to the White House. Developments in several other different areas of American culture helped to illustrate the "fast fading" of "the Devilish South genre:" [37] First, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other marchers were rocked and spat upon by Northerners on television. "Suddenly, the devilish white South, for years evoked on TV by plump mothers, verbally abusing frightened little black children at schoolyards, dissolved in the vision of plump Yankees behaving the same way," says Kirby. [38] In 1971, James Meredith returned to Mississippi to practice law, deciding that life was better for blacks there than in New York. A black, "Country Charlie" Pride, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. In 1974, just three years later, President Nixon spoke to the Grand Ole Opry, praising country music because it "talks about family. It talks about religion. And it... makes America a better country." [39] In 1971, The Waltons appeared on television, winning critical and viewer acclaim while preaching that one could lead be "poor, yet blessed with a good life." [40] Images of the folksy South served to flush much of the residue of the sixties debacle out of the American mind, and clear the stage for the media to reintroduce the "far more popular... new direction, law-and-order South," of Walking Tall and The Dukes of Hazzard

With the benefit of all of Kirby s insight, and plenty of paradigms to follow, the producers of The Dukes of Hazzard constructed a program perfectly designed to resell the South to the American people. The Southern amalgamation that was The Dukes managed to keep Southerners tuning in for their conciliatory heroes, but also managed to resurrect the Southern outlaw-hero for the rest of the country. Just as the wave of resentment that Americans had built up over the past twenty years finally broke, the perfectly timed Dukes rode the unleashed momentum all the way to the top of the Nielsen ratings.


Go back to The Dukes of Hazzard of Go back to Television's Simple South or Go to Appendices