When Netflix delivered Ron Howard’s film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis to the small screen after the 2020 election, it returned the autobiographical work and the ways in which it had been used during the 2016 election to heavy public scrutiny. Though Vance has been critical of the Trump administration, the book was released amid a contentious national election, and became almost omnipresent across a diverse array of media and news outlets. In general, both book and author as “authentic” voices of the rural, working-class, conservative, white Americans whose votes put President Donald Trump into office. Ironically, the veracity of the hillbilly archetype that Vance both perpetuates and criticizes was purposefully developed and maintained across American popular culture since the 1870s. That history is made tangible in Sally Rubin and Ashley York’s 2018 documentary hillbilly, the relevance of which has only grown in the years since its release. The documentary poses questions about the relationship between representation, perception and systemic oppression that have become central to understanding American cultural and political life and personal experiences within it. As Sally Rubin, co-Director of (Sally Rubin and Ashley York, 2018) wrote to us in December:
Pop culture helps to bridge divides of all kinds (regional, socio-economic, and political divides are just a few) by helping people from different backgrounds to understand viscerally the experiences of others. Pop culture, including documentary, has the potential to bridge divides deeply and quickly, through providing examples of real people living in ways that may be unfamiliar and based on mere caricatures and stereotypes.
-Sally Rubin, co-Director, hillbilly
Despite Hillbilly Elegy’s relative ubiquity in 2016 as the voice of “real” America, a plurality of voices, from academics and filmmakers to cultural critics, economists and historians, among many others, took issue with the way Vance’s book, in particular its emphasis on personal responsibility as the root cause of conditions that are the direct result of long-term, systemic impoverishment and economic neglect, and its implicitly conservative narrative of class mobility, which is almost by definition an experience of privilege. In fact, if there was one thing that mainstream media outlets frequently neglected to mention early on in Hillbilly Elegy’s life in public discourse and popular culture, in early election, pre-Charlottesville days, it was Vance’s whiteness, which is significant given whiteness’s centrality to the book’s media currency.
By the time of the film’s release in Fall of 2020, straightforward discussions about stereotypical, reductive representations of race, class, gender and sexuality had become far more mainstream following a summer of almost non-stop nationwide protests against structural racism and violent white supremacy in America, which coincided with increasingly obvious income inequality thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic. Though it’s production and initial release preceded this zeitgeist, Rubin and York’s hillbilly meets the moment, takes a deep dive into the history and functions of the hillbilly archetype in American media and political discourse, and is an excellent primer on the emergence of the hillbilly as an American icon with political valences that continue to impact those living in Appalachia, from the rural South to the Rust Belt. The film is also part of a growing, and increasingly visible, counter-narrative of Appalachia’s historic diversity, which has been so well whitewashed that the region’s denizens have become synonymous in pop culture with the specifically white, rural figure of the hillbilly.
To some extent, the documentary’s relevance and (hopefully) evolving critical attitudes towards stereotyping and the importance of unpacking problematic representation is evident in Variety’s decision to give hillbilly co-director Ashley York a guest column, “How ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Proves the Need for More Diverse Stories About Appalachia” to respond to Hillbilly Elegy’s release. Rather than raking Howard’s adaptation over the coals, York takes the opportunity to reflect on her own work, and what she perceives as its shortcomings from her current perspective. She writes:
Our movie is far from perfect. It is a glimpse into a broad range of intersectional issues, ideas, coalitions, movements, and conversations, that are all equally deserving of attention in the media space. I will forever regret its inability to interrogate racism on a deeper level and to examine the consequences of capitalism on communities like the one where I grew up in eastern Kentucky. I recognize how whiteness informed our perspective and how we could have been more inclusive in our effort to involve Black and indigenous collaborators.
-Ashley York, hillbilly co-director, Variety*
While York expresses regrets about elements of the documentary that could have more deeply examined how race informed filmmaking and the cultural and political work done by the figure of the hillbilly, the film nonetheless spends a significant portion of its time showing people obscured by the whiteness and implicit heteronormativity of the hillbilly stereotype. Aside from being reductive, and frequently offensive, this figure also works to exclude black, brown and indigenous people from being represented at all, much less those who aren’t easily discerned visually like LGBTQIA+ folks or feminists. All are erased by a public and political discourse that not only prioritizes white voices, but is also so fixated on the “authenticity” of a stereotypical figuration of whiteness that it erases everyone else from public discourse at a pivotal time in regional and national history.
One of the ways hillbilly clearly interrupts the ubiquitous, homogenizing view of Appalachians is in its depiction of Appalachian Black folks, from intersectional feminist powerhouse and poet bel hooks to poet and spoken word artist Crystal Good, who has penned an excellent response to Hillbilly Elegy, “Behind the Scenes in Black Appalachia, to author Silas House and “the always brilliant” Frank X Walker, who coined the term “Affrilachia” to describe the pervasiveness and importance of Black people and culture in the region.
While York and Rubin depict a diverse, artistic version of Appalachia, the filmmakers do not present an overly florid picture of the region, nor do they shrink from representing the economic devastation the region has weathered. Instead, they prioritize explaining social and economic conditions, their history, and their relationship to representations of Appalachia in general, and of the hillbilly stereotype in particular. One of the more effective historical points recounted in hillbilly explains how the figure of the hillbilly proliferated during the Depression, becoming iconic in the photos of Dorothea Lange, which were then put to political use, creating public pathos for the New Deal. The film shows how iconography from that period has seen surprisingly little change over the years, remaining a constant in America’s cultural imaginary, from Deliverance to the 2016 conservative fantasy of an all-white, rural working class. Explains co-Director Rubin,
In the case of Appalachia, over a century of regional stereotypes (many of which are explored in our film, hillbilly) has worn deep grooves into the psyche of many Americans; the pre-formulated stereotypes are so ingrained they’re almost imperceptible. That’s where those stereotypes get so dangerous, when we don’t even know they’re there. Unraveling these stereotypes and rebuilding in their place more nuanced and multi-dimensional perceptions of the region takes time and conscious, pointed messaging. This is certainly what we aimed to do with hillbilly; to put a multi-faceted and diverse set of faces on a formerly homogeneous and simplified stereotype of the region, while simultaneously unraveling and teasing out how that stereotype had been so solidly constructed.
-Sally Rubin, co-Director, hillbilly
It’s not just that the mobilization of this imagery is exploitative. It is. But, the insistence on its authenticity is also a way of negating the experiences of Appalachian people who do not fit that mold exactly, most egregiously, the experiences and lives of Appalachian black folks.
This history of problematic and pervasive representation hillbilly tracks not only diminishes the region’s culture and history, and degrades its denizens in the national imaginary and in political discourse, it explores the how these stereotypes are reflected back at Appalachian communities and people in extremely damaging ways. York describes the shame she experienced while watching her home reflected back at her for the first time on television at 9 years old. This experience was the impetus for making hillbilly decades later. She recalls watching Dan Rather host a 1989 special edition of 48 Hours “Another America,” which was filmed one town over from where she lived:
Everything about that program — from the images of the broken-down cars to the condescending tone of the faceless narrator — made me feel shame. The program even added banjo to the “48 Hours” theme, a familiar cue for the viewer signaling they are entering a place that exists outside of place and time.
-Ashley York, hillbilly co-director, Variety*
York’s description of the imagery and the program’s presentation as a whole, including its terrifying timelessness, resonates with the ways in which the hillbilly stereotype she and Rubin excavate appears to have an almost mythological temporality, permanent and absolute. The sense of time York describes feels essential to the complicated way that a symbol intentionally fashioned to be derogatory and dismissive can be, and has been, positioned as America’s most authentic expression of citizenship. At the same time, this damaging stereotype has also worked to occlude difference and render vibrant, diverse communities in Appalachia invisible in popular culture and public and political discourse. The work of media excavation and analysis done in hillbilly is one way of restoring temporality to a stereotype that has been made to appear permanent, giving it a history and context that defy its apparent intransigence, and in doing so, begin to render it vulnerable to change.
*Quote used with the permission of the author. Full Variety column can be found here.