Rural America in Pop Culture
People in rural America are both consumers of popular culture and subjects for the producers of pop culture. Entertainment options exploded out into the country, particularly in the last quarter of the 20th century. Movies, music, radio and satellite television receivers all brought the latest ideas and cultural trends home – for better or worse. On the other side of the equation, many storytellers, writers, filmmakers and musicians chose rural characters, landscapes and themes as sources. Their portrayals ranged from the idyllic to the grotesque – again, for better or worse.
As consumers, rural folks have always been avid media users. Newspapers, magazines, letters, radio, television and the Internet have helped break the isolation that is part and parcel of life in the country.
As soon as radio was invented – but well before REA brought power lines to the country – innovative farmers were figuring out how to generate their own electricity so that they could have power for lights and the radio. Farm news and country music became staples of early stations in rural America and the numbers of radios increased, as well.
As we’ve seen, rural folks quickly bought television sets when they were introduced. Then when cable TV systems expanded in town, huge satellite dishes sprouted across the country so that rural residents could get in on the boom in TV offerings.
When the Internet was introduced, farmers and rural residents clamored to be connected, but the distance has made access difficult. In the latest figures, only 39 percent of rural households have broadband connections to the Internet while 54 percent of city residents have it.
As sources for stories, rural folks have rarely been portrayed in a realistic light. One of the earliest and most popular depictions of rural life in popular culture was the comic strip “Li’l Abner.” Al Capp grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, and his closest connection with rural life was a teenage hitchhiking trip through Appalachia. But that didn’t stop him from producing the comic strip that, at the height of its popularity in the 40s and 50s, was carried by nearly 900 newspapers in the U.S. for a combined circulation of 60 million. It created the stereotype of the “hillbilly,” launched the national phenomenon of Sadie Hawkins Day dances, and spawned a Broadway musical, two films and a theme park. But the strip portrayed Appalachian poor people – and rural people in general – as uneducated, stupid rubes totally lacking in worldly experience and common sense.
When television came along, the hillbilly tradition expanded into shows like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Hee Haw” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” For a time in the early 60s, these were some of the most popular shows on TV.
In the movies, hillbilly pop culture took a very dark turn with “Deliverance.” The uneducated hillbilly rubes of Li’l Abner became retarded and crippled misfits and savage sexual predators in the movie. These rural sadists terrorize a quartet of Atlanta urbanites on a canoe trip.
“Deliverance” spawned a sub-genre of exploitation movies that capitalized on the fear that some urban residents feel when visiting isolated rural areas. The “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” series, “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “Children of the Corn” were all premised on the fatal encounter between modern suburbanites and rural brutes.
Valerie Kaliff (left) understands that rural areas can have a sense of mystery and maybe even foreboding for urban folks. “It is unnerving to people because it is so quiet and still and you can hear the croaks or the frogs and the animals and the coyotes howl,” she says. “And it is eerie for people if you’re not used to it.”
The news media did not fare that much better in presenting realistic portrayals of rural life. A 2002 study by the Kellogg Foundation, entitled “Perceptions of Rural America: Media Coverage,” found that urban media outlets largely ignored rural stories. When stories did arise, they were isolated episodes presented out of context of real rural life. “The media presented rural America as a vestige of our past facing an uncertain future, a place being buffeted by its close encounters with the physical and cultural mainstream of contemporary urban society.”
The Kellogg study of six months of mainline print and television reporting found only 337 stories that used the term “rural.” The most heavily covered rural issue was land use – rural areas facing urbanization and trying to preserve their past or atmosphere. The second most covered topic was crime in rural areas.
In contrast, the problems or issues of agriculture was rarely discussed in mainline news media, despite the fact that the 2002 Farm Bill was being debated during the time they were surveying. “The stories were indeed all over the map,” the report concluded.
On the other hand, several documentary filmmakers produced high-profile films about the economics and politics of food in the 21st century. In 2004, a producer named Morgan Spurlock made “Super Size Me,” a documentary that showed what happens when a man eats nothing but fast food for a month. (His waistline expands and his sex life contracts.)
In 2006, “Fast Food Nation” was a feature film based on a 2001 investigative book of the same name. In the book, journalist Eric Schlosser argued that the growth of the fast food industry came from changes in American society and was not good for the health of the nation. In one chapter, Schlosser described horrendous working conditions at a slaughterhouse in Lexington, Nebraska, where 400 animals an hour are killed and processed. The movie was co-written by Schlosser and created fictionalized characters to dramatize the moral dilemma that a fast food restaurant manager faces when the meat in his sandwiches is contaminated.
In 2009, another documentary, “Food, Inc.”, took a sprawling look at the perils of a food industry dominated by corporate giants. The film’s narrator, author Michael Pollan, opens by asserting, “The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than the previous 10,000.”
Why do media portrayals matter? The vast majority of Americans live in urban environments. Unless they have relatives who farm or live in small towns, their only understanding of rural lifestyles and rural people comes through the media. And while they may take the most extreme portrayals with a grain of salt, the accumulation of negative stereotypes can erode trust, feelings of connection and any understanding of the needs and issues of rural America.