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2019
Reviews 2019-3

Lisa Hinrichsen, Stephanie Rountree, and Gina Caison, eds. Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis

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1Lisa Hinrichsen, Stephanie Rountree, and Gina Caison, eds. Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television

2Louisiana State University Press, 2017. Pp. 334. ISBN 9780807167144. Hardcover

3Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis

4Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television is a path-breaking and timely intervention into the field of southern studies. So far the South has been a subject of investigation in a multitude of diverse literary and film studies but until the publication of Small-Screen Souths in 2017 there was no single systematized and in-depth book-length analysis of representations of the South in television series. I would like to applaud the editors Lisa Hinrichsen, Stephanie Rountree, and Gina Caison for realizing the necessity of approaching the American South from the point of view of the region’s representation through the medium of television. Redressing a dearth of book-length research on the relationship between television and the U.S. South, Small-Screen Souths probes unexamined televisual phenomenology. Its nuanced readings of the “serialized” South not only suggest the continuing relevance of the South as a region, but also demonstrate the ways in which television as a medium represents and commodifies it. What emerges is an engaging “roadmap” navigating through some of the most interesting television shows influencing popular perceptions of the South that span from the classical network era (The Andy Griffith Show and Lost Boundaries) to the “post-broadcast” times (True Blood and The Walking Dead).

5The exploration of how the South has been represented on television is divided into three thematic sections, yet the book also follows a historically contextualized format. The first section, “Politics and Identity in the Televisual South,” paints a picture of televisual representations of class, sexuality, and gender identities from below the Mason-Dixon line. The next section, “Caricatures, Commodities, and Catharsis in the Rural South,” explores popular conceptions of southern rural communities and abject whiteness, especially of the underprivileged who live in a financially deprived environment. The concluding section, “(Dis)Locating the South,” looks at the South through the prism of postcolonialism, globalization, and cosmopolitanism to ask questions about the televisual representation of the region in local and global environments.

6In a comprehensive introduction to the volume Hinrichsen, Caison, and Rountree cover a great deal of theoretical ground, giving readers a broad taste of television studies. As befits a point of departure for further analyses, the editors bring together discussions of television studies, the South as illustration of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community,” and the (re)branding of the South in popular culture. The introductory theoretical overview of “delocationalized televisual experience” along with the “[t]elevisual passage between cartographic and ‘situational’ geographies [which] reveals the instability of place as a reliable signifier for either” orients the broad focus of this diverse collection of essays. The aims of the book are, according to the editors, “to make sense of the profuse and contradictory ways that the U.S. South has been represented in the televisual archive over the last century” and also to “emphasize the way that the U.S. South has both constructed and unsettled national narratives” (10). Small-Screen Souths more than meets its goals, opening up further avenues for multidisciplinary research.

7The first section demonstrates that “the interaction between television and its audience remains much more complex when it pertains to understanding issues of identity” (14). It begins with Robert Jackson’s “Midcentury Transition: Lost Boundaries, Passing, and Early Television,” in which the author analyzes the televisual presentation of the American Civil Rights struggle in the docudrama Lost Boundaries. Locating Lost Boundaries on the new media landscape of postwar America, Jackson pays attention to the way early television approached provocative representations of race and how social change in both public and domestic spaces was negotiated on the small screen. In the next essay, “Designing Women and its Postsouthern, Postfeminist Legacy,” Monica Carol Miller analyzes the eponymous sitcom against the backdrop of two contemporaneous critical movements, one which considered feminism outdated and unnecessary, the other which “identified new ways of being southern.” Miller explains that the sitcom engages in creating a new sense of southernness and southern femininity, against the nostalgic tendency to romanticize the past.

8The next contribution, “Birmingham Welcomes Ellen: Coming Out and Performing Audience,” critically interrogates the reception of one particular episode of Ellen, the sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres. Instead of analyzing the official discourse surrounding the ban placed on the show, Bonnie Applebeet Cameron turns her critical eye (through first-person interviews) to exploring how the show’s audience responded to the erasure of one coming-out episode by an ABC affiliate in Birmingham. In her analysis of the localized lesbian response, Cameron presents the southern audience, consumers of the show, as active and participatory. Turning to another minority group which has been marginalized in southern television, Casey Kayser and Ashli Dykes analyze portrayals of and reactions to African American women on reality television. The authors of “‘I’m Gone with the Wind Fabulous’: The Real Housewives of Atlanta and the New South” point to the issue of authenticity, which is not only lacking in the genre of reality TV, but also, and maybe more importantly, is lost in the (re)constructed image of the televisual South. Kayser and Dykes argue that the show subverts/overturns traditional understandings of southern gender roles and racial identity, but it simultaneously perpetuates the meaning of what it is to be part of a black female elite. While the show certainly increased the visibility of black women on television, the authors claim, it also “reinforced certain harmful stereotypes of black women.”

9The next contribution, “God Hates Fangs: True Blood, Black Queer Agency, and Appropriations of the History of Racial and Sexual Violence in the Deep South,” problematizes and complicates a typical reading of vampires of True Blood as “a metaphor for any feared group or misunderstood people.” In a very engaging way Joanna Davis-McElligatt addresses the ongoing problems of structural racism, sexism and homophobia, and explores the discrepancies between historical and present dynamics of black and queer oppression using the example of Lafayette, a black queer man. The author’s deconstruction of Lafayette’s portrayal suggests lack of proper contextualization and exploration of systemic and structural oppression against queer people of color both in True Blood and the American South.

10The premise of the next section of the book is based on the conflation of the image of the southern rural landscape with the assumptions of abject whiteness. “Caricatures, Commodities, and Catharsis in the Rural South” opens with Robert W. Haynes’s contribution “Anxious Engagements: Horton Foote and the South in Early Television,” which is a rich exploration of Foote’s television dramas. Best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Foote’s oeuvre lends itself to analysis through the prism of racial consciousness and the struggle of conscience characteristic of the South. Long-held stereotypes of southerners are also the focal point of the next contribution – Sara K. Eskridge’s essay “Rural Comedy and the ‘Foreign’ South.” This time, however, stereotypes concern white rural southerners. Eskridge demonstrates that rural sitcoms run by CBS became so immensely popular in the 1960s due to the shows’ depiction of southern exceptionalism. Eskridge ascertains that rural comedies of that era, such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Real McCoys, on the one hand gave Southerners “a sense of insular pride” in the face of condescension and degradation. On the other hand, however, by endowing the South with “a sense of alienation and of not being in the world” the rest of the country could indulge in the belief that “[a]s long as the South remained a distinct ‘foreign’ entity, separate from the rest of the country, then no serious self-reflection or broader national change was necessary.”

11The third contribution in this section, Mary Ann Wilson’s “‘Redneck Feng-Shui’: Duck Dynasty, Paula Deen, and the Other Louisiana,” analyzes the impact of media voyeurism and southern identity politics on the performance of redneck stereotype. Taking note of the disparity between Duck Dynasty and other reality television shows, Wilson discusses the mythmaking potential of Louisiana and pits the show’s sense of “constructed familiarity” against the controversy of Paula Deen’s racists remarks. The idea of “hillbilly figures as commodity” also constitutes the topic of Jimmy Dean Smith’s essay “White for the Harvest: Hicksploitation TV and the Colonial Model of Appalachian Exploitation.” This time a national spectacle of regional poverty and abject whiteness is located in Appalachia. Smith analyzes how the myth of Appalachian backwardness is manufactured by the urban imagination and represented in such reality TV shows as Buckwild, American Outlaws, Moonshiners, Hillbilly Blood, and others. Smith demonstrates that the atavistic Otherness of Appalachia becomes not only a spectacle for the nation, but also a region in need of other intervention. Producers like Jamie Oliver (Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution) still look at Appalachia from their moral high ground and according to Smith they act as colonizers with a rescue mission. The analysis of rural white southern stereotypes as a commodity for sale segues into the final essay in this section, “Big Smo: Reality TV, Hick-Hop, and Southern Stereotypes.” Leigh H. Edwards investigates the authenticity rhetoric of a domestic reality sitcom about the life and musical career of a white country-meets-hip-hop artist Big Smo. Though taking stereotypical images of “white trash,” claims Edwards, “the show is distinct from other hicksploitation programs that use redneck stereotypes as a shorthand for racism.”

12The final section of the book – “(Dis)Locating the South” – examines how “the U.S. South may be remapped as part of the ‘Global South’ and/or the ‘post-South’ through focusing on the transnational, diasporic dimensions of visualizing the U.S. South on the small screen” (17). This section reveals that “postsouthern television … builds upon familiar southern characters, settings, and tropes, evoking a southern popular culture ‘tradition,’ while at the same time suggesting that these traditions, once exposed as fantasy, might also be a potent source of change” (17). In “‘Welcome to the Fabled South’: John Kneubuhl’s Global Southern Gothic, 1959-1966” Stanley Orr analyzes the tropes of the paranormal, the grotesque, psychosis, violence, alienation and perversity in Kneubuhl’s television oeuvre. Orr perceptively argues that these gothic motifs allow Kneubuhl to address the residue of colonialism in the form of trauma, psychic turmoil and alienation in his southern gothic dramas.

13Eric Gary Anderson’s contribution: “The Truth is South There: The X-Files’ Transregional Souths” also expands the territorial boundaries of the South. This provocative reading of Mulder and Scully’s experiences below the Mason and Dixon line yields fascinating results. Having located The X-Files’ post-southern geography of no-place within the discourse of new southern studies, Anderson claims that “the series crosses regional … borders in ways that eerily and relentlessly deconstruct both region and transregion.” In reconceptualizing the region Tatiana McInnis’s contribution adopts a somewhat different perspective. In her essay “Miami in Miami Vice: Regional Ambiguity and Permeable Borders in the U.S. South,” McInnis offers an intriguing analysis of Florida not as an illustration of a typical North-versus-South opposition, but as a state whose permeable border between the United States and the rest of the world repositions the South on a global scale. The author reads the postspatial representation of the U.S. South in the series as “reflection on and interrogation of local (southern) anxieties about Miami’s cultural transformation, and thus national anxieties about immigration and the resulting transformation of parts of the nation.”

14Territorial boundaries in the postnational landscape are also the subject of Matthew Dischinger’s “The Walking Dead’s Postsouthern Crypts.” Ascribing the show’s unprecedented success to its Georgia setting, Dischinger demonstrates that it “both questions and contains representations of the South.” Situating his discussion on the intersection of southern studies and disability studies, Dischinger proves that the televisual South as depicted in the AMC TV series is a “postsouthern crypt” (a term which he extends from postcolonial studies) in which “national anxieties about southern exceptionalism can be quarantined without the risk of national infection.” Discussions of spatiality of the South are taken up by Taylor Hagood in his “Football, the South, and the Spatiality of Television.” This time, however, spatiality is analyzed in the context of its relationship to the “hybridized real/television space of football.” Making references to Foucault’s heterotopia and Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction, Hagood looks at televisual southern football through the prism of constructions of southern space, identity, and performance. In the final contribution to the volume, “Solid South, Fluid South: The Wire, Treme, and David Simon’s Urbanism,” Jennie Lightweis-Goff discusses David Simon’s two collaborations with HBO. The context of new southern studies enriches a discussion of permeable boundaries and internal paradoxes of the region. Lightweis-Goff looks at the threshold Souths produced by Simon which are “at once ideologically central and geographically peripheral, well traveled and underexplored, fixed and fluid, pedestrian and exceptional.”

15The existence of Small-Screen Souths not only affirms the growing recognition of television studies, but also marks a new and promising approach to the American South. There was a real need for a volume summing up televisual representations of the South, and the present book provides that service. The edited volume collects burgeoning new scholarship in southern studies that centers on the televisual representations of southernness. The intersection of visual culture studies, southern studies, and television studies – the latter an expanding field of research – has produced brilliant investigations reflecting ever-growing interest in how mass culture represents the “Othered” region. The sixteen essays collected in this volume adapt multiple theoretical perspectives and each essay contributes extensively to the ultimate success of Small-Screen Souths, offering new considerations on and readings of the South in its televisual representations.

16Through the mixture of academic voices and approaches included in the book, the reader is provided with a broad panorama of televisual representations/performances of the South. Fruitful explorations and compelling analyses portray various visions of the South colliding with each other and contradicting themselves at times. Small-Screen Souths is a neat, well-balanced and carefully edited collection, and offers a remarkable selection of compact academic papers, which are informative and read very well. It is a great contribution not only to southern studies and television studies, but to American and cultural studies as a whole. Scholars will appreciate the breadth and depth of expertise on the book’s subject of research, students will praise the accessibility of the essays, and general audiences will enjoy the absence of daunting, opaque and unwieldy academic jargon.

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Electronic reference

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis, “Lisa Hinrichsen, Stephanie Rountree, and Gina Caison, eds. Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of TelevisionEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Book reviews, Online since 23 October 2019, connection on 19 May 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/14801; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.14801

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Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis

Urszula Niewiadomska-Flis Department of American Literature and Culture John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

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