As Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy might say, you might be a redneck if all you know about the South comes from the cartoon strip “Snuffy Smith.”
Don’t laugh. All some people know about the South is what they see in comics and other popular media, including the current raft of reality TV shows that play up Southern stereotypes. One local cartoonist calls shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” the new Southern cartoon, one that shows Southerners in the same buffoonish light that newspaper comic strips have used in the past.
“The cartoonish way of looking at the South is still really popular,” said Thomas Hanchett, who curated “Comic Stripped: A Revealing Look at Southern Stereotypes in Cartoons,” a new exhibition on display at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center through May 14. “And it has changed dramatically.”
Cooper: ‘We’re often perceived as dumber, poorer’
Thomas Nast, whose cartoons are part of the WCU exhibit, may have started the stereotypes. He was the first American cartoonist to have a regular national platform, starting out at “Harper’s Weekly” magazine and drawing Civil War battle scenes that photography could not yet capture. Nast’s finely drawn and increasingly political illustrations argued for full rights for African-Americans. They often featured an antagonistic, old Southern colonel.
“In Nast’s vision, that person probably unreasonably was holding onto the hope that things would go back to what they were,” Hanchett said. The first Southern stereotype may have been born in that character.
The nationally popular strip “Barney Google,” which was created in 1919 by Billy DeBeck, morphed in the 1930s into “Snuffy Smith,” the North Carolina mountains layabout that Google met while attempting to escape the law. Snuffy Smith, whose strip is still in publication today, is lazy, drinks moonshine, cheats at poker and steals his neighbor’s chickens. He wears patched overalls. The same year that Snuffy Smith made his appearance (1934), cartoonist Al Capp created the strip “Li’l Abner” about a poor mountain family in the fictional town of Dogpatch, Ky.
Hillbilly culture was big in cartoons in the 1930s because of the Great Depression, Hanchett said. Everyone was afraid of being poor, and the comics gave Americans an outlet by letting them laugh at Snuffy Smith, Li’l Abner and their financially and culturally impoverished clans.
Then, in the late 1960s, came Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist born in Greensboro who drew political cartoons for The Charlotte Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Newsday.
In 1981, Marlette created and drew the popular strip “Kudzu,” named for its main character, an awkward, white 16-year-old kid trying to get out of tiny, comfortable Bypass, N.C., to become a writer somewhere else in the larger, seemingly more sophisticated world. Kudzu, with his ball cap, pickup truck and best friend who was African-American, had a foot in both the Old and New South. (The strip is no longer in syndication; Marlette died in 2007.)
“We’re often perceived as dumber, poorer and less sophisticated than other parts of the country,” said Chris Cooper, an associate professor and head of WCU’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs. “But we’re also seen as more honest, somehow more genuine.”
Those perceptions, promulgated through comics, cartoons, TV shows, stand-up comedians and other popular media, both hurt and help the South, according to Cooper, who with former WCU professor Gibbs Knotts is researching a book about the new Southern identity. Cartoons have been used to make Southerners look intolerant, lazy and adverse to change, but also big-hearted and closely tied to the land, Cooper said.
Appalachian stereotypes are applied to the whole South
Southerners are often depicted in comics as mountaineers, even though the Southern Appalachians make up only a portion of the South’s geography, Cooper said. In the exhibit, Southern stereotypes are actually Appalachian stereotypes, Hanchett said. When he moved to Charlotte several years ago, he expected to see the mountains he saw in “Snuffy Smith” and “Li’l Abner” as a boy growing up in Roanoke, Va.
“I can remember when I got up in the N.C. mountains thinking ‘now I’m in the South,’” he said. “It had trees, the forests and the vistas and all that stuff that I saw in the repeated messages that were the South – rural and poor. (The stereotypes) have made it hard for all of us to see the urban New South, because we expect to see the rural South.”
With their “kernels of truth,” stereotypes help us “organize the world,” Cooper said. “People are complex, and we want to take cognitive shortcuts to understand who people are and why they do the things they do. And stereotypes help us do that.”
“A lot of people get their ideas of the South from movies like ‘Deliverance,’” said Brent Brown, a cartoonist for the Asheville-based Mountain Xpress since 2007. “Inbred rednecks descending on them in the woods fulfills their expectations of Southerners as backwoods, toothless types. There are a lot of misperceptions, but it’s an easy shorthand to figure things out quickly.”
Brown said his late uncle made the best of Southern caricature as the operator of Mountain Man Produce in Hendersonville, where Brown was reared. His uncle wore overalls and his beard long. “He thought it was funny to attract tourists like that. It was a marketing thing,” Brown said. “Henderson County has a large population of northern people that retire there. They expect to see that kind of thing.”
There aren’t many of cartoon depictions of Southerners around anymore, but only because there aren’t many comic strips and panels anymore, he said. Like print journalism, pulp comics are increasingly relics of the past. But cartoonish portrayals of Southerners are still around, in the form of reality TV, Brown said.
Shows like “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” “Duck Dynasty” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” are the new comics, he said, pushing the same tired representations of Southerners. “There’s even a show called ‘Mud Lovin’ Rednecks,’” he said. “You can find about 20 of them on cable networks. It’s what’s in vogue right now. It’s a continuation of things, just in a different media.”
The media may be changing, but the driving force behind stereotyping – our need to make sense of a complicated world – continues, Hanchett said.
“All of us need some simplicity in order to get through this strange world. And all of us simplify,” Hanchett said. “Recognizing we all hold stereotypes helps us not get trapped by them.”
As the South changes – the percentage of African-Americans living in the South has never been higher, according to the 2010 Census – perceptions will likely change as well, Cooper said.
“Stereotypes of the Old South may one day die,” he said. “But then, stereotypes have a way of persisting.”
“Comic Stripped: A Revealing Look at Southern Stereotypes in Cartoons,” is on display at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center through May 14. Call (828) 227-7129 for more information.