You never really forget a hog killing once you see it.
The smell of woodsmoke mingling with the smell of burning flesh as the men pour boiling water over the body to loosen the hair that would then be shaved off with a sharpened garden hoe in quick raking motions down the length of the animal. The hog is hung by its back legs so that its front legs are lifted just enough to not be touching the ground beneath. A long cut is sliced through the hog longways along its middle as it hangs, and the butchering soon follows.
I was younger than 6 when I saw my last hog killing live and in person. My dad’s family used to slaughter one every fall when the weather started getting cold. His Uncle Bug, on his mother’s side, was the best at shaving the hair, and to this day, he says there’s scarce better than a fresh pork loin taken straight from the butchering to the kitchen.
My cousins and I would play hide and seek in the smokehouse where the meat from the hog was stored through winter. I’d slip inside while the count-down happened and crouch low beneath the hanging shanks and hams. I knew where they’d come from.And yet, I was fascinated to see them hanging there, waiting to be made into a meal for Sunday dinner or an upcoming holiday.
My family raised hogs to eat them and sustain them going through winters that used to be colder and more sparse in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. And though I can’t know with absolute certainty, I have never known of any stories from those living or long-since passed that involved wrestling those hogs they raised for the hell of it.
Yet, in the most recent portrayal of my home, Appalachia, on network television, “Perfect Harmony,” the main character finds himself wrestling a pig in a mud pit at the town festival to prove he’s one of the locals. The NBC show follows the story of Arthur Cochran, a former Princeton University music professor, as he attempts to lead the choir of the First Second Church of the Cumberlands to glory in a local choral competition.
Imagine my surprise when I flipped over to ABC to watch another 30-minute tale of city-slicker-turned-rural-resident, “Bless This Mess,” set in Nebraska’s farmland, to see that one of the ways the city couple, Mike and Rio, were told they could attempt assimilation in their new rural home was to wrestle a greased pig before the Nebraska University football season opener.
The fact that TV writers think one of the things rural people regularly do for fun is wrestle farm animals is not entirely surprising given the often reductionist ways rural places are portrayed in movies and on television. But the fact that this trope was included in two different shows about two very different rural places says a lot about how little the writers, and indeed the nation, truly understand about rural America.
And therein lies the rub, because in a post-Trump, “fake news” era in which national reporters and commentators are attempting to explain why our country is so divided in a seemingly incurable way, we need portrayals of entire swaths of the country and entire groups of our neighbors to be three dimensional and complicated so we can see the commonalities within rather than be presented with reasons to keep separating ourselves from one another.
On the surface, “Perfect Harmony” and “Bless This Mess” might seem innocuous. They are shows about the purity of rural people and a way of life that is slower and perhaps more connected than the hustle and bustle of big-city life that the shows’ main characters are trying to escape in their own ways.
Arthur Cochran has come to rural Kentucky– a town ostensibly based on Corbin, about an hour and a half south of Lexington– to bury his wife, who was from the small town. He wanted to leave almost as soon as he got there, but after he tells off the choir in the first moments of the pilot episode, he learns they are competing in a choral competition against the choir of the mega-church off of I-75 whose pastor wouldn’t let him bury his wife in their cemetery. He agrees to stay and help them win. Spoiler alert: They don’t win, but he sticks around anyway– the locals have won him over.
Mike and Rio are a young, married couple from New York City in “Bless This Mess” who return to Mike’s Nebraska roots to take over the family farm. Living in the city has become too much for them. They know nothing about farming, and less about living in a rural place, but in typical white-privileged fashion, they decide to give it a go anyway.
The locals in both shows are skeptical of the newcomers, but because they are nice people with big hearts, and a fair bit of small-town wisdom, they give the city slickers a chance. Even though Arthur, Mike and Rio muck things up every episode because they don’t understand or fully embrace the cultural mores of the small towns in which they now find themselves (e.g. Arthur must go on a campaign of reconciliation after honking his horn at someone; Mike and Rio dress in formal wear instead of Nebraska football gear to a town party where the host of the annual home-game season opener is announced), the townspeople embrace them and welcome them in, and we’re presented with resolutions each episode that are supposed to make us believe the rural-urban chasm has grown just a bit smaller.
But the truth is always more complicated than a sanitized version of it on TV. Those of us who live and work in, or are from, rural regions know that TV portrayals of our places far underestimate the true beauty, tragedy and complexity of the places many of us feel connected to in our bones. They also ignore the reasons why those simple portrayals are the most popular and proliferated, even when we know the stories of rural places are far more complex.
My home region of Appalachia, for instance, is a complicated place whose present is shaped entirely by the near-unrestrained resource extraction of the past. When the coal industry came into the region riding the Trojan horse of the broad-form deed (which basically gave them rights to get at coal under the surface by any means necessary), the mostly absentee coal company owners understood that in order to have unfettered access to mine as much coal – and make as much money– as possible, they had to control the narrative about the people who lived atop the black gold they coveted.
“One of the most effective means of controlling a people is controlling their image,” writes Appalachian scholar Meredith McCarroll in her latest book, “Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film.” In the book, McCarroll explores the connection between Appalachian portrayals in movies and the power and privilege that made those images possible, and that allows them to continue being used against the region today.
It was in the best interest of the industry to propagate and allow to flourish images of backward, slovenly hillbillies who needed the strong hand of industry to set them right and make them productive for the country’s benefit. If Appalachians in coal-mining towns could be painted as lesser than the dominant American culture, then it would make it a lot easier for coal companies to get away with taking everything from them, including their autonomy in telling their own stories.
This presents perhaps the most troubling aspect of the proliferation of these stories. As long as they are spread like a virus in our media, the people of Appalachia might just start to believe them, and therefore, believe they aren’t worth much more than mining coal and living in service of far-away urban centers. There are few counter-narratives to this story, so there is little to stop Appalachians from convincing themselves that once the coal is entirely gone, and once there is nothing left for the cities to take from their homeplace, they’ll be even more forgotten than they are now.
“Appalachia is shown– still– as the strange and peculiar place that is easy to forget,” McCarroll writes. “So mountains are blown up. Schools are underfunded. Counties like McDowell [in West Virginia, and among the poorest counties in the nation] continue to die. And, most important, people of Appalachia begin to believe what is said about them.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, America “discovered” the region as it never had before, thanks in large part to President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty and a trip to take pictures with Tom Fletcher on his porch in Martin County, Kentucky. After that, news cameras came in waves, and just like the ocean tides, took a little more of the region with them each time through the images they captured.
Since, narrative television has had a poor history of portraying Appalachian people as anything more than a stereotype. It’s important to remember that “Perfect Harmony” and “Bless This Mess” are only the latest in a long line of shows of the rural genre that started in the 1960s. Shows like “Petticoat Junction,” “Mister Ed,” “Lassie” and “The Andy Griffith Show” enjoyed high ratings and loyal fanbases until most were cancelled in the early 1970s under the assumption that audiences weren’t as interested in rural stories anymore. Perhaps one of the most well-remembered shows of that era– also focused on what happens when city folks move out into the country to become farmers– was “Green Acres.”
But the end-all, be-all of rural stereotypes employed by a popular TV show of that era was “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The Clampett family moves from the mountains of Arkansas to the mountains of California after they strike it rich from oil they discovered on their land. We see the family in the opening credits heading west-ward in their beat-up jalopy with Granny sitting in her rocking chair on the back in one of the most famous and enduring images of the entire series.
This portrayal relies on the same stereotypes for its jokes, but adds in the extra flavor of hillbilly tropes. The salt-of-the-earth patriarch hillbilly in Jed; the over-sexualized hillbilly woman in Elly May; the gun-toting, spit-fire elder hillbilly in Granny; the goofy but lovable hillbilly in Jethro. These hillbilly images go much further back than the 1960s. Appalachian scholars have found their use in the literature produced during the local color writing movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries– a genre of fiction and poetry writing that emerged during the Civil War focused on the characters, dialects, customs and culture of a specific region.
And the stereotypes decades of television shows have relied on for laughs have solidified themselves in popular culture as something close to fact, So much so that when it comes time to explain a national problem in which we all share culpability, reporters flock to Appalachia for easy answers, because there is at least 150 years worth of false narratives from which they can draw those easy conclusions. Therefore, the portrayals that end up making it in front of audiences are never enough to explain hundreds of years worth of exploitation, culture building and lived experience.
Those portrayals are simple for a reason, and that reason has everything to do with who controls the narrative and decides which stories get told. Most often, those people are wealthy, white and male, and they hold power for reasons that they’d rather we not question. They have a vested interest in the rest of us staying divided so they can maintain their level of power and privilege.
But if more nuanced and complicated stories about rural places were to be the norm, it’s entirely possible that we’d begin to realize their great conceit, which is that they see rural America as one big monolithic place, where one region is as easily expendable as the next, as long as there are resources of any kind in those places to be extracted or harvested and sent to urban centers to enrich a select few.
We’ve been forced into this false understanding of one another over many generations of misleading narratives being told about any and all who are not of the dominant white culture. And as a result of the false dichotomy of rural versus urban, we’ve kept ourselves at arm’s length from one another. Rural people were told that to feel like an equal with city folk was to admit that our rural way of life was less than. And city people have been told to fear rural people because they are backward and uneducated and could never change.
Sure, the images projected in today’s “Perfect Harmony” look a bit different than those in 1960s “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but they are rooted in the same simplistic understanding of rural people as being old fashioned, ignorant in the ways of the dominant and more preferred culture and forgetful of the very real and present challenges the region faces. The portrayal of Nebraskans in “Bless This Mess” is no more complex and leaves us watching characters that are more caricature than real life.
And it’s no coincidence that shows like “Perfect Harmony” and “Bless This Mess” have come onto the scene during one of the most divided times in the history of the country. The last time communities were split down the middle because of political and social issues was perhaps during the 1960s and ’70s, when “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” enjoyed success. Just like their predecessors, “Bless This Mess” and “Perfect Harmony” are two shows that are attempting to examine those divides. The only problem is, their examinations rely on simplicity and fiction when we’re in a moment that calls for nuance and facts.
But despite the one dimensional, oversimplified nature of rural people depicted on these contemporary shows, rural people still watch. Appalachians and Nebraskans still tune in to these shows filmed on L.A. sound stages and California pastures and, generally, they like them. Why? Because in both, rural people win. Despite their backward culture, they value their communities, their friends and their families, and, perhaps most of all, their traditions, even when they go out of style.
This draws rural people in because they get to escape their reality. And in reality, most rural places are not winning. They feel forgotten and left behind. They know what urban places are taking from them, and they aren’t happy about giving of their bounty while seemingly not getting anything in return.
Eastern Kentucky is home to several of the poorest counties in the country and has some of the highest rates of cancer deaths and lowest educational attainment rates. The infrastructure is crumbling, if it exists at all. Broadband is all but non-existent, water lines are failing, but even if they weren’t, people still couldn’t drink the water because it’s full of toxic heavy metals. Schools can’t afford textbooks for all of their students, and people long for work that isn’t there.
All the while, people see the state government take 50 percent off the top of the coal severance money that’s supposed to go back into the region to maintain infrastructure. They’ve watched for generations as the coal they mined and the children they raised left for Lexington and Louisville– Kentucky’s two largest cities– and hardly ever came back. They’ve had to listen to Louisvillians blame them and the rest of rural Kentucky for “voting against their interests” when the same city uses tax money eastern Kentucky coal mining produced to maintain their water lines and make sure their roads are always passable.
Eastern Kentuckians need a win and watching a former Ivy League professor– the symbol of all things elitist and urban– be snookered into a mud fight with a pig to prove his worth sure does feel good to see, even if it’s not something that would ever actually happen.
The trouble comes when we grow complacent and allow these images to go unchallenged. We must not accept these white-washed versions of rural places that lack depth and complexity, and instead, advocate for those portrayals that put on full display the beauty, tragedy, challenge and joy of living in and loving rural places. Without countering those simple stories, we leave the fate of our communities in the hands of the powerful few who control the narratives about rural places and along with them, the wealth generated off their backs.
People and experiences that really matter are erased from rural places– just as much as they are from urban places– when the only stories we see about each other are mass-produced on a TV assembly line using all the same parts to describe incredibly different and diverse places. We have to demand more from our entertainment because representation matters, diversity of details matters, making sure people who don’t look like us or think like us or live in the same place as us are humanized and made real matters.
People might think the only thing rural people do with pigs is wrestle them in mud pits if that’s all they ever see from network TV. But my family, and countless others across rural America, raised animals for slaughter as an act of survival, to feed them through long winters when snow used to fall in feet, and they couldn’t have made it to town to buy groceries if they’d wanted to. It was an act of patience and respect for the animal that kept them alive. And once you know that, it’s pretty hard to make a joke about it.
Ivy Brashear is the Appalachian Transition Director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky. She is also a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, Scalawag and Next City.