Amy sent in the following Joe’s Crab Shack commercial:
So we have the preppy, pearls-wearing New England WASP, the blonde Californian…and the Southern Bubba with his mullet and sleeveless shirt. Notice the two women are supposed to be attractive, but I’m pretty sure the guy from New Orleans isn’t.
Now, for the record, I’m not implying you should be filled with indignation about the commercial, it’s just that it got me thinking about portrayals of Southern men on TV or in movies more broadly, something I’m always interested in. Making a guy Southern seems to be a shortcut to indicating to the audience that he’s dumb, and probably also trashy–if you need to get across that a character is dim and most likely lower class, give him a Southern accent. And of course he has to wear a sleeveless shirt and most likely have some version of a mullet, though he may choose to wear a trucker hat over it. And if a guy looks like that, then we know he has to be a dumb redneck. And definitely racist and sexist, too. (I once had a student, upon hearing that I grew up in Oklahoma, exclaim in honest surprise, “How come you’re not all racist then?” I didn’t really know how to respond.)
Of course, the HBO series True Blood provides a different image of Southern men–they’re mostly muscular and attractive, even the dumb ones.
More rambling after the jump, but there aren’t any more images, so I’m saving you if you don’t care to hear about my personal accent struggles.
When I was younger, I had a strong accent–what I guess you could call rural Oklahoma Southern. It was strong even by Oklahoma standards; many of my relatives still say “warsh” instead of wash, pronounce guitar “GEE-tar,” and I’ve heard my mom say “liberry” for library. When I went to college it became clear to me that this made people think I was dumb. An entire literature class once laughed out loud at me because I pronounced the book Roots as though it rhymed with “puts” instead of “hoots.” When I decided to go to grad school, I took a linguistics course that had a section on regional accents, learned what distinguished a Southern accent from “neutral” English, and set about erasing as much of my accent as I could, terrified that otherwise my professors would all think I was stupid. As far as I can tell I was pretty successful. I’m not saying this was a good thing to do; but I was also 22, scared of grad school, and had specific evidence that my accent made people laugh at me, and it didn’t occur to me to resist those assumptions, so I changed myself instead. I wouldn’t do it now, obviously, but it also seems weird to intentionally start speaking with my old accent again, so there you go.
Anyway, that’s a lot of rambling about depictions of Southerners, most of which isn’t directly related to the commercial–I just find the ubiquity of the Southern Bubba figure, and the way Southern-ness is often used as a shorthand to say “this character isn’t too bright,” fascinating and somewhat irritating.
BTW, the Drive-By Truckers album “Southern Rock Opera” has some great songs about the struggles a person can sometimes feel about being a Southerner who rejects many of the attitudes and behaviors assumed to characterize us.