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West Virginia’s film image

By Staff | Nov 23, 2009

West Virginia has a ‘horror’ flick image that it frankly shares with Texas, the Lone Star State. Stereotypes being what they are, the worst of the so-called Top Ten lists have often splattered an uncouth image of residents of the Mountain State. For instance, I remember an English teacher telling her class at a Huntington school about a trip to another state. She told the class the people from another state expressed shock that the teacher and her family admitted to living in West Virginia. Why? They all wore shoes.

Whether the ‘hillbilly’ stereotype extends beyond West Virginia to Appalachia, you know the score — barefoot, toting some moonshine, crooked teeth, a shotgun, and a psychotic in-bred likeness. Back in 2003, the Canadian filmed, “Wrong Turn,” which placed some college kids in the clutches of cannibalistic hillbillies, struck a sore spot.  Yet, no one has heard many complaints from Texas as the setting for the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise.

Actually, a line should be drawn in the sand separating movies FILMED IN WEST VIRGINIA and those SET IN WEST VIRGINIA. I daresay that more than likely the more offensive film was not shot inside the state’s boundaries. 

While “The Beverly Hillbillies” TV series spoofed a poor family striking it rich in “bubbling crude … Texas Tea,” on their property, the Clampets were not from West Virginia. An earlier TV series, “The Real McCoys” featured a family who moved from the Mountains to California’s beaches (a theme went, in part, “from West Virginny, they came to stay in sunny Californ-y-a…”). “X Files,” set in D.C., has mentioned the state in the reoccurring fantasy adventures of Scully and Mulder. The series had one episode where the state had a hidden leper colony and another where Martinsburg babies were born with tails. 

Currently, some residents and business people have voiced anxiety over Chef Jamie Oliver’s soon to be primetime six episode reality series shot in Huntington, which had, by the Associated Press, been deemed the unhealthiest city in the United States. Oliver has shot programs in his native England teaching people to select more nutritious foods.

One city councilman humorously quipped, “Just show me another way to make my biscuits and gravy.”

Actually, despite the rawness of the state’s image, a native West Virginian who moved away following graduation from Marshall University explained, “Many people who live outside West Virginia are unaware that it’s a state separate from Virginia, so they have no preconceived ideas about it.” Ramona Klein-McConney, a former HHS majorette who is now a scientist, author and dance instructor in Atlanta, added, “When I mention being from West Virginia, many of them believe that I’m speaking of the western part of Virginia. We may be too sensitive to West Virginia stereotypes.”

 By contrast, a former Marshall University broadcast-journalism professor whose father’s roots in southeastern Ohio trace back to the 1820s, disagrees.

Carl Denbow, who taught at Marshall before and after the plane crash, stressed, “I think West Virginians and southern Ohioans are not sensitive enough. I’ve been to social gatherings where people will make ‘hillbilly’ or ‘redneck’ jokes and everyone will laugh —except me.”

Taking a broader prospective, Denbow explained, “If you take most of these jokes and substituted almost any other subgroup in our society (ethnic, cultural, geographical), you would find that they would be totally unacceptable. Why is it that hillbillies are still an ‘OK’ group to make fun of?”

The former professor did watch “We Are Marshall” which he felt “helped dispel some of the stereotypes with a sympathetic portrayal of Marshall, its coaches, football players, administrators and fans. They actually came off as ‘real people.’” However, he believed “some of the footage at the end reinforced the idea that West Virginia was a place to be ‘from,’ rather than a nice place to live in the present.”

Although Denbow did not cite the specific scene(s), one might conclude that Kate Mara’s character leaves the state for a better future as a subtle example.

Historian Karen Nance has harsher words:

“I don’t think things have changed. We are still portrayed as a bunch of “hicks” who have no morals or education. Recent reruns of NCIS that portray West Virginia are good examples.  In one, a local woman sheriff is out to get “Gibbs” in bed and another a local women doctor is killing Marines for their insurance policies. In yet another episode, we believe in aliens from outer space. Even our educated people have “hick” accents. It is no wonder that West Virginia’s history and heritage is not respected by anyone, including ourselves because we are not respected as a people in the media.”

David Wohl, chairman of the Department of Communications at West Virginia State University and dean and program coordinator for the university’s Master of Arts in Media Studies, explained that since films create fictional imaginary worlds “it’s far easier for writers and filmmakers to rely on stereotypes to reveal a character and/or a situation than to create ones that are more realistic. It’s what I call lazy filmmaking.”

Wohl, though, suspects we are a little brittle in our sensitivities.

“I do think that we are, occasionally, too sensitive about portrayals of West Virginians. I cringe when politicians get up on soapboxes and try and “protect” us against Hollywood — they, too, often have their own agendas and I don’t think we need protection. That said, all popular culture (film included) that relies on stereotypes — racial, gender, regional, whatever— tend to perpetuate negative attitudes and biases. I think it reveals more about the ‘artist’ than the audience.”

Interestingly, a brief look at another film fixture may assist in solidifying negative symbolism of backwoods types.

Often, you see law enforcement portrayed on film. During a more rebellious era — call it the time of anti-establishment free love and condoning of anything experimental — cops received a grey depiction, neither good guys nor bad guys filled with quirks and near all heavily involved in activities that prompted internal investigations and administrative leave.

 Asking Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook about his feelings about the portrayals of officers today, he quickly equated their personas as filled with professionalism despite the “sensationalism” that goes hand in hand with popular culture depictions — whether film or television.  However, Holbrook feels, “The thing that has been detrimental to law enforcement mainly [relates] to crime scene investigation. It gives a false sense of hope and a false sense of timing [by] gathering evidence and getting results back on forensic evidence. Law enforcement is represented as a true profession, but crime scene shows make it [appear] more simple than it actually is,” ( i.e. everything solved in 30 or 60 minutes).

Obviously, the police image in film has done a 180 degree turn from the days of “Shaft” or “Serpico,” which emphasized corruption or “making my day” by shooting a .45.

For that matter, work place chatter has introduced greater political correctness for cultural, geographical, gender, ethnics and challenged groups.

Yet, former Professor Denbow speaks of an exception to the decorum — hillbilly jokes:

“A number of years ago I was in a meeting with six or seven coworkers, including a woman who was in charge of diversity efforts and affirmative action, when someone told a West Virginia joke. At the time I felt uneasy, but I didn’t say anything. I also noticed that the “diversity chick” didn’t raise an eyebrow and at least smiled at the joke. A short time later I went to her office to discuss the issue, and she really had a hard time seeing any parallel between my concerns and those of ethnic minority groups. This tells me that we’ve got a lot of work to do when even those folks who are professionally involved in cultural diversity issues don’t have a charitable view of hill-folk and exclude them from their definitions.”

Finally, our Atlanta transplant Ramona firmly believes that “We Are Marshall” dispelled the “stereotypical image of West Virginia [by depicting] ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” She also feels that with so many immigrants entering the United States they have “no pre-conceived ideas of West Virginia and little knowledge of geography.”

Actually, she thinks many people raised in the U.S. don’t know enough geography to know the Mountain State’s location.

More succinctly, Steve Fesenmaier, reference librarian for the West Virginia library commission, once told a television reporter, “Taking ‘Wrong Turn’ seriously is like believing “Bruce Amighty is a realistic portrayal of a TV cameraman.”

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com