Critics have widely panned the newly released film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which itself has received a harsh reassessment after initial praise. Both tell the story of a young, Ivy League law student’s harsh upbringing in a lower-class family in rural America and the social anxiety he faces upon entering his new elite social strata.
Upon release, Hillbilly Elegy (the book) was lauded as some sort of Rosetta Stone for people trying to understand Americans who buy their groceries and underwear at the same place and voted for Trump. Four years later and, well, people are not crazy about this movie.
Negative reviews seem to include the same laundry list of problems: overwrought performances, the lack of any real-world political commentary, and a genuine disconnect with the rural population that the film attempts to portray. Some of this was apparent in the film’s trailer.
Now, I have a pretty thick Southern accent and my family history is not free from someone ripping off their Easter dress during a front yard dispute, but every scene in the trailer looked like it ended with an actor clenching their fists and shouting to the heavens “As God as my witness, I will never go hungry again.”
At the same time, Glenn Close in this movie looks like a composite of my grandmother and her sisters. The resemblance to a Southern grandmother is uncanny, and that makeup team should be applauded.
So, what shift has occurred over the past four years to not only have critics bashing Hillbilly Elegy (the movie), but also reviving talk about how the source material falls short? I think to understand that, we should look to the mass cancellation of rural programming that occurred in the early 1970s — also known as the Rural Purge.
Much of my understanding of this television era comes from historian Sara K. Eskridge, who penned the book Rube Tube: CBS and Rural Comedy in the Sixties. You should buy it and read it.
Anyway, CBS was riding high during the 1960s, with massive viewership for its rural sitcoms. You had the impeccable Andy Griffith Show (with Ron Howard who would go on to direct the Hillbilly Elegy movie, so full circle really). You had Petticoat Junction. Beverly Hillbillies. And Green Acres, the story of a high-society family who moves to a rural town full of colorful characters, the matriarch speaks in a bizarre diction (Oh hell, that’s Schitt’s Creek. A much worse Schitt’s Creek).
As thoroughly explained by Eskridge, the appeal of these shows was obvious. While civil rights activists were being attacked for trying to desegregate lunch counters, white Southerners could tune in to see their fair and noble kinfolk, who despite a lack of refinement or education, possessed an almost monk-like sense of morality and patience.
Meanwhile, non-rural audiences could find comfort in the fact that they were watching a nostalgic version of America, while also being reminded that they were wealthier and better educated than the ridiculous hillbillies portrayed on screen. And all these shows, though set in the present, existed in a special bubble cut off from the troubles of the day.
This was a far cry from the 1960s social unrest that stemmed from systematic racial prejudice and the Vietnam War. Also, during a decade of civil rights protests and demands for social change, these shows were more about folks bathing in the town water tank than Gomer Pyle giving his life in Vietnam.
CBS stood above its fellow networks throughout the 1960s, but in the early 1970s the company found itself shifting too far to the lowest common denominator. And advertisers were beginning to shift their focus to viewer demographics.
CBS viewers were more likely to be older, poorer, and less educated. Meanwhile advertisers largely moved to higher-spending urban markets. But why was this younger demographic moving away from the rural sitcoms that had been popular for so long? Well, look at what they lived through.
This generation had directly participated in the previous decade of social unrest, protests, assassinations, and riots. All of which were broadcast across the nation. They were prepared for programming that was more dramatic and political. They wanted something more relevant. They were ready for a change.
That’s why audiences these days don’t really need a simplified, yet over-the-top screen adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy. Since the book’s initial release, we’ve lived through four years of protests against racial violence, marches against police brutality, and an ongoing pandemic.
Narratives like this don’t really address systemic issues. They don’t deal with racism or addiction or poverty as things that can’t be overcome with a little determination and good, old American stick-to-itiveness. They rely on the myth that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and the only change we need is personal. This is a thin interpretation of things. It doesn’t even apply to our favorite fictional hillbillies.
Even Jed Clampett struck oil by accident.
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