Critic Examines Rise of 'White Trash' on Television

Tuesday, 18 Mar 2014 12:57 PM

By Joe Battaglia

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A conservative writer and movie critic says the current array of popular television dramas is an example of "Hollywood folk making mincemeat out of poor rural folk," as part of an "ongoing American culture war."

In The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz argues that since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a shift in the focus of television shows from the more privileged members of society to the low-income members of "the population cohort known … as 'white trash.'"

Podhoretz, who is movie critic for The Weekly Standard and editor of Commentary magazine, cites examples of this genre across cable television.

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He points to HBO's "True Detective," "with its subsidiary cast of sweaty, unshaven, tattooed, heavily accented, strip-clubbing neo-Neanderthals from Louisiana." That show, Podhoretz said, follows closely on the heels of the HBO vampire drama "True Blood," where "those swamp folk … like their sex dirty in every sense of the word."

Then he said, there's AMC's "Breaking Bad," "about an Albuquerque scientist-turned-schoolteacher who serves as the Southwest’s key methamphetamine supplier to an endless list of Caucasian scum." The network also offers "The Walking Dead," "in which enlightened survivors of an apocalyptic catastrophe must wander through rural Georgia evading flesh-eating zombies."

FX offers "Sons of Anarchy," a "series about rival motorcycle gangs in California who spend most of their illicit gains on leather clothing," and "Justified," "the highly amusing series about a U.S. marshal forced to return to his white-trash home turf of Harlan County, Ky."

Podhoretz wrote that AMC's "Mad Men" is not immune to the white-trash theme as well-to-do lead character Don Draper "was damaged forever by being born to a hooker in rural Illinois and raised by a vicious farmer who beat him regularly."

The common denominator in all of these programs, according to Podhoretz, is that "we don’t care about the plight of the white trash folk who provide all this glorious local color; instead, these shows positively revel in the shabbiness of their upholstery, the grunginess of their bars, their casual brutality, their offhanded abuse and/or neglect of children. There is precious little sympathy expressed for them."

Podhoretz points out that Brett Martin wrote in his book, "Difficult Men," all Americans "on the losing side" of the 2000 presidential election, "were left groping to come to terms with the Beast lurking in their own body politic," and, "happened to track very closely with the viewerships of networks like AMC, FX, and HBO: coastal, liberal, educated, 'blue state.'" writer John Nolte, a Southerner, does not necessarily agree with Podhoretz's argument. He believes that while the set design, backdrop and wardrobes of the aforementioned shows scream "pure white trash," the character portrayals do not.

"When it comes to characterizations of the rural poor and working class, Hollywood has actually come a long way," Nolte wrote. "For years it seemed as though Southerners and rural folk were forever portrayed in film and television as bigoted, ignorant religious freaks eager to make you squeal like a pig — they always took the pie in the face.

"From my vantage point, the shows Podhoretz lists (except for 'True Blood,' which I haven't seen and can't comment on) all offer three-dimensional characters, and in many cases flawed but likable and intelligent protagonists capable of selfless and heroic acts."

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