Image Map

Top Add

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Iconic Southern Characters from Film and Television

I have issues with Hollywood when it comes to the South.  My main issue is that for some reason there are virtually no actors or actresses from the South.  Whenever a Southern character is played in a movie, it seems that they need to find a British actor to play them (see: the Entire Cast of Cold Mountain).

However, today I wanted to take a look at some of the iconic Southern characters from film and Television.  I will take a look at what they say about the South for better or for worse.

The Clampetts (The Beverly Hillbillies)

Not my Photo
The Beverly Hillbillies Show is the granddaddy of Hollywood's obsession with the poor Southern Hillbilly.  The family is a who's who of Southern stereotypes.  The Grandma is a gun toting semi-violent loose cannon.  Elly Mae is alluring "farmer's daughter" type, (a prototype of Daisy Duke).  Jethero is a happy go lucky, yet empty headed muscle bond imbecile.

Star Car Museum, Gatlinburg, TN

The show is a fish-out of water tale about a poor Southern family suddenly finding themselves super wealthy and in a culture they don't understand.  They are kind of an early version of Duck Dynasty. 

So what do they say about the South?

The Clampetts were portrayed as good-natured and innocent.  While they Clampetts were stereotypes in their own right, the rich people in the show were also seen as stereotypes and were played for as laughs.  Regardless the Clampetts paved the way for Southern Stereotypes.

The moral of the story: Southerners are not scary, they are hilarious!

Banjo Boy, Mountain Man, and The Toothless Man (Deliverance)

Not my image
Not my image

Yes, that is actually the names of these characters.  If the Beverly Hillbillies taught us that Hillbillies were funny and innocent, Deliverance turned that completely on its head.

Despite being an amazing southern Gothic movie Deliverance is probably responsible for more negative stereotypes of Southern people then any other source.

We will start with the least threatening hillbilly: Banjo Boy.  Early in the movie that main characters (a group of businessmen from Atlanta) meet a group of somewhat friendly hillbillies.  They encounter a handicap boy that doesn't speak, but plays the banjo like no one's business.  Though never stated in the movie, the implication was that the boy was inbred.  This rumor was furthered by actor John Voight making shit up and explicitly stating in interviews that the boy was inbred and retarded.  It turns out that this was a total lie and that Billy Redden (the actor that played Banjo Boy) was neither retarded nor imbred.  Billy Redden would grow up to be a restaurant owner in Clayton, GA.

On the darker end of the spectrum we have Mountain Man and Toothless Man.  Quite simply they come out of the woods physically dominate the rich white protagonists and literally rape them.  This enduring image is burned in the minds of everyone who grew up outside the South.  I'm not joking when I say that some people find a direct correlation between poor southerners and anal rape.

What do they say about the South?

Again, I'm not bad mouthing the movie, because it is a truly great piece of film.  Sadly instead of being appreciated for what it is, it has devolved into short-hand for describing southerners as viscous inbred rapists.

For the record, I have actually met the actor that plays "The Toothless Man", Herbert "Cowboy" Coward and he is a kind gentle quirky individual.

Bo and Luke Duke (The Dukes of Hazard)

Not my image
I have heard of Dukes of Hazard being called the "the show that made being poor white trash cool".  I think that is a fair description.  Bo and Luke Duke were modern day (when the show aired) outlaws.  The Southern imagery was not hidden.  Their car was emblazoned with the confederate flag and it was called "The General Lee", yet somehow they were embraced by the whole nation.

The show was about fast cars and short shorts.  The Duke boys always fought the corrupt local government and won.

Gatlinburg, TN
So what does it say about the South?

Now, there is no denying that the show was filled with Southern stereotypes.  There were idiotic bumbling country cops and their cousin Daisy Duke is your typical slutty "farmer's daughter".

Despite this I feel that the Dukes of Hazard took the rebellious spirit of the South and packaged it in a way the the entire country could enjoy.  They were southern and proud, but somehow they did not seem divisive.  The Dukes were goodwill ambassadors of Southern Culture.

Hillbilly Jim (WWF Wrestling)

Not my image
In the 1980s WWF wrestling was very much geared at young children.  Every character had a cartoony persona.  This of course created a group of walking stereotypes..........

For instance: Here's your Canadian Wrestler

Not my image

Here is your French Wrestlers......

Not my image

And is your African Wrestlers

Not my image

Of course you need a Southern wrestler, and this was Hillbilly Jim's role.  He had a big beard, wore only overalls and square danced in the ring.

So what does he say about the South?

Oddly enough, Hillbilly Jim had a fairly high profile and was shown as being a close personal friend of Hulk Hogan who was the most popular wrestler in the world at the time.  Looking at the other three wrestler's above its hard to find him all that offensive.

Forrest Gump

Hollywood Wax Museum, Gatlinburg TN
Forrest Gump is a true Southern Icon.  Obviously his character is made to be extremely likeable, yet we are told right at the beginning of the movie that he is named after Nathanael Forrest, Grand Dragon of the KKK.  I guess such is the Southern Contradiction.

One of the distinguishing features of Mr. Gump is his borderline retardation.  Forrest is completely clueless yet is constantly falling into adventure and fortune.

I always found the message of the movie intriguing.  Forrest drifts through life aimlessly, amazing things happen to him and he winds up being a millionaire by chance.  His friend Jenny who sets out to change the world ends up a train wreck of a human and then dies.

So what does he say about the South?

I'm not clear on this.  I would almost say that Forrest's southerness is not a primary focus of the movie.  His lack of intelligence may seen like a stereotype (as it something seen up and down this list), but I am going to say he is a southern man who just happens to be low on intelligence and incredibly lucky.

Karl Childers (Sling Blade)

Not my image
Simply put, Sling blade is a Southern Gothic masterpiece.  I love this movie.  This character played by Billy Bob Thorton is amazing and true to life.

For those who have not seen the movie.  Karl was a mentally challenged man.  He was horribly abused by his parents, who taught him a twisted version of the bible.  Misinterpreting what he had been told about the bible he kills his mother and her lover when he was a young boy.  Karl is released from a mental hospital a ndbefriends a young boy and his mother.  Karl eventually murders the mother's abusive boyfriend to protect the family and winds back up in the mental institution.

The character is know for his unique way of speaking which is difficult to describe.  Check it out.

So what does this say about the South?

I hate saying anything bad about this movie, because I love it so much.  I admit that the "mentally challenged" character trait is popping up way to much in this list, so that is not saying a whole lot about the South.  One interesting aspect is that the movie plays out with Karl becoming somewhat of a hillbilly version of The Magic Negro.  Karl shows up in the families life out of nowhere and selflessly solves their problem, while giving out nuggets of his surprising wisdom.  I don't care though, because its a great movie.

Joe Dirt

Not my image
A quick glace at Joe and its pretty obvious the he is a walking stereotype.  It is even explained in the movie that he has so much white trash DNA engrained in his body that his hair automatically grows in "all white trashy".

The unexpected thing about the movie is that while if features every white trash stereotype under the sun, it manages to actually be an oddly touching story.  Joe was abused by his parents to the point where is dad changed his name to "Joe Dirt" to demean him.  The family abandon him intentionally at the Grand Canyon.  Joe refused to believe his family abandoned him and spends his whole life trying to track them down.  Joe is constantly bullied because of his physical appearance and upbeat white trash attitude.

What does he say about the South?

The movie does an interesting trick of taking a ridiculous stereotype and injecting him with heart and making us care about him.  Joe is kind and endlessly optimistic while the world is harsh and unforgiving.  The movie makes us laugh at the stereotype, but then makes us care about him.  Joe Dirt is the true Southern everyman and we are shown that he thoughful, kind and pure of heart.

Cletus Spunkler (The Simpsons)

Not my image

Okay, there is not much to debate here.  Cletus is stereotype in is absolute purest boiled down form.  Cletus is endlessly stupid.  He has hundreds of children with his sister Brandine.  His children have traditional Southern names like "Gummy Sue", "Incest", "Crystal Meth" and "Normal Head Joe".   He is a career moonshiner.

This would be about the most offensive caricature of southern culture ever, except the Simpsons is pretty fair in making equal fun of everyone.  The fact that everyone get made fun of in Spingfield makes it hard to be mad at the Simpsons.

What does he say about the South?

Basically Cletus is everything negative ever said about the South rolled up into a nice little package.  Basically he can serve as reference guide to all things stereotypical about the South.

Daryl and Merle Dixon (The Walking Dead)

Not my picture
I know I have talked about this one before, but I think it is important to mention here.  Daryl and Merle Dixon are brothers living in the Zombie Apocalypse on the show "Walking Dead".  Both are portrayed as poor rednecks.  However, the two brothers seem to represent the light and dark that is Southern Culture.  Merle (in the wife beater) pretty much embodies everything negative associated with the South.  He is extremely racist and sexist, he is a Meth addict, and endlessly violent and aggressive.  While he is one of the most despicable and reviled characters on the show his brother Daryl is one of the most popular characters.  Daryl is a silent survivalist who never backs down from a challenge.  In the chaotic zombie filled world they live in Daryl appears to be the only one who is truly prepared.  He is constantly coming to the rescue.  In someways Daryl is the epitome of everything positive associated with the "redneck" lifestyle as much as his brother embodies everything negative about it.

What do do they say about the South?

Merle is the most evil redneck you could ever dream up and is quite scary much like the deliverance hillbillies.  Daryl on the other hand shows the appreciation the creators had for the southern redneck lifestyle and how it can create a true hero.  These characters show the sides of the Southern coin in a black and white manner.

Larry the Cable Guy

Not my picture

Yes, he is a fictional character.  Larry is the alter ego of comedian Daniel Whitney.  Just check out this clip from his early career.

Despite never appearing out of character, and even staring in movies as Larry the Cable Guy, he is a work of fiction.  The topper here is that Larry is not even a real Southerner!  The character was a way for Daniel Whitney to make fun of the rural southern redneck.

I became suspicious when I saw him on a sketch on his TV show where he was eating "Biscuits and Gravy" and the gravy was BROWN!

Oddly enough, Larry's biggest fans are the same people he is parodying.  He is huge in the South and his "Git-R-Done" catch phrase is pretty much the official catch phrase of the South.

What doe he say about the South?

Southerners have absolutely no problem laughing at themselves.

This was in no way a comprehensive lists and I am sure I left out some classic Southern characters.  Let me know what you think.

The Carpetbagger

Please feel free to e-mail me at
and check out my Flickr Photostream