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Popular culture and public scholarship in the south.

I WAS INITIALLY ATTRACTED TO SOUTHERN STUDIES BECAUSE OF THE FIELD'S emphasis on interdisciplinarity and activism. Not only do southernists come from a wide variety of academic and cultural backgrounds, but we also frequently combine the methodologies of various academic fields in order to understand and offer solutions to social issues both within and outside of the academy. Like many of my emerging peers, I am not satisfied with simply being a rigorous academic but will measure my own success by the impact that my work has on improving the lives of people, both within and outside of the US south. In order to do good work, I believe that we must forge stronger bonds between the world of academia and the communities that we study. We must also expand our analysis to include more popular forms of culture--television shows, films, and comic books--as these are important sites for both reproducing and challenging prevalent conceptions of the south and southern people.

Many southernists have already turned their attention to representations of the south in popular culture. (16) Erich Nunn's manifesto in PMLA joins a chorus of southern scholars emphasizing the importance of devoting critical attention to the south in popular culture. With filmmaker-friendly tax breaks in both Louisiana and Georgia, we have seen a significant uptick in the number of television shows fumed in the south and set in southern states. (17) Television shows are not just filmed in the south; they also frequently feature both southern landscapes and southern cultures as an integral part of their appeal. Personally, Stephen Moyer's southern accent as Bill Compton in True Blood will stick with me for far longer than any specific details about the show's plot. (18) Furthermore, reality television in particular highlights folk traditions in the south as both anthropologically significant niche cultures and schadenfreude-inspiring spectacles. As we watch television shows engaging with southern topographies and cultures, we must keep in mind that these representations of the south are at least as voraciously consumed by American audiences as many of our most beloved southern literary icons. Additionally, as television shows swell in popularity and increasingly focus on southern identities, we must continue to consider what's at stake in these representational practices. It is impossible to study the ever-evolving concept of southerness, especially contemporary southerness, without devoting serious critical attention to the plethora of souths depicted in film and on television.

As we turn our attention toward popular culture, we must make a conscious effort to extend our scholarship beyond southern texts and engage with southern culture in person by meeting and talking with people outside of academia, including their interpretations in our work, and writing for audiences outside of academia as well. While we might analyze the way reality television presents the south, we might also, as Leigh Anne Duck and Erich Nunn suggest, investigate the impact of current film-making practices on southern communities themselves. In Louisiana, for instance, the film industry enjoys one of the most generous tax incentives in the country, as the state's Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit awards $180 million to filmmakers annually even as my home institution, Louisiana State University, has faced crippling budget cuts and Louisiana has "ranked near the bottom of quality-of-life metrics measuring poverty, public health, support for education, and so on" (Nunn 188). Critics of the tax credits believe that the program does not create enough economic opportunities for Louisiana citizens to offset its impact on the state's budget. While we can measure the economic impact of the program using data collected by the state, we might also talk with people in Louisianan communities about how they perceive the presence of the television and film industry in Louisiana.

In addition, we might learn from and collaborate with folklorists and ethnographers to develop projects that explore the interaction between southern texts and the southern folks represented in them. I am currently examining the cultural practices governing alligator hunting in southern Louisiana. The project was inspired by the strong reactions that many of the students in my composition courses (who are mostly native Louisianans) expressed when I asked them about Swamp People. In developing this project, I am reaching out to alligator hunters themselves to understand how hunting factors into their own identities, to investigate their perceptions of the show, and to uncover aspects of alligator hunting that are not necessarily depicted on reality television. My goal in this project and future ones like it is to privilege the voices of those outside of academia who embody the southern cultures that are at the heart of our studies.

The 2016 presidential election highlights the necessity for a more thorough engagement with southern communities. In Dana D. Nelson's recent keynote address at the 2017 conference of the Southern American Studies Association, "We Have Never Been Anti-Exceptionalists," she asserts that we must engage in conversations first to understand, then--perhaps--to persuade. Through the generous dialogue Nelson advocates, we might develop a better understanding of the social and economic issues important to members of southern communities and develop more robust and egalitarian solutions for communities in crisis. I am also advocating for more academics to pursue public scholarship. By beginning or continuing to engage in public scholarship, I believe we can combat growing anti-intellectual sentiment in the United States.

Working in collaboration with people in southern communities can help us, as cultural critics, understand not only how art represents southern culture, but also how representations of southern culture are understood both at home and in larger global contexts. This kind of collaborative work also allows us to directly impact the communities about which we are so passionate. As southernists, our training provides us with the tools to deconstruct problematic representations of the south and challenge seemingly monolithic cultural stereotypes. Including voices outside of academia, writing in registers and venues for public consumption, and turning our attention to representations of the south in popular culture allows us to apply our skills to the many pressing social issues facing the south and the nation today.

(15) I am indebted to the work of Keith Cartwright, Andrew Jolivette (Louisiana Creole/Atakapa/Choctaw/Opelousas), Geary Hobson (Quapaw/Arkansas Cherokee), Melanie Benson Taylor (Herring-Pond Wampanoag), LeAnne Howe (Oklahoma Choctaw), Phillip Carrol Morgan (Chickasaw/Choctaw), Thadious M. Davis, Michael P. Bibler, and many more, mesi, yakoke.

(16) Recent examples include Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South by Tara McPherson (2003); Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta by Riche Richardson (2007); Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture by Karen L. Cox (2011); American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary edited by Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee (2011); Comics and the U.S. South edited by Brannon Costello and Qiana Whitted (2012); and the forthcoming Small Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television edited by Lisa Hinrichsen, Gina Caison, and Stephanie Rountree.

(17) Television shows include Treme, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead, True Detective, House of Payne, Nashville, and Hart of Dixie. Reality television series focusing on the south include Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Party Down South, Moonshiners, Swamp People, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Atlanta, to name a few.

(18) Fans have created minutes-long videos compiling all of the instances the character says "Sookie" in his unique (if not completely accurate) southern accent, and Moyer is frequently asked to repeat the name at fan conventions.
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Author:Vines, Kelly
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U600
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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