Book Review by Myna German, Ph.D./Professor of communications at Delaware State University in Dover, DE.
Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television, edited by Lisa Hinrichsen, Stephanie Rountree, and Gina Caison, (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2017—$49.95 [hardcover], ISBN: 9780807167144, 334 pp.
The first section, “Politics and Identity in the Televisual South,” focuses on how television constructs understandings of race, gender, sexuality, and class, often adapting to changing configurations of community and identity. The next section, “Caricatures, Commodities, and Catharsis in the Rural South,” examines the tension between depictions of southern rural communities and assumptions about abject whiteness, particularly conceptions of poverty and profitized culture. The concluding section, “(Dis)Locating the South,” considers the influence of postcolonialism, globalization, and cosmopolitanism in understanding television featuring the region.
Throughout, the essays investigate the profuse, often contradictory ways that the U.S. South has been represented on television, seeking to expand and pluralize myopic perspectives of the region.
In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978) (1). Louise Rosenblatt outlines a theory of reading as a transactional process. According to her, the literary work “is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming together, a combination, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his own resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience…” (p. 12).
Television, film and the visual media bring together creator and audience, but audiences create the interpretative community, where shared meaning is based on individual background, reception and the conversations between friends.
The television show is seen as the text, but the meaning evolves in an individual and social environment. This is increasingly true in television viewing circles through social media. Hence, we move into the realm of TV show or film as text, to be interpreted by an audience of scholars and critics.
The editors of Small Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television have organized 16 scholarly essays into three sections of lively commentary on the changing relationship between television interpretation and the U.S. South. Their commentary runs the gamut from the 1950s and 60s Andy Griffith Show to HBO’s The Walking Dead. The South as a region and myth is deconstructed throughout the essays.
This is a complicated, nuanced book about geography, spaces and places as conceptualized by the media, but existing in real-life America. In “The Nine Regions of North America,” (Garreau) (2), a case is made for continued regionalization in a globalized world, as exemplified by parts of the US, The Northeast and West coasts of the U.S. stress achievement and personal growth, while the South is more reliant on relationships.
Leigh Anne Duck refers to the South as “The nation’s region” (p. 4) the way Bavaria might be termed Germany’s “region.” It is the area where down-home values outweigh commercialism and linguistic tropes are most acute. In that sense, the South generates mystery in a way that the interchangeable suburbs of Chicago and New York can not. Hence, there is room for projection, loveable characters, and family drama that commuter suburbs’ folks find simultaneously quaint and authentic. Here, somewhere in America, as seen in the film Steel Magnolias (3) time stops on a sleepy summer afternoon, conversation lingers over a sweetened ice-tea and there is no commuter train to catch.
This was romanticized in past TV series, and that is why viewers liked Don Knott’s classic portrayal of the deputy in Andy Griffith where the characters could be “othered.” He could take off for fishing but the advertising man in AMC’s Mad Men could not. Essayist Jack Temple Kirby calls this “media-made Dixie” (p. 6) with the counterpart being Hollywood-made Sex in the City which passed as an insider’s view of New York, minus the grit and crowded subways.
Stuart Hall’s work on “Encoding and Decoding” (p. 6) examines the role of background in how media messages are perceived and urbanites viewed the stately southern homes on TV as akin to the mansions of Gone with the Wind. It would be more interesting to study how native southerners interpreted these shows, but that is not discussed. It is easy to fantasize about societies different from one’s own.
The first section of Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television, “Politics and Identity in the Televisual South” examines how television writers construct and portray race, gender, sex, and class, while adapting to changing configurations of community and identity.
The second section,” Caricatures, Commodities and Catharsis in the Rural South” examines the tension between depictions of southern rural communities and assumptions about whiteness, poverty, and culture.
The last section of Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television, “(Dis) locating the South” considers the influence of post-colonialism, globalism and cosmopolitanism on southern television. It covers the beginnings of TV to the post- digital age, examining how changes in media and technology have changed representation.
Police shows strive to find a common ground, showing that northern and southern cities face the same issues. Crime and detective-work unite northern and southern viewers, rural and urban, creating a truly national audience in a fragmented cable and Internet age.
Internationalization is brought into the final chapters where Miami Vice, replete with Caribbean and Latin American characters, shows the true-life composition of the port city. Characters from all South American countries and Cuba are woven into the scripts.
In the final essay of Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television, “Solid Souths, Fluid Souths,” Author Jennie Lightweiss-Goff notes that Baltimore’s The Wire points to the same ills of southern cities—racism, poverty, injustice—affecting what is generally considered part of the affluent Northeast Corridor.
The point is to show there is no monopoly on these issues in the genuine South and that the same problems persist in all cities, making regionalism more an endangered species. It is an attempt to show the amalgamation contemporary America embodies. The author cites HBO’s Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, as expressing the same issues as the Baltimore series, showing there is no difference today between a truly southern city and border city.
Lisa Hinrichsen, associate professor of English and director of graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, is the author of Possessing the Past: Trauma, Imagination, and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature.
Stephanie Rountree is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Department of English at Auburn University.
Gina Caison is assistant professor of English at Georgia State University.
1. Rosenblatt, Louise M. 1978. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work ( Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press)
2. Garreau, Joel. 1981. The Nine Nations of North America ( New York: Avon Books)
3. Steel Magnolias, 1989. . Film by Tristalic Productions (A Howard Ross Film) and Rastar FIlms
Photo Source: https://lsupress.org/books/detail/small-screen-souths/