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By Janney Lockman
Special to KyForward
Different regions of the country seem to take turns getting picked on by pop culture. New Jersey had its moment, and between Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty, the South is getting its time in the sun. For those of you who were worried that reality television would completely neglect Appalachia since the cancellation of Buckwild due to the death of one of the cast members, worry no more. Just in time to celebrate West Virginia’s sesquicentennial, the History Channel unleashed a new show about the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys, two families living on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky.
I doubt that the Hatfield-McCoy feud filled more than a chapter in my eighth-grade West Virginia history class, but it looms large in the mythos of West Virginia. The figures of “Devil” Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy paint a romantic picture of a West Virginia that is more “wild wild West” than “wild and wonderful.”
The Hatfield-McCoy feud is a tale of two fighting families, a Romeo and Juliet-like love story, incredible violence and the lack of legal cooperation between two states in the aftermath of the Civil War. But even as an adult who’s read countless books about West Virginia and Appalachia, I don’t fully understand the historical significance of the Hatfield and McCoy feud. The History Channel obviously doesn’t either. Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning is evidence of that.
In case you’ve been spending your television viewing time in other ways, here’s a brief synopsis of this new show. A liquor executive from St. Louis wants to open a moonshine distillery. Liquor executive thinks it would be cool to use the moonshine recipe from the original, feudin’ Hatfield and McCoy families. The catch is, he wants both of their names on the label. As the show’s producers would like you to believe, the chance to make moonshine legally has reignited the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Moonshine hasn’t reignited the feud. The History Channel has.
I’m embarrassed to say that I sat through an entire 21-minute episode. The unnatural twang and ain’ts in the narrator’s accent was the first sign that something was deeply wrong. The appearance in a single episode of a turkey hunt, cursing matriarchs, donkeys and pigs in a house, moonshine recipes in the back of the family Bible, alcoholic cousins, a jug band and a hoedown made me wonder if the producers even spent any time in an Appalachia that was located outside a comic strip.
Aside from the sassy matriarchs, hunting and a bonfire, little in the show rang true of any Appalachian experience I’ve ever been privy to. I’m sure all of the things depicted have happened at some point or another throughout West Virginia or Kentucky, but you’re more likely to see the Mothman in Sunday school than all of these stereotypes in the same place.
It doesn’t matter that the show is one of the most obviously scripted reality shows I’ve ever seen. What matters is that this show is taking a piece of West Virginia’s history out of context. Romanticizing the violence that occurred during the Hatfield and McCoy feud demonstrates the same shaky understanding of history that leads people to fly Rebel flags for the sake of “Southern heritage” and wear t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Coal Mining: Our Future.”
The Hatfield-McCoy distillery scheme follows the same pattern of much of the other economic activity in our state that we attribute cultural significance to: Appalachia has a resource that someone outside of the region realizes can make a profit. Person from outside region uses the labor and natural resources of Appalachia, acts as if it will bring lots of money to the region, resource gets consumed, outside interest leaves area, communities are left struggling in its wake. While the show focuses on moonshine, it’s clear that the resource utilized here is a violent history. The only “history” the History Channel depicts with White Lightning, is the history of exploitation of Appalachian people for entertainment purposes.
As with Buckwild, it’s easy as an Appalachian to be angry with the people who are on this show. Have you no pride in your state? In your family? In yourself? But saying that the cast of White Lightning is being used by the History Channel makes a negative assumption about people from Appalachia that I find almost as offensive as having my state represented by a TV show about feuding and moonshining. The “stars” of reality shows are not at fault. As consumers of media, we are.
Reality television allows us to gawk at others who are behaving in ways most of us would be ashamed to behind the safety of our televisions. No one wants to actually witness a fight where someone pulls a knife, but it’s something we might be curious enough about to watch on White Lightning.
So instead of talking about how it would be entertaining to see people with Appalachian accents fighting, can we talk about this human habit of taking secret joy in the trials and suffering of other people? (I’m not even going to address a more personal beef with this show: that good moonshine cannot be purchased in a liquor store). Whether the show is set in West Virginia or New Jersey, it’s just plain nasty to derive pleasure from violent regional stereotypes, especially ones that are packaged as “reality.”
So let’s stop this behavior now. Don’t watch reality shows that trivialize regional history. Read a book about the Hatfield-McCoy feud instead. Drink some homemade liquor. Go to a shooting range. Find a healthy way to express aggression. Just don’t watch White Lightning and expect to get a picture of Appalachian history that is based on any sort of reality.
Janney Lockman wrote this column for the Daily Yonder, where it originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.
You might also be interested in reading Daily Yonder: MTV’s ‘Buckwild’ is about teenagers, not West Virginia on KyForward.