I am not an American, but I’ve always been fascinated by the USA. I’ve been kinda breastfed on its popular culture: movies, rock, ads, items, and of course, the English language. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog in this language.
I know very little of its young history and I’d love to know more, but I’ve learned stuff through films and literature, not just about the actual events but also about how North Americans perceive themselves (and the rest of the world, obviously).
I’m specifically fascinated by the history of the South. It’s a story of violence, slavery and racial oppression. However, this intense story that took place in barely two centuries, has also resulted in one of the -culturally speaking- richest communities of the nation, in terms of ethno-linguistic and gastronomic diversity, etc.
One of my dreams is, actually, visiting New Orleans someday, even if Katrina swept away many of the evidences of this rich history.
This fascination hooked me on the recently ended TV show True Blood. I don’t intend in this post to review the quality of the series itself (it’s a worthy entertainment -at least for the first three seasons-, caotically structured, boring and unbeliebably absurd as it goes on, crammed with stereotypes, but also with a few endearing characters, and a plot with a wasted potential).
But obviously there’s a lot to be learned through the series, not so much about the South itself, but about the way most Americans see the South, and how this reveals that, in spite of a pretense of a solid unity, the old grudges between the North and the South from before the Civil War, have not been overcome at all.
It’s funny how the dichotomy North-South is repeated in many countries -I’m not even talking about regions- all over the globe, especially in the western civilisation, and usually due to historical processes that involve local wars (Spain, Germany, Italy).
The imaginary is always the same: North equals progress, wealth, industry, racionality, morality; and the South equals racism, poverty, feudalism, chieftainship, illiteracy, endogamy, violence, alcoholism (see the notion of ‘culture of poverty‘ coined by American anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the 1950s)…
Northern Spain, for instance, has always looked at the South with contempt, as an underdeveloped spot in which its inhabitants are lazy, male chauvinists, alcoholics, almost illiterate…
Spain underwent a civil war 80 years ago, in which the warring factions were called “Las dos Españas” (The two Spains). The end of war resulted in the imposition of a dictatorship that lasted 40 years, which, even though many carry on denying it, keeps on bearing consequences in the deepest levels of its cultural background.
Also, think about the way Southern Italy (Naples, Calabria, Sicily) is depicted in movies or books.
Does it ring a bell? The pattern is reproduced ad infinitum.
In True Blood (a story originally told by Charlaine Harris in her saga The Southern Vampire Mysteries), the imaginary repeats itself. Action takes place in a fictional town in Louisiana, Bon Temps (the name of the town is already an example of the linguistic diversity of the territory), half way between the main cities in this Southern state, and it tells how a community of vampires segregated from the rest of society up to that point, intend to mainstream thanks to the fact that a Japanese company has started to commercialize a drink based on the synthesizing of human blood, ‘True Blood’ -the series is named after it-, which allows these vampires to feed without the need to attack human beings. It all intends, of course, to work as a metaphor of the intolerance that has historically distinguished that spot in the American nation, and of the violence episodes that the denial of the ethnic and cultural diversity has caused, also introducing and alluding the topic of homosexuality.
However, and perhaps unintentionally, True Blood fails precisely in the same aspects of which it complains. And in the process of criticising religious fanaticism, superstiton, the clinging to a series of traditions that are exclusive with racial, cultural and sexual diversity, reveals the rooted classism of the American society as a whole.
For starters, the choice of the main actors tells us a lot: Anna Paquin who plays Sookie, a young, slightly naive woman who’s never left her hometown and works as a waitress at the local diner Merlotte’s, is a Canadian actress raised in New Zealand; Stephen Moyer, who plays Bill, a 170 year old vampire who fought as a soldier with the South in the war, is English; Ryan Kwanten, who plays Sookie’s brother Jason, a dim-witted, oversexed but ultimately lovable yokel, is Australian. Summing up: to a greater or lesser extent, all of them have to fake their accents to make their characters believable.
The actors in a supporting role, even if in many cases are originally from Texas (Carrie Preston as Arlene, Todd Lowe as Terry, Jim Parrack as Hoyt), –Texas and Louisiana share borders, so I assume their accents must share similarities-, also exaggerate the way they speak; this, together with other traits of their personality make their characters cartoonish.
Even a reporter asked one of the main actors Sam Trammell, a NOLA native, if he believed that the Southern accent was overdone in the series. Let’s just say he got away with a tactful answer.
I can see that the purpose of the series is to mock, as I said, the remains of the hicky America, but in my opinion, it all just boils down to a bunch of old historical grudges that still go on nowadays. The yankees, the winners, project on the South a deep classist imaginary of underdevelopment. The Northerners tell themselves ‘We’re not like them’. ‘We’re better.’. ‘We’re neither racists, nor male chauvinists, nor homophobes.’ By the way: the fact that sex and nudity are one of the backbones of the show (‘It’s not porn. It’s HBO.‘), doesn’t make it less conservative. A false but very common assumption in many American shows.
I won’t be the one who denies the, as I said at the beginning, story of violence that has ravaged the Southern states since before the USA bought Louisiana to the French in 1803. Just a reminder: the recent controversy about the refusal of many institutions to withdraw the Confederate flag from the public space. But if you travel to any megalopolis in Northern, Eastern or Mid-Western states, you’ll find that racial and class segregation are a reality in urban spaces and in schools (Detroit, New York), etc., a reality The Union shouldn’t overlook so casually.
Between the American Isolationism and the Monroe doctrine, Americans keep forcing everyone to fit in their standards, even if that means mocking ‘their own kind’.
No wonder Southeners cling so much to their ‘tradition’ even if in some cases is wrong. How can Americans respect the rich and diverse ethnicity and in their territory if they can’t respect their own cultural background? Racism, male chauvinism, homophobia, are issues that have to be dealt with urgently. But why is listening to country music, talking with a distinctive accent, or living in the country itself necessarily a sign of backwardness or something to make fun of, most especially in the Southern states?
If those aren’t signs of classism, God be my witness.