The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

Chamberlain 77

new positionings. In a line that can sound patronizing depending on the performance, O’Malley tells Evelyn that “I kinda like it when you say ‘reckon’” (Bush 106). In her final words to O’Malley—the curtain line of the play— Evelyn reclaims her lost cultural markers by saying, “I reckon” (Bush 107). In the two productions I’ve seen, these words were spoken in an exaggerated mountain accent: “Aah reh-uck’n.” Here’s why I find this scene problematic. In their article on cultural stereotypes, Harré and Van Langenhove point out that stereotypes are not static existing entities that people “have” and that are simply uttered as a fully formed and unchanging thing, the way one might set a book on a table. Rather, the authors posit a social constructivist view of stereotypes that sees their formation as a complex, dynamic process of positioning, something that we constitute and reconstitute every time we engage in a speech act, each act depending on the context of the conversation in which the construction occurs. The stereotype becomes a social construct that exists independent of any real-life example. That’s why, despite what my students thought, the existence of an actual real life person like Jackson does not mean that the social construction of a Jackson isn’t a stereotype, still a damaging and reductive representation. Conversely, Appalachian stereotypes cannot be challenged simply by exposing people to “real” Appalachians. Thus, the mere presentation of a single non-stereotyped character, such as the play seems to want Evelyn to be, is not going to redefine the dominant cultural narratives of outhouses, racial homogeneity, and underage sex. Real change, say Harré and Van Langenhove, must come in other ways, particularly by “changing the rules of the conversations” (370). Unfortunately, that sort of rule change is precisely what The Other Side of the Mountain does not offer. Instead, we get “Aah reh-uck’n.” Appalachian identity is reduced to an accent, and, even worse, Evelyn’s whole complex mountain history is repackaged as a cute and patronizing

joke that she performs for the pleasure of an outsider’s (both her lover’s and the audience’s) gaze. She has become, to use my student’s term, a “hillbilly in a zoo.” Why does the effect of this one play matter? For many reasons, not the least of which is that even a single play and a single performance are part of a much larger web of constantly reinforced cultural context. Every iteration and reiteration of a stereotyped misrepresentation can be culturally dangerous, particularly in the Trumpian America of the late 2010s, when narratives of whiteness, of the working class, of poverty and individualism and capitalism—and more—are being rewritten and politicized for ends that ever more strongly serve a dominant white, oligarchical ideology. J. D. Vance’s popular Hillbilly Elegy (2016) is an excellent case in point; as Sarah Jones notes in the New Republic , the book can reasonably be seen as “little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” Vance’s central argument, Jones points out, “is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles.” Such a narrative clearly appeals to those who would deny that poverty in the United States is systemic or institutionalized, who prefer the myth that individual hard work and self-reliance are the only elements required for material success. Similarly, The Other Side of the Mountain offers a comic Appalachia of broad humor and stereotypes that makes it virtually impossible for viewers to recognize and critique the flawed economic and political structures on which the region is built. In what historian Elizabeth Catte calls “the battle to control the narratives of Appalachia” (a battle that has been fought for decades, even centuries), there are many forms of combat (50). A best-seller such as Hillbilly Elegy may be a major engagement, while a play such as The Other Side of the Mountain is more of a skirmish. But the results are the same: these works combine to re-create and reinforce the same old single story of backward “hillbilly” buffoons deliberately electing to visit the outhouse of individual bad choices, moonshine, and ignorance.

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