Exploring a Few Stereotypes, with The Onion
I have been a fan of The Onion for a long time, mainly because their farces cut straight to the bone of what we all know but probably don’t want to say. Before the internet was a part of American life, I used to subscribe to their newspaper, and I still read it online and follow their feed on Twitter. Not too long ago, I was browsing Twitter for daily banter, and what do you think I read? The satirical online news source that recently named Korea’s newest dictator Kim Jong Un the “Sexiest Man Alive” ran the following article: “PR Firm Advises U.S. To Cut Ties with Alabama.” I had to look to see what it was.
After clicking on the shortened link, a video appeared with an attractive young woman speaking in extremely placating terms and in stereotypical public relations jargon about how this fictional firm has advised the United States to “distance itself” from the state of Alabama. She goes on passive aggressively to wish Alabama the best in its future endeavors, with whatever nations it may do business with in the future, but remains stolid on the point that the relationship between Alabama and the United States of America has run its course.
What better place to check the national pulse on general attitudes toward the Deep South than searching comedy sources like The Onion. Comedy writers are often sharp and insightful and usually brilliantly funny. The Onion was Stephen Colbert before Stephen Colbert was Stephen Colbert. So, egged on by this first offering, I began to explore what else The Onion might have to say about our region.
First, I searched for my home state of Alabama on their website, and in addition to that other article, I found “Alabama School System’s Lone Textbook Falling Apart.” and “Alabama Constitution Changed to Just Read ‘Roll Tide.'” Two harsh commentaries on two harsh truths that both make me laugh. Wouldn’t it be nice if Alabamians cared as much about education as we do about football? Well . . . we don’t. Everyone knows it, here and elsewhere. People in Alabama will pay fifty to hundred dollars for one seat at a Crimson Tide (or Auburn Tigers) home game, and they’ll pay twenty dollars for a t-shirt with their team’s name and logo on it, but they will fight tooth and nail against any proposal to raise their taxes by a single dollar to help schools, even when they know that their own kids’ teachers have too few resources.
Next came Mississippi, and the very first result was the biting 2012 article, “Mississippi Brings Down Yet Another National Average.” The article lays on another hard truth about perceptions of the Deep Southern state that borders my home state: despite its dismal performance in every indicator of social progress, “Observers noted that if you factor in truck-fixin’ and waving from porches, Mississippi still does pretty good for itself.” Though the article never pinpoints any one aspect of life to be discussed, it didn’t need to. We all get the joke anyway.
Conceptions like this one about Mississippi come not only from its desperate poverty and historical turmoil, but also from facts that attest to its lack of progress in so many areas. Case and point, earlier this week, Mississippi finally ratified the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, 148 years after the fact. (This article is real, not a joke at all. It’s from ABC News.)
And even though the witticisms thrown at Alabama and Mississippi are pretty rough, they’re pretty tame compared to the ire that The Onion reserved for Georgia. In November 1998, their “News in Photos” ran an image whose title describes it perfectly: “Georgia Adds Swastika, Middle Finger to State Flag.” Take a look for yourself. Later in 2002, the article “Georgia School Board Bans ‘Theory of Math'” highlights assumptions and conceptions of how Deep Southern Bible-Belt attitudes plague efforts at living in the 20th century— It’s the 21st century? I had forgotten . . . which is easy to do, living down here!
And last but definitely not least, South Carolina. If you want to screw with a Southerner – I mean really screw with him – make fun of something related to his favorite college football team. To that end, the October 2012 article “Gamecocks Fans Surprised to Hear that Team Represents a College” describes a 34-year-old man who has no idea that his favorite team is associated with an institution of higher learning. This piece cuts to the very core of the Deep Southern discrepancy between the number of fans of any state’s university football team and the number of those fans who actually attended that university. But The Onion doesn’t stop there . . . A November 2012 “Newswire” headline-only piece declared, not surprisingly, “Exit Polls Reveal Majority of South Carolina Voters Had Emotional Breakdown in Voting Booth.” What did anyone expect voters from the home state of Lindsay Graham and Strom Thurmond to do when faced with choosing between a black liberal community organizer-lawyer from Chicago and a white Mormon millionaire from Massachusetts? And finally, the hilarious September 2011 instant classic “Obama Visits South Carolina-Ravaged South Carolina.” This one begins:
Calling the devastation “heartbreaking and appalling,” President Barack Obama toured South-Carolina-ravaged South Carolina Tuesday, vowing never to turn his back on the 4.6 million residents whose lives have been turned upside down by the horrors of South Carolina.
Closing out, I offer the first of two Deep Southern grand finales . . . “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year.” Setting this one in Huntsville, Alabama and providing an accompanying image of a small group of pitiful rednecks drinking beer on a rickety porch, proponents of the Rebel Yell are called out for their complete and utter failure to produce any results out of their credo. After a short list of absurd pro-Confederacy statements made by men from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, the article tells us:
The Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee consistently rank at the bottom of the nation in a wide variety of statistical categories, including literacy, infant mortality, hospital beds, toilet-paper sales, and shoe usage. Even so, some experts believe the region could be poised for a renaissance.
If you’re a Deep Southerner and you’re still not either laughing or pissed, take a look at the ultimate grand finale of all grand finales for this exploration of the Deep South via The Onion . . . The satirical weather report titled “We Dumb It Down The Best We Can For Our Viewers in the Deep South.” This one is downright mean, especially the on-location bit during the second half of the clip. I won’t spoil it for you . . .
The Onion doesn’t reserve all of its sarcastic humor for the Deep South, but it also hasn’t spared us either. Pretty much anything you can think of gets some heat from them at one time or another. But truthfully, I feel lucky that I can laugh at myself. They’re talking about the place where I’m from—and you want to know something? I get the jokes. A lot of Southerners either don’t, or don’t find them funny. And that may be because there’s a grain of truth in so much of it . . .