In 1994, filmmaker John Waters wrote “in six months, no one will say white trash…it is the last racist thing you can say and get away with it” (cited in McCarter, 2005). Waters prophecy has still not come to pass; instead, race specific and class specific terms like redneck, white trash, hillbilly, peckerwood, and cracker are arguably more often used in contemporary discourse than they were in 1994. David Willis and Jim Fortier continue this rhetorical and literary tradition of othering rural Americans through their animated television series Squidbillies. This series features the Cuylers, anthropomorphic hillbilly squids, living in abject poverty in the mountains of North Georgia. Featured as part of the Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network, the series joins other adult oriented cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Several of the animated series on Adult Swim often deal with dark subjects and employ morbid and surreal humor. What is interesting about these other shows is that few if any of them have any real basis in reality. While the same can be said for Squidbillies in the sense that the Cuylers are anthropomorphic squids, if we look deeper into the series, we can see that the discourse used to “other” the Cuylers would still work even if they weren’t. The only reason why the representation of these hillbillies as squids (or less than human) works is because a discourse of hillbillies (or rednecks or white trash or other epithet used to describe poor rural whites) already exists and it already illustrates how poor rural whites are less than human.
The adult oriented cartoons found on Adult Swim are largely a 21st-century phenomenon, conceived, in part, to capitalize off of its wildly popular and commercially successful predecessors: The Simpsons and South Park. While Squidbillies is a contemporary adult cartoon that utilizes a very contemporary medium, the message—a discourse of othering rural Americans—is older than America itself. Americans can trace this discourse genealogically throughout American history. The Cuylers are the 21st-century Clampetts from the wildly popular 1960s syndicated television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. In addition, we can find the antecedents of the Cuylers in the films featuring Ma and Pa Kettle. Prior to the widespread proliferation of television, during the golden age of radio, listeners experienced the discourse of rural othering through popular programs like Lum and Abner. In the print media, this same discourse was proliferated in the books like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and in comic strips like Lil Abner and Snuffy Smith. Even in the 19th century, this same discourse manifests itself in the works of Mark Twain and in Southern Frontier Humor. However, probably the first representation of this discourse of rural othering can be found in Colonial American Literature.
William Byrd II’s History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina is the primogenitor of Adult Swim’s Squidbillies. Byrd’s depictions of North Carolina’s “lubbers” demonstrates how the Tidewater aristocracy, what was later referred to as the First Families of Virginia, must have felt about those rural whites living out on the frontier. Although the text was written in a comical tone, Byrd’s descriptions have had rather serious effects on the shared perception of poor whites that followed and serve as the earliest representation of a discourse of exclusion designed to “racialize” and “other” poor rural whites. Byrd borrowed the term “lubbers” from English culture. For the English, lubberland was known as an imaginary place of plenty without labor, a land of laziness where inhabitants lollygagged around.
By calling those who live out on the frontier “lubbers,” Byrd was implying that the inhabitants of these out of the way places were not just different from other colonial settlers, but were also morally, culturally, and socially inferior. To describe an individual or social group as “idle’ or “lazy” was to simultaneously express moral condemnation and the highest degree of contempt. This perception, the structure of feeling, was deeply imbedded in the core of British imperialism and it was made manifest through the empire. As Anne McClintock (1995) has noted, since at least the 16th century, the British had associated slothfulness with corruption and poverty. In the years that followed, Puritanism had articulated an elaborate set of moral, political, and cultural traits based on sharply delineated conceptions of industrialness vs. idleness. In calling the rural whites “lubbers,” Byrd was racializing their whiteness.
In “Surviving Race: Establishing Boundaries of Colonial American Whiteness,” John Miller explains that much of the scholarship on Byrd’s work has been misinterpreted. According to Miller, “Byrd’s scathing descriptions of the white settlers he encounters on his Mid-Atlantic surveying mission tend to be uniformly read by critics as scorn by the panel Virginia authors for his North Carolina neighbors.” For Miller, however, “there is a larger racial project occurring in The Histories, one that involves more than just Native American figures, and offers a more thorough explanation for Byrd’s disdain for his fellow Caucasian colonists. The aristocratic author and political leader of Virginia is racializing whiteness, creating a white other in order to affirm his own elite social position and justify his claims to vast new territories in America” (McCarter 2005).
If we look carefully at the claims that Byrd makes in his work, we can see the constitutive components of this racialized discourse. Not only are these components used to other rural Americans over more than two centuries, it is also the same discourse that is often used to other people from different races, ethnicities, and cultures. For example, one component of this racialized discourse can be found in physiognomy or assessing a person’s character based on their physical appearance. Byrd claims that the North Carolinians “devour so much swine’s flesh” that “fills them with gross humours” and causes “all the symptoms of syphilis” (Byrd, 22). By claiming that the living and dietary arrangements of these “lubbers” affected them biologically, Byrd is illustrating how moral or behavior characteristics are manifested in the body. Thus, we have a biological difference between Byrd and the “lubbers.” Biological differences and physiognomy are common tropes used in racialized discourses. In the case of the Squidbillies in particular, the creators use hyperbole to exaggerate the biological difference. Not only are the characters depicted as the stereotypical buck toothed hillbillies but their bodies are squids.
After demonstrating how the dietary practices of the “lubbers” constitute a biological difference which, in part, makes them inferior to aristocratic Virginians like William Byrd, he moves on to the clothes that these poor redneck savages wear by pointing out how the women mix cotton and wool for their clothing and how this “kind of manufacture is open and sleazy.” Byrd goes on to explain how the “lubbers” are too lazy to cultivate flax (Byrd, 22). Surely, using a discourse of exclusion based on dietary practices, physiognomy, and morality, would be enough to illustrate that these rural Carolinians are not only different but are inferior to Byrd and his group, but Byrd does not stop there. He goes on to describe the geography in order to illustrate the geographic differences between he and his fellow Virginians and those who live in North Carolina. Byrd claims that “not even a turkey buzzard” would fly over Carolina and compares it to “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Byrd, 22). Geography is also a common trope used in racially charged discourses. In The Squidbillies, the geography is rural Georgia and the only substantial difference between this geographic other and those from other races and ethnicities is that The Squidbillies are just simply a whiter shade of pale beyond the pale.
John Miller writes: “Not only does Byrd’s book describe the marking of the border between Virginia and North Carolina colonies; it also depicts the defining of boundaries in white America along economic, political and social lines” (1). While the geographical distinctions of Byrd’s Dividing Line really don’t work in contemporary society, if one looks beyond the geographical constraints of Byrd’s work, one can see that Byrd is referring to “lubberland” as being a state of mind and not North Carolina as a State in the Union. Miller writes, “By establishing this prototype for ‘white trash’, Byrd emerges in comparison as the true savior and leader of the young colonies” (McCarter 2005). In summary, Byrd uses dietary practices, physiognomy, morality, geography, and even religion to illustrate how Carolinians are substantially different (or other) than those from Virginia.
In Cartoon Network’s series Squidbillies, these same discursive formations are used to “other” those white trash folks who live in rural America. In the scene that opens every Squidbillies episode, viewers see Early, the main character, twisting the knob on a car radio with one of his tentacles. The legendary white trash honky tonk hero himself, Billy Joe Shaver, begins singing the theme music as Early grabs a tentacle full of Red Man chewing tobacco. After that, Early loads his shotgun and then puts it in the gun rack of the pickup truck. At this point, the viewer sees Early’s squid face and a ball cap with the words “Booty Hunter” written on it. As the camera fades out, the viewer notices that the pickup truck is up on blocks in the middle of a yard that looks like a garbage dump.
From the very beginning of the show, the creators are, essentially, explicitly racializing the whiteness of the Squidbillies (and hillbillies and rednecks implicitly) by using what appears to be a discourse of class to “other” them. Just as their predecessor, William Byrd II, showed that the “lubbers” of North Carolina were very different than the more respectable people from Virginia (especially the wealthy), Willis and Fortier illustrate how the Squidbillies are different from our contemporary white middle class American society. The opening scene sets up this difference by using visual representations of rural culture to create a binary between that culture and the middle class. The chewing tobacco, loaded firearms, and “Booty Hunter” ball cap are designed to show the viewer that “these people are not us.” All of these stereotypical representations take place in the opening scene of the series before the show actually even starts.
While we could argue that these discursive formations seem to be explicitly referring to social class in America, there is, in fact, a larger racial project going on here. In Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray’s anthology, White Trash: Race and Class in America, social theorist, Allan Berube speaks to this racialized discourse in his essay, “Sunset Trailer Park.” Berube writes: “other whites who looked down on us because of where we lived could call my whiteness into question. Ashamed, I kept these and other social injuries to myself, channeling them into desires to learn about how to act and look more white, and to find other ways to move up and out of this life that more and more felt like a trap I had to escape” (33). In addition, one of the editors of the anthology, Annalee Newitz, reinforces this idea of a racialized whiteness when she writes “when middle-class whites encounter lower-class whites, we find that often their class differences are represented as the difference between civilized folks and primitive ones. Lower class whites get racialized, and demeaned, because they fit into the primitive/civilized binary as primitives” (134).
The creators of the series use this same binary between the white middle class and the rural poor in the opening frame of the episode titled “School Days, Fool Days.” This scene shows Early and his son Rusty standing along what appears to be a sideline with a soccer ball in the background. This appears to be a direct contrast between Early and the more traditional middle class soccer mom. Early gives Rusty a motivational speech, puts his tentacle on Rusty’s and says “on three.” Instead of counting to three and saying “Let’s go” or something else that one might expect when watching one of these sports pep talks, Early gets stuck on the number one and can’t count to three. At this point, Rusty says, “I ain’t never played no soccer, daddy.” Early replies “And you ain’t a never gonna get to. Now get in there and fight like a cock,” as he kicks the soccer ball out of the way and throws Rusty into a cockfighting ring. Early then goes over to a betting window and puts money down on the “eight legged chicken to lose.” Finally, the cock fight is broken up by the local sheriff (It is interesting to note that only the family of “Squidbillies” are squids. Everyone else in the animated television program is human).
In addition to the biological, geographical, spiritual, and moral differences between poor rural whites and the more respectable classes of people (like Byrd’s Tidewater aristocracy or contemporary America’s middle class), poor rural whites are also often portrayed as being stupid. While, on the surface, this may seem like Willis and Fortier’s attempt at making a cultural critique of the rural poor’s anti-intellectualism, this could also be seen as yet another example of the American hegemony “blaming the victim.” Rural schools often have the same issues in terms of public education that urban schools do. In fact, much of rural America has a per capita income substantially similar to that of the average urban poor community. Because of the romanticized image of America’s pastoral landscapes, the “purple mountain majesties” of places like Appalachia and the Ozarks do not conjure the same images of poverty that are often associated with Flint, Michigan or Detroit. However, the per capita income and rates of unemployment and poverty are substantially similar. There are just fewer people and the poverty is spread out more. By using the trope of being stupid and perpetually blaming the victim, the American hegemony can justify not investing in rural America.
Nearly all of the white trash stereotypes are simply too tempting for Willis and Fortier to avoid throughout the series. For example, when the sheriff brings Rusty back home to the shack where the Squidbillies live, the first “family member” he encounters is Granny Squid. She is holding on to a walker and smoking a cigarette. After fixating on the image of the “Granny” character, the focus shifts to Early. He is now wearing a ball cap that says “I Love Cockfighting.” Soon, Early is joined by his wife, a squid with thick eye shadow, red lipstick, and an obnoxious blonde hairdo. She looks like a cross between Dolly Parton and an octopus. Quickly, Early puts Granny on a scooter, pushes her down the drive and says “now get back to the nursing home where you belong.” Finally, he turns to the sheriff and says, “What can I do for you?” In this scene, Willis and Fortier continue showing how these “squidbillies” are different than “normal” white middle class families. Granny is an elderly woman who needs a walker and yet, still smokes cigarettes (something that is obviously bad for one’s health but is also a trademark of white trash culture). In addition, Early continues his monstrous behavior toward his family in that he not only entered his child into a cockfighting contest (and bet against him) but he also shipped his mother off to a nursing home (something that is likely a source of older white middle class anxiety).
The sheriff responds to Early’s question by saying “your boy needs to be in school.” Immediately, Early becomes defensive and says “School…ain’t that the place where they got all the damned…uh… they fold out…covered in scribbles…wrote up all over.” Finally, the sheriff says “books” and Early replies by saying “No, they square like a magazine” before flashing back to his own school days where he can’t recite the “ABCs” and winds up burning the schoolhouse to the ground. The sheriff suggests that Rusty and the other squidbillies are “other” when he says “we can’t send him to the county school” and makes an allusion to segregation. This allusion is especially important in terms of the invisibility of this racialized discourse in that if it had been directed at someone of another race, ethnicity, or religion, there is no way that could air on national television. The public outcry would be enormous. However, because these are hillbillies…I mean, uhm, squidbillies, then it is acceptable. Early replies “you ain’t enseminating that I keep him here are you?” Finally, the sheriff recommends that Early home school him and Early replies “what the hell is in it for me?” The sheriff tells Early that he will get paid for homeschooling Rusty so…Rusty goes to school. This entire scene reinforces the stereotype that poor rural whites are stupid and uneducable and also continues developing the idea that Early is completely self serving and doesn’t really care about his family. Willis and Fortier are also able to take a pot shot at the home schooling movement, further developing the idea that poor rural whites are rednecks who “cling to their guns and religion.”
The episode goes on to show Rusty’s home school education. Early and Rusty are standing in the woods, Early takes attendance, and then says “On to history. Now, what just happened?” When Rusty replies “I don’t know,” Early says “Hell, I don’t know either. Must be a repossessed memory,” then he pulls out a can of paint thinner and says “Damn you party liquor” making an inference to the recent documentary film, White Lightening, that chronicles the life of West Virginia mountain dancer Jessico White and his addiction to inhalants. The scene then changes to a service station bathroom where Early says, “Rusty, read from the assigned text.” Rusty responds from inside the bathroom stall saying “They paint these walls to hide my pen/ But the shithouse poet strikes again.” Here it is not clear whether Willis and Fortier are taking a shot at rednecks or academics when Early asks, “What did the shithouse poet mean by that?” Rusty then surprises the audience by saying “maybe he feels oppressed by an Orwellian overlord so he lashes out with guerilla style poetry and what not.”
The scene continues when Early ignores Rusty’s analysis of the shithouse poet’s work and says “go ahead with the text.” Rusty, again reading from inside the bathroom stall says “For a good B.J. call 555-0169.” Immediately, Early grabs an old giant 1980s mobile phone and says “repeat the last stanza” and dials the number. The old toothless granny answers the phone and asks “are you calling about the B.J.?” At this point, Willis and Fortier feel the need to back off just a little bit because they are getting way beyond the realms of good taste. It turns out that the B.J. that was advertised on the bathroom stall was not fellatio but was instead, Boysenberry Jam. However, it is odd that the creators of the series and the executive producers of the Cartoon Network would feel that all of the stereotypes of rural people that the series perpetuates and exaggerates are somehow acceptable but that Granny fellatio was somehow in too bad a taste for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
The scene ends with Early telling Rusty “get your stuff son, we got a field trip.” In the following scene the audience finds Early and Rusty out in nature. Early says “this here is a field and you is gonna take a trip” and then pushes Rusty down a well. He looks into the well and says “If you get out, you passed” and then returns to his shack out in the country. Early is joined by his wife who asks, “did you throw his ass down the well” and then says “I hope he gets out cause tonight’s the prom.” Rusty gets out for the prom and Early tells him “Rusty, now you got finals tomorrow. After that, you’re future is only limited by damn foreigners who come in here & took up all the damn jobs and you can’t shoot ‘em cause then you the one at fault.” Meanwhile, in the middle of Early’s jingoistic speech (which by the way, is the longest sentence that Early has said throughout the entire episode), the granny and the step mom get in a knife fight over who is going to dance with Rusty and then start making out with each other. In this scene, Willis and Fortier add xenophobia and sexual promiscuity to the litany of ways that poor rural whites are racialized and othered.
In the final scene, the audience gets to see Rusty’s final exam. Rusty is standing alone on the railroad tracks and Early tells the onlookers that if Rusty is smart enough to move out of the way when the train comes, then he passes. Rusty moves out of the way and then says “I am a high school congradulate.” If one were to look at all of these examples of how poor rural whites are depicted in the animated series Squidbillies, one would assume that the series was a short film or a half hour situation comedy like The Family Guy or South Park. However, this particular episode of Squidbillies was only eleven minutes long. In only eleven minutes, Willis and Fortier are able to reinforce and extend a discourse of exclusion that “others” poor rural whites that has been in existence since colonial America. The visual rhetoric and speech acts that make up this discourse help to reinforce the values of the ruling class—specifically, the merits of capitalism. In other words, poor rural whites don’t have to be indolent, lazy, xenophobic redneck crackers—they choose to be. The dominant class can say the same thing about poor rural whites that it has said about those from other races, ethnicities, and cultures: “If they will just learn to act more white then they wouldn’t have as many problems.” And if the rednecks can’t learn to act more white? Well then let them eat SPAM because they probably already do anyway.
Byrd, William. History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. New York: Dover, 1967.
McCarter, William Matthew. “Homo Redneckus: Redefining White Trash in America.” http://www.americanpopularculture.com. 1 1, 2005. http://www.americanpopularculture.com/archive/style/homo_redneckus.htm (accessed 1 18, 2011).
Wray, Matt and Newitz, Annalee. White Trash: Race and Class in America. Routledge. New York. 1997.
William Matthew McCarter is college professor from Southeast Missouri. He recently published academic work in The Atrium: A Journal of Academic Voices and Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice and Fastcapitalism. He has also published critical work in The Ascentos Review and in The Steel Toe Review. He has also published fiction and book reviews. His first academic book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America will be published in 2012.