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A Look Inside Gender, Film, and Appalachia

By Sarah Schuetze

Traveling on the winding roads through the mountains of West Virginia, six people quickly realize that the mountains and the mountain folk are their worst nightmare. This is the premise for the film Wrong Turn, which is an example of “hillbilly horror” and a derogatory portrayal of Appalachia in popular culture.

Images of Appalachia and Appalachians in popular media range from idyllic to horrifying, and this semester, students in Professor Carol Mason’s course, Gender, Film, and Appalachia will examine this range of representation. The class is offered for credit through both the American Studies Program and the Gender & Women’s Studies (GWS) Department, where Professor Mason serves as Director of Undergraduate Studies. Mason encourages students to “analyze popular culture not only in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ representations of Appalachian life but also as an instrument with which audiences create their own sense of regional identity.” The general public is invited to sit in on three course-related lectures featuring visiting scholars as guest speakers.

This speaker series, From Reverence to Resistance: Appalachians Fighting on Film, is a robust interdisciplinary effort organized in partnership with UK’s Appalachian Center and Appalachia Studies Program (ACASP), Environmental and Sustainability Studies, English, American Studies, and GWS. The series invites everyone in the UK community to participate in the discussion about representations of Appalachia in film. Ann Kingsolver, professor of Anthropology and director of the Appalachian Center, noted that she is “very excited about this opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students and faculty to interact with these scholars about issues of representation, a core concern in Appalachian Studies.”

Stacy Takacs, professor of American Studies at Oklahoma State University, gave the first lecture on January 27. Takacs addressed the figure of the Appalachian soldier in the made-for-TV movie Saving Jessica Lynch. In the audience were members not only of Mason’s class but of an English course, Narrating America’s Wars, taught by English professor Pearl James. Professor James recalled that her students, “both those from Appalachia and those from elsewhere thought that this warranted investigation. They had not thought of Jessica Lynch as an "Appalachian soldier" as much as a female soldier.”  

James explained, that “Interdisciplinary opportunities are crucial in English, since much of what we do as scholars involves interpreting literary and cinematic texts in relation to their cultural contexts, which we learn about with help from other disciplines, including history, gender and women's studies, anthropology, and others. So this was a very good fit for my class.”

The second lecture in the interdisciplinary series featured Emily Satterwhite, associate professor of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, who examined rape revenge narratives in horror movies set in Appalachia. 

The discussion of Appalachia in film moves from derogatory to celebratory with the final film and lecture in the series presented by Beth Stephens, of University of Southern California, and internationally known performance artist Annie Sprinkle. Stephens and Sprinkle will be showing their documentary Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story and answering audience questions on March 24th at 2pm in the William T. Young Library auditorium. 

“The film is a story of a homecoming to West Virginia,” noted Mason, “where big corporations blow the tops off mountains using mountain top removal.” Stephens and Sprinkle, two self-declared ecosexuals, return to Beth’s childhood home near Gauley Mountain. There they put their bodies on the line to demonstrate how the fight for environmental justice can be sexy, fun and diverse. Mason says she wanted to conclude the lecture series on a note of irreverence and resistance to the more derogatory images.

Kingsolver noted that “We often encounter and address understandings of Appalachia refracted through the lens of media stereotypes (from Deliverance to Buckwild), and we welcome heartily a larger conversation on campus about such representations through this film and discussion series.” A reception will follow each of the lectures in the series.

Like the many roads that wind across Appalachia, the course and series organized by Mason offers a way to explore the rich terrain of Appalachia as a location, an identity, and a multifaceted concept.