Here’s why the portrayal of Southern culture in the media matters.

BY WILLA POLAND-MCCLAIN   SEPT. 30, 2020
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Perspective: “The Devil All the Time” takes on the dogma of organized religion—while perpetuating wider stereotypes of Southern culture.

What is “The Devil All the Time”?

  • Antonio Campos’ new film, “The Devil All the Time”, offers a classically Gothic window into small-town Southern culture.
  • The film stars Tom Holland as Arvin,1 a young man with a traumatic past, as he comes of age in the deeply Christian West Virginia town of Coal Creek.2
    • His life becomes increasingly entangled with a morally corrupt cast of characters who are connected through grotesque acts of violence and their evangelical faith.2
  • In the “Devil All the Time,” no people of color appear on screen,2, 4 even though 19.3% of Southerners are Black.3
    • Given that its characters are marked by violence and intergenerational trauma in the mid-20th-century South, it is noteworthy that Campos chose to center this film solely around white experiences.4
  • Throughout the film, crucifixes accompany scenes of violence, reflecting how Campos’ characters use religion as a tool for the victimization of vulnerable characters.2, 14
    • Campos, who grew up religious, said he began to criticize the Catholic church as he got older.

What does “The Devil All the Time” show about portrayals of Southern culture in the media?

  • The characters in “The Devil All the Time” are presented as uneducated and impoverished,2 following the trend of Hollywood portraying the South as a place that is less advanced than the rest of the country.5
    • With devoutly Christian characters with hillbilly dialects who often solve their problems through violence, and a setting in which everyone is “connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another,”2, 4“The Devil All the Time” plays into the stereotypes of Southern people being impoverished, ignorant, heavily-accented and incestuous.7
  • In “The Devil All the Time,” the characters’ Christianity is presented as part of their ignorance. Because of their lack of education, the characters in “The Devil All the Time” turn to God for answers about anything from the science of pregnancy to how to save sick family members. This often leads to violence—in one case, the sacrifice of a pet, in the other, an accidental suicide.2
  • Even though the film is meant as an indictment of organized religion, the film’s attempts to explore the full implications of religion run counter to a one-dimensional perspective of Southern culture.

What are the effects of such a portrayal of Southern culture?

  • Non-Southerners may perceive the media’s characterizations of the South as reality if TV and movies are their primary contact with Southern culture.5, 6
    • “Since some members of a large country may have little to no interaction with some of the other groups in their society, mediated images may be the only way they can learn about each other. Thus, the media have a powerful role to play, and need to ensure that they neither continually reinforce negative stereotypes nor omit representation of all co-cultures in the mediated world,” Mary Anna Kidd explains in her study, “Archetypes, stereotypes and media representation in a multi-cultural society.”6
  • Hollywood often portrays the South as a place that is “behind the rest of the country, in some way or another, whether in education, housing or social beliefs,” writes Karen C. Hamilton in “Y’all Think We're Stupid: Deconstructing Media Stereotypes of The American South.”5
    • In the 1979 TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard”8 and the 1962 TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,”9 Southern characters are uneducated and brash caricatures with dramatic Appalachian accents.
      • As in “The Devil All the Time,” a near total absence of Black characters in these shows erases the racist history of the South.8, 10
  • For white, rural Evangelicals, stereotypes or negative depictions of Southern religion can feel like a threat to their way of life.11
    • “We see religious freedoms being taken away … That is something very worrisome and dear to us, our religious freedom,” said Cheryl Driesen, a 52-year-old Christian, in a New York Times article about Evangelical support for Donald Trump.
  • In a political context, TIME Magazine noted that, “At its heart, Southern politics is cultural politics…. The idea of the South is very important to the people of the South, and it has been for a very long time. [There] is a massive cultural gap between most of the South and [the Democratic party], and it translates into electoral routs.”16
    • As a result of such a cultural gap, in 2016, over 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.13
      • According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 82% of white evangelical protestant voters said they would vote for Trump if the election was held in July.12

In a Quote:

“I feel like on the coasts, in some of the cities and stuff, they look down on us in rural America. You know, we are a bunch of hicks, and don’t know anything. They don’t understand us the same way we don’t understand them. So we don’t want them telling us how to live our lives.”

Jason Mulder, an evangelical Christian from Iowa, speaking to the New York Times.11


References:

  1. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7395114/
  2. “The Devil All the Time”, movie
  3. https://statisticalatlas.com/region/South/Race-and-Ethnicity
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/movies/the-devil-all-the-time-review.html
  5. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1491&context=etd
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042816316408
  7. https://www.insider.com/stereotypes-about-people-in-the-south-that-arent-true-2020-4
  8. https://time.com/3944668/dukes-of-hazzard-tv-land-confederate-flag/
  9. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Beverly-Hillbillies
  10. https://tropicsofmeta.com/2018/09/25/cornpone-cultural-politics-in-the-beverly-hillbillies/
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/09/us/evangelicals-trump-christianity.html
  12. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/01/white-evangelical-approval-of-trump-slips-but-eight-in-ten-say-they-would-vote-for-him/
  13. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/
  14. https://www.theverge.com/21445348/the-devil-all-the-time-review-netflix-tom-holland-robert-pattinson
  15. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/antonio-campos-tells-rian-johnson-about-making-the-devil-all-the-time
  16. https://time.com/5349531/democrats-dont-get-the-south/