Netflix confirmed that J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture In Crisis” will be making its debut as a Netflix original film. The novel, which stood on the New York Times’ bestseller list for over two years, is supposedly a staple for the liberal to understand working class culture and the conservative to find confirmation and acceptance.
Stereotypes create generalized expectations of how society is supposed to view certain groups of people. Appalachia has long been victim to the overgeneralization of what it means to be rural, poor and out-of-touch. Vance abandons his heritage for the sake of pride and vanity to paint a dangerous picture of the home he left behind.
The memoir regales how his grandparents migrated from Appalachian Kentucky to Ohio for a better life and how Vance survived his mother’s drug addiction by joining the Marines and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. A supposed beacon of hope for unwillingly rural kids who dream of a life beyond the mountains, I can appreciate the sentiment of the memoir while finding fault in every other aspect of the work.
The problem with “Hillbilly Elegy” is that it attempts to personify Appalachia while simultaneously suppressing Appalachians.
This is not to say that I can’t identify with his painfully accurate depictions of what Appalachian families and culture look like. Vance uniquely describes a family somewhat similar to my own, though we hail from very different sections of Appalachia. I can’t criticize the weirdly specific yet woefully accurate narrative of familial ties and loyalty.
Vance does, however, capitalize on dangerous stereotypes to describe and retell his life.
The “welfare queens” that Vance recalls is a concept that continues to blemish and insult the rampant cycle of poverty that typifies rural America. The patriotic mantra of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has never been a reality for most Americans. Generational poverty is instilled in policy. There are very few who break the cycle. Vance is the exception, not the rule.
Appalachia spans 13 states, from the southern tip of New York into the abdomen of the Deep South. The generalizations of a single man turns one Appalachian experience into the shared lives of millions. There is a distinct point in the book where the subjective “I” becomes the objective “we.” Appalachia is not what Vance remembers.
The memoir continues to place blame on the rural, impoverished, working class that got Donald Trump elected into office, insinuating that ignorance is a side effect of living there. Vance fails to mention the vast and complex system of voter disenfranchisement or the large swaths of land without access to broadband internet. The all-encompassing label of “out-of-touch” seems to be his only explanation.
There's a romanticization of Appalachia in Hollywood and the mainstream media. There's something primitive to the backwater redneck that entices anyone who isn’t from there. There's a specific difference between the southern drawl and the Appalachian twang.
The food, culture, art, music, accent and communities are vastly different from anywhere else in the U.S. The speciality allows for a hyper-fixation on specific experiences, like Vance’s, that seek to explain the curiosity of the mountains. This only works to erase entire communities and their stories, too.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a pathetic attempt to display the self-righteousness Vance feels at having “escaped” Appalachia. Anyone who reads this will continue to maintain dangerous predispositions of Appalachians and the communities they live in. There's no expectation for actual understanding of the prerequisites to poverty that exist in the area. The surface level analysis is weak and subjective.
This memoir is nothing but a 260-page attempted expose on the, seemingly oxymoronic, lethargic working class. It will never be an accurate depiction of the mountains and everyone who calls Appalachia home. We need resources and representation in government. We need folks to stay and put in the work.
Appalachia is not something to overcome or escape; it represents everything worth fighting for and more.
For alternative reading and a more dynamic understanding of Appalachia I suggest the following volumes:
Summer Conley is a junior public policy and administration major. Contact Summer at email@example.com.