‘Hillsploitation’: Things to know before you watch “Hillbilly Elegy”

The “hillbilly” is strong in American—and West Virginia—culture. Meanwhile, J.D. Vance keeps raking it on off his “Hillbilly Elegy.”

By Teresa O’Cassidy | WestVirginiaVille.com | nov23.2020

Facts first: J. D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” is not a hillbilly. He’s a venture capitalist, which in no way is to say capitalism is bad. It’s more to be able to show that the man knows how to make money and has no qualms about going all-out for top dollar. He knows the notion of hillbillies sells.

Hell, we all know hillbillies sell.

We simply don’t like it when someone is making money by putting us down. J. D. Vance has never been a hillbilly (or lived in any mountain ranges associated with the term). This was one of the main problems that individuals and critics in areas associated with hillbilly stereotypes had with the book.

At best, his ‘second-generation-from-hill-people’ status would make him a hillbilly twice-removed.

Unfortunately, “Hillbilly Elegy” became a New York Times best seller. And now, Ron Howard has directed a movie adaptation from the book, probably showing at a theater near you and certainly at a screen near you, as it premieres Nov. 24, 2020, on Netflix.

As to the author’s background, Vance’s grandparents moved from the mountains of Kentucky to Middleburgh, Ohio. Perhaps, Vance extended a “hillbilly upbringing” to himself. Or, maybe “being hillbilly” played well when he attended Ohio State University and subsequently Yale University Law School. Maybe he even believes he is a hillbilly.

He is not. At best, his ‘second-generation-from-hill-people’ status would make him a hillbilly twice-removed. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is what I call “hillsploitation.”

Hie life story does not even unfold in the tiny bit of Ohio that lies within Appalachia or the Appalachian foothills. Middletown, Ohio, where J. D. Vance was raised lies in southwestern Ohio. (The part of Ohio that is in Appalachia is in eastern and southeastern counties of the state.)

The poster for “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Exploitation films are nothing new. In the earliest days of American cinema, the local color movement in magazine and book writing was still fresh. People enjoyed reading about how people in other parts of the country lived. Hillbillies became a staple character type.

Tales of hillbilly backwardness, laziness, filthiness, lawlessness, and purported recklessness in marrying cousins (the last one can be traced to a “scholarly” article written by a doctor in North Carolina, wholly bereft of supporting evidence) were used not just to titillate. They also aimed to instruct the great unwashed masses—the multitudes of poor city dwellers who weren’t hygienic or trained in social skills—how to behave, clean, and select a spouse that wasn’t already family.

The hillbilly image sells.

In Vance’s case, though, the exploitation is in extending the label where it does not belong. It belongs in the pantheon of books about poor, rural whites. Those sell, too. Some places do have eye-catching labels for their poor rural whites, but something like “Hayseed Elegy” or “Buckeye Elegy” would not have had the instant recognition and curiosity the word hillbilly holds.

The hillbilly image sells. We all need to get used to that. It’s not going anywhere. Those of us from rural counties in West Virginia tend to hear the word “hillbilly” and bristle at outsiders using it. We also tend to think they are talking about us specifically. There are two reasons for this.

First, West Virginia is the only state whose borders are located entirely within the 13-state, 420-county cultural region encompassed by the word ‘Appalachia.’ So, where do you find the highest concentration of hillbillies?

People from the northern part of West Virginia (at least when I lived there) tended to believe the real hillbillies live in the southern part of the state. People in southern West Virginia seemed to think the real hillbillies lived in some counties further south than them.

And, then, the folks who live in the counties most associated with hillbilly stereotypes know where in their county the real hillbillies reside.

This type of thinking is like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu—the four-legged animal with two heads, one at each end, much like the CatDog cartoon character— in which individuals reject the hillbilly stereotype for themselves while confirming “real hillbillies” live somewhere else.

For those of us in southern West Virginia, we’ve had to endure outsiders—and other West Virginians—calling us hillbillies in a negative way and locals calling each other hillbilly in a positive way.

You’ll get a heap of hillbillies when you do an image search on the word “hillbilly.”

Hillbillies have, of course, long been a fertile field for entertainment We are not alone as hillbillies, after all. We have hillbilly counterparts in many places across the United States. Who among you hasn’t seen “The Beverly Hillbillies” or some similar show?

Even people who live in areas stereotyped as hillbillies tend to enjoy humor about hillbillies. WV Public Broadcasting’s “Different Drummer” series, about odd individuals in West Virginia, made both Jesco White and The Amazing Delores hot topics in the state and far beyond. I clearly remember people inside the Mountain State trading copies of tapes of those shows, quoting them, and laughing hard at the content.

The same holds true for Appalshop’s “The Wild World of Hasil Adkins.” And the remake of “The Beverly Hillbillies” into a movie was a hit (although it lacked the comedic verve that the television series showed.)

Movies about hillbillies who do exemplary, incredible things because of their value system, bravery, and determination have been popular as well. “Sargeant York”—written about a real person from Tennesee—is an example of a positive depiction of a hillbilly with deep mountain values. “The Right Stuff” was a bestselling novel and a hit movie with a significant part of the story focused on native West Virginian Chuck Yeager.

Native West Virginian Homer Hickam’s bestselling book “Rocket Boys” and the hit movie based on the book “October Sky” centered on Hickam’s youth with his friends and the teacher who worked with them to learn about how to make rockets.

More recently, native West Virginian Katherine Johnson’s character was the center of the hit book and movie “Hidden Figures.”

These sterling examples stand out in a field of entertainment that includes too many hillbilly horror productions like the “Wrong Turn” series of films; “Silent Hill,” and the episode of “The X-Files” titled “Home,” about an inbred hillbilly family.

The “Wrong Turn” franchise made bank out of hillbilly horror.

The second reason West Virginians tend to think hillbilly refers only to us is more specific to the state. The first public figure to take up the cause of speaking back to corporations and writers who depicted West Virginia in a stereotypical way—outhouses, poverty, toothlessness, shoelessness, etc.—was former West Virginia Secretary of State A. James Manchin, the uncle of Sen. Joe Manchin.

The Manchin name still carries a lot of goodwill with some because A. James stood up for West Virginia on the national stage, taking up for West Virginia with corporations, advertisers, and those in the entertainment industry.

For decades, a lot people have wrongly thought “Deliverance” was set in West Virginia.

A. James Manchin consistently stood up for the state by saying “You can’t show us that way!” And consistently West Virginia was dropped from ad campaigns and entertainment. One company had conceived a 50-state ad campaign which included an ad for West Virginia depicting an outhouse. After Manchin spoke up, the ad was changed to feature a solid black square with the words: “WV at night.” (Those “WV at night” mugs in GoMart take on a whole new meaning when you know where that started. )

Most famously, A. James took on the popular 1980s television sitcom “Night Court” because they had a set of characters who were a family from West Virginia. The characters were hilarious. A. James Manchin told them that the characters should not be tied directly West Virginia. The family became a set of recurring characters “from that place that we cannot name.”

“That place that we cannot name” left West Virginians more apt to believe that any use of the word “hillbilly” not attached to a place or any depictions that reminded them of hillbilly stereotypes were representing us.

Another example of many West Virginians (as well as people outside the state) mistaking hillbillies from one of the other hilly ranges is the movie “Deliverance.” The book “Deliverance” is clearly set in Georgia’s bit of Appalachia, but the movie never names the state in which the action takes place. So, for decades a lot people have wrongly thought “Deliverance” was set in West Virginia.

That’s Georgia’s honor, not ours.

J.D. Vance and the book that has launched a thousand arguments.

After A. James Manchin’s time passed, politicians have been equally ineffective when dealing with companies and media that distribute information or tell tales that shows West Virginia or West Virginians in a stereotypical light.

Stereotypes are difficult to fight. They are enduring because people can find examples of those whose choices and lifestyle supports the stereotypical image in some ways. Stereotypes are like self-fulfilling prophecies because those who are familiar with a stereotype tend to look for things that support their beliefs. When you go to Paris, you want to see the Eiffel Tower. When you go to the mountains …

Vance is carpetbagging his way to wealth and status by co-opting a culture


Vance is carpetbagging his way to wealth and status by co-opting a culture to exploit the fact that hillbilly characters with abnormal norms and hillbilly stories that are shown in media most regularly sell.

Whenever an author has a bestselling book or a production crew gets a hit movie from hillsploitation, there’s generally limited pushback from people who really were raised in hill culture. We tend to brush it off and ignore the idiot trying to pass for hillbilly, and the cash keeps on flowing their way.

That should stop.

Even when well-meaning, these stories do harm by explaining the culture from an outsider’s point of view, which means they let things from prior peddlers of hillsploitation creep into their work as this is likely how they first learned about hillbillies.

Why not tell interesting stories from a place of the author’s authentic life history? Narratives that show a small-town girl or boy going to a big college and becoming a success through education and a willingness to leave the area from which they had little opportunities to rise are quite popular stories. They are the American Dream, aren’t they?

Someone can posit themselves into a group of hillbillies. But they’ll never have the point of view of someone who was raised entirely in the culture with its many hilarious stories that are in no way demeaning.

We share them amongst ourselves because hillbillies love to laugh, too. These peddlers of prejudiced portrayals have no idea of the beautiful, heartwarming sides and facets that aren’t made explicit because we are a high-context culture. That means if we have to spell out for you what we mean when a look speaks volumes, you’re going to miss out on what it meant—because we don’t explain the things we assume that anyone with common sense ought to know; no high-context culture does.

And, to those of us who would like to see meaningful change in the way West Virginia is shown, we need to understand that “the hillbilly stereotype” is not ours alone. Other areas are also believed to be inhabited by hillbillies.

Some people take the word for themselves with pride. They define it by the way they live their lives, not what television or books has to say. This is what it means to “reclaim” a word. We reclaim it for what it means to us while declaiming the stereotypical meanings others attach to it.

If hillbillies or people who come from places associated with a hillbilly stereotype are going to be shown in a more realistic light, then more authors need to write, speak, record, or film their truths about their homes and people.

The type of prejudice West Virginians most often see is because they are from this state. This phenomenon is called “placism,” and it happens everywhere. Every state has a part of the state that is thought of as “less than” some other part. Every city has some part of the city where people are stereotyped as poor, less educated, and otherwise less than those doing the stereotyping (and hiring).

People from rural areas of every state labor under assumptions made about them by people from more populated parts of the state (this is where hicks, cornhuskers, farmboys, etc., come into play).

The word placism grew out of Black studies on employment, housing, and loan discrimination, by using the person’s ZIP code to know whether he or she was likely Black. Ten years ago, when I would look up placism on Google, I got no hits. Now, the word and concept seem to have taken off online as a useful way to describe being prejudiced against (or for) someone because of where they or their family live.

If hillbillies or people who come from places associated with a hillbilly stereotype are going to be shown in a more realistic light, then more authors need to write, speak, record, or film their truths about their homes and people.

Whether these entertainment vehicles are documentary or fiction doesn’t make as much of a difference as “being honest and realistic” does. J. D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” was a hit because it did tell his truth, as far as life with a grandmother steeped in values had worked to instill those values in him as his family lived through the horrors of his mother’s addiction.

As a state, West Virginia needs more authors from parts of the state not associated with a hillbilly stereotype to write their truths. It would be a disservice and discredit for those to perpetuate the notion that “the real hillbillies” live in another part of the state.

We also need more authors and documentarians who have lived in hillbilly culture writing stories that capture audiences.

Teresa O’Cassidy earned her Masters in Communication Studies at Marshall University. She studied at WVU for three years, took time out of school to go to the School of Hard Knocks (and hated the difficulty of graduating from that school; it’s like a Dantean circle of Hell to get out). She later earned her Bachelors from Marshall and studied one semester abroad, with a focus on stereotyping, image formation and change, and portrayals of hillbillies in and outside the state. She is currently writing a novel and is a self-described hillbilly by birth and to her core.

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:


Leave a Reply