This page features articles and reviews about media representations of rural areas and people.

Tumbleweeds in the Bluegrass State
By John James Snidow

About halfway through the first episode of FX’s new show Justified, a Confederate-flag-wearing, rocket-propelled-grenade-launching, minority-hating, ex-con, ex-miner, good-old-boy of a Kentuckian pulls out a Mason jar full of a clear liquid and smiles. And the audience knows without being told, just as you know reading this right now, that it’s not gin, it’s not vodka and no, that jar is definitely not water. It’s moonshine.

But moonshine whiskey? In 2010? In times of prohibition, moonshining makes sense. In times of high alcohol excise taxes, moonshining makes sense. In times of poverty in which people have more corn than money to buy booze, well, sure. But I have to believe that it would be considerably more expensive to set up a still in modern-day Harlan County than it would be to go down to the package store and pick up some Kentucky Gentleman ($5.99 for a fifth, gentle reader). So why moonshine?

Maybe it’s just that white lightning—like confederate belt buckles and coal mining—is a trope that signals “Appalachia” to the rest of the country through a thousand unspoken cultural associations. Maybe, but I think there’s something more complicated going on. Moonshine—and by extension the Appalachia created by FX—embodies an outlaw, stick-it-to-the-man attitude toward the government and toward the outside world. It says that this jar—and this place—is governed by our laws, not yours. And that’s Justified in a nutshell.

The cable version of Harlan County is a place where wives don’t call 911 to report their abusive husbands. A victim takes the husband’s deer rifle from the mantel and calmly shoots him while he’s sitting at the dinner table. It’s a place where the bad guys rob the local bank, where the local lawman makes the law but rarely shoots to kill, preferring instead to disarm, disable or just outright embarrass the dimmer-witted local bad guys against whom they are squaring off. There are dozens of poker references and lots and lots and lots of cowboy hats. Black hat bad. White hat good. In Harlan, you have to enforce your own moral code, but it’s easy: just look at the hat.

In short, it has all the elements of a Clint Eastwood 19th Century Western, but without the Clint, without the West, and without the 19th Century. It’s the frontier set in 21st Century Kentucky ridge-and-valley coal country, the latest in America’s continued national fascination with literature of and about the frontier.

Of course, turning Eastern Kentucky into the new Wild West does require playing a little fast and loose with some facts. In reality, residents of Harlan County (Wikipedia map) are more likely to pronounce “your” as the “yer” of Appalachian twang rather than the “yore” of Texas drawl. Lexington is considerably more urbane than the lawless town portrayed in the show, and showing images of white-fenced horse farms of the Bluegrass to represent the landscape of Harlan County is like the characters in The O.C. taking a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to downtown Los Angeles. Yes, those things are in the same state. But, no.

Hoping to address this geographic flight of fancy, the show’s Web site has a caption that says, “Kentucky Bluegrass and horse country are northwest of Harlan County.” True. So is Louisville. And Chicago. And Seattle. But you can see the position the show’s creators are in: If you want to conjure Appalachia, you have to get yourself some coal miners, but if you’re evoking the spirit of the wild West, you just gotta show some horses.

Still, we shouldn’t get too hung up about fictional geographies, and Justified’s rural landscape—however fictional—and brand of moral clarity fills a cultural niche right now. Ours in an America that has recently loved shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Lost, in which morality (and in one, reality itself) is ambiguous, where villains and heroes alike wear hats not of black and white but of gray. Ours is an America where duels take place between two corporations competing over market share more often than between two men and with life on the line.

And in that kind of America that has no rivals, has no other superpowers against which to fight and in which every semi-urban town looks and feels and acts pretty much like every other semi-urban town, well, perhaps in that kind of America we need a place like Justified’s Harlan County, where urban complexities and ambiguities are stripped away, where the simple morality of the rural landscape rules, and where you know the bad guys by the color of their hats.

Perhaps it’s just a fable, but rural America—in this case rural Kentucky—has often been a place we go to when we need to believe in our myths again. And if, in order to keep those myths alive, Kentucky must hold the place in the 21st Century that the Western prairie held in the 20th, so be it.

John James Snidow, right, is a native of Ashland, Ky., a 2009 graduate of Harvard College and a former researcher for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Justified appears on the FX cable TV channel at 10 p.m. EDT on Tuesdays.