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Forum on West Virginia: Halftime stereotypes

West Virginians have a sense of humor, says Dan Radmacher, but the jokes are simply tiresome -- and untrue

Sunday, January 05, 2003

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - It didn't take long for the barefoot and toothless jokes to start once I told my Illinois colleagues that I had accepted a job in West Virginia.

  Dan Radmacher is the editorial page editor of the Charleston Gazette danrad@wvgazette.com. 

That was 10 years ago. West Virginia remains the butt of jokes based on the stereotype of moonshine-swilling, gap-toothed inbred hillbillies in tattered clothes and bare feet.

So it was no real surprise when the University of Virginia pep band indulged in the same tacky, tasteless stereotypes during halftime of the Continental Tire Bowl game against West Virginia University (see story here). A spoof of the popular television reality show "The Bachelor," the pep band routine had an eligible male trying to choose between a UV pre-med student and a WVU student clad in bib overalls. Recollections differ over whether the WVU student was wearing shoes.

Band director Adam Lorentson, a junior at Virginia, insisted the depiction was not degrading. "She didn't have her teeth blacked out or anything," he said.

West Virginians put up with this sort of thing all the time. The producers of "The Real Beverly Hillbillies" have been here twice looking for "suitable" candidates for the planned reality show moving a real version of the Clampett clan to a Beverly Hills mansion.

Most people I know are hoping that some lucky family from Arkansas or Kentucky makes the grade so we won't have to cringe through an entire season of some backwoods family from here sitting around the cement pond. Let another state deal with that honor.

And we can hardly wait for the next movie set in West Virginia. It's called "Wrong Turn." It's about a group of young people who get lost in the West Virginia wilderness where they are stalked by "cannibalistic mountain men grossly disfigured through generations of inbreeding."

I've lost track of how many times I've heard West Virginians indignantly remind people that "Deliverance" was set in Georgia, not West Virginia.

A few years back, a Kentucky firm used an outhouse as the symbol for West Virginia in a computer program for students. In the 10 years I've lived here, I've seen only one outhouse, owned by a charming and intelligent couple whose only running water comes from a nearby stream. They chose this simple lifestyle, and neither of them is a West Virginia native.

When news came that a West Virginian won the $280 million Christmas Day lottery jackpot, there were nearly audible sighs of relief when he turned out to be a successful entrepreneur and not, well, a barefoot hillbilly.

Despite all this practice, West Virginians don't respond well to these episodes. Just ask the University of Virginia. The university issued an apology after being deluged with angry phone calls and letters, including one from Gov. Bob Wise (who hardly helps West Virginia's reputation with his penchant for clogging -- kind of an Appalachian Riverdance -- at nearly every public opportunity).

West Virginians aren't humorless. But we are working with a definite inferiority complex. (I say "we" because I consider myself a West Virginian, though, by local custom, it will take at least three generations before my descendants are considered true natives.)

That inferiority complex arises from a number of issues. Tell people you're from West Virginia, and chances are good they'll mention Richmond or some other city in the Old Dominion. It's West Virginia, not western Virginia. If they realize West Virginia is an actual state, there's a half decent chance they'll mention "Deliverance," remark on dental care or ask if your family tree has any branches.

Stereotypes almost always have some basis -- however small -- in fact. West Virginia has its share of poverty, crime, incest and dental problems, but not much more than its share. How would you like to constantly be defined by the worst of your heritage rather than the best of your present?

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