Understanding the Televisual South

It’s hard to turn on the television and not think about the U.S. South. From reality shows such as The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Southern Charm, and Duck Dynasty, to fear-inducing thrillers like The Walking Dead, True Blood, and True Detective, and bingeable shows including Atlanta, Ozark, Queen Sugar, and Dexter, the U.S. South seems to be broadcast everywhere, functioning on the small-screen as a spectacle of fascination, ridicule, danger, and desire.

Even when the South isn’t the central setting of the show, it somehow manages to work its way into the frame. Take, for example, HBO’s latest David Simon and George Pelecanos venture The Deuce, set in Manhattan in the late seventies. Not even five episodes in, and there we are outside a barbeque restaurant on the outskirts of Charlotte as one of the main characters—a prostitute named Darlene—lures an unsuspecting “country cousin” back with her to the city and into the sex-industry of 42nd street. It’s not hard to think of other examples of shows harnessing the South’s signifying powers, often engendering the region in the process—Charlotte as “southern belle” on Sex in the City, or Detective Amanda Rollins’ role as southerner on the long-running Law and Order: SVU. The premise and pleasure of these series emerges in part from their play with foundational myths of southern womanhood and ideas about region in relation to nation.

Yet this “southern programming” is hardly a new phenomenon. From 1960s favorites The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies to the 80s and 90s series Dallas and A Different World and the 2000s teen drama One Tree Hill, the U.S. South has managed to hold on through multiple TV turns. Of course, some of the recent proliferation of the South on television is a result of the numerous tax incentives the industry has received from southern states and cities eager to bring new business into their borders. Regardless of one’s geographical home, there’s a good chance a TV viewer has been watching some version of the South for years—and in turn people in the South have been watching themselves imagined on the small screen.

While recent collections such as Deborah Barker and Katherine McKee’s American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary have stirred interest in visual representations of the region, the role of television, we noticed, was largely neglected, despite a proliferation of programming set in and about the South. Our work in Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television seeks to fill in this gap and to raise meaningful questions about what it means to watch the South across the domestic intimacy and public ubiquity of the televisual medium. As the first book-length study broadly dedicated to the relationship between television and the U.S. South, our collection considers the region and its televisual archive from the classical network era to our contemporary “post-broadcast” era, focusing on how the televisual South speaks to national and transnational transformations, including changing ways of thinking about race, class, gender, and regional identity itself.

We worked consciously to solicit work from contributors from diverse fields, so as to emphasize the variety of intellectual approaches that are possible at the intersections of television, regionalism, nationalism, and globalization, and to reflect a nuanced vision of place. The result, we think, is an intensely readable and teachable collection of sixteen essays that offer dynamic new ways of thinking about the televisual South.


A few key texts functioned as foundational scholarship for our understanding of the relationship between the U.S. South and mass media in Small-Screen Souths: Region, Identity, and the Cultural Politics of Television.

Deborah Barker and Kathryn McKee, American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary (UGA Press, 2011). This book is a key inspiration for our collection: we admire its scope, its readability, and the way in which it persuasively makes the case that that, far from being a marginal or merely regional set of tropes and images, the South has been integral to the development of filmmaking on a national scale. Barker and McKee’s concept of “the southern imaginary,” which they define as “an amorphous and sometimes conflicting collection of images, ideas, attitudes, practices, linguistic accents, histories, and fantasies about a shifting geographic region and time,” was influential for our development of our central concept of the “televisual South.”

Karen L. Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2013). Cox traces the history of the U.S. South in popular culture from the late nineteenth century through World War II, drawing attention to the establishment of key southern icons—the mammy, the belle, the plantation—in film, popular music, radio, and literature, while emphasizing the connections between regional and national identity.

Allison Graham, Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle (Johns Hopkins UP, 2003). Graham brilliantly surveys the ways in which the media, particularly television and film, presented southerners during the period of the civil rights revolution, with a special emphasis on how films have confronted—or avoided—issues of racism.

Jack T. Kirby, Media-Made Dixie: The South In the American Imagination (UGA Press, 2004). Kirby’s study develops a portrait of how “Dixie” comes into fashion through popular culture from early cinematic sensations such as The Birth of a Nation to the plays and cinematic adaptations of Tennessee Williams to Jimmy Carter’s presidency. While we offer a different portrait of the South and popular culture than Kirby, his book is an early touchstone text in a developing conversation about the interplay between mass culture and regional identity.

Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (NYU Press, 2007). Lotz persuasively details how the television is not dead in the age of digital media and the “post-network” era; rather, she argues, it is being “revolutionized” by portable viewing devices and digital recording.

Anna McCarthy, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Duke UP, 2001). Arguing against the ways that television studies has long focused on domestic spaces, McCarthy examines how television is a pervasive phenomenon outside the home, filling our time in airports, sporting events, and waiting rooms. She also discusses the different roles that television plays in these contexts, focusing on how “ambient television” mobilizes us into captive audiences for ideas about gender, class, and consumption.

Tara McPherson, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South (Duke UP, 2003). McPherson’s masterful book reinvigorated southern studies through inventively drawing on a diverse archive—fiction, film, television, southern studies scholarship, journalism, music, tourist sites, the internet, and autobiography—to reveal how the “lenticular logic” that has dominated the U.S. South’s remembering of its past has also shaped our national identity.

Scott Romine, The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction (LSU Press, 2008). Romine examines what it means to understand the U.S. South in the “age of cultural reproduction,” wherein cultural identity must be understood within the broader context of mass media, global corporations, and the logic of commodification. Romine’s compelling arguments about artifice, authenticity, and “reality” resonate throughout our collection.


Lisa Hinrichsen, associate professor of English and director of graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, is the author of Possessing the Past: Trauma, Imagination, and Memory in Post-Plantation Southern Literature.

Gina Caison is assistant professor of English at Georgia State University.

Stephanie Rountree is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Department of English at Auburn University.

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