Nick Bowman, Young Harris College and Jeremy Groskopf, Georgia State University
In November 2004, [adult swim] previewed an animated show about a family of quasi-anthropomorphic, endangered land squids living in the Appalachian region of northern Georgia. This show, Squidbillies, is typical in its portrayal of the Cuyler family as an impoverished, uneducated and fiercely xenophobic family of hillbillies reminiscent of other Hollywood representations of the Appalachian region. Although on its surface the show appears to be yet another satire about hillbillies and rednecks, further investigation into the show’s narrative reveals an emergent concept of otherness in how the writers portray non-Appalachian groups, specifically suburban whites (referred to as “yogurt lovin’ ‘Chalkies’”). In these depictions, the writers use satire to express a sense of self-depreciating humor toward their own culture. This paper examines the concept of otherness emergent in Squidbillies, specifically focusing on how the priming of the hillbilly stereotype is used as a literary device to introduce and comment on Chalkie culture.
[to Durwood]: “You were smart enough to get your GED and get the hell out, you don’t have to prove a thing to these…people!” ~ Fiona, on her first impression of the squidbillies.
The stereotype of the hillbilly – sitting on his front porch, barefoot, unkempt, unemployed, and unencumbered by the trappings of the modern world – is common in motion pictures and television. Its presence extends from early silent era film shorts like 1905's Kentucky Feud, to 1960s television success The Beverly Hillbillies, to the recent-albeit-aborted reality television series The Real Beverly Hillbillies (since made into a documentary film called The True Adventures of the Real Beverly Hillbillies in 2007). Comic strips and animation have also engaged with the hillbilly stereotype. The 1930s comic strip Li’l Abner was one of the first successful comics to feature hillbilly portrayals exclusively. Animators at Warner Brothers were also particularly fond of the Appalachian backwoods bumpkin, making several cartoons with hillbilly characters from the early 1930s to the late 1950s. The apparently aggressive use of humor surrounding the image of the hillbilly certainly ranks as one of the most common disparaging images of the American southerner.
In November 2004, The Cartoon Network late-night programming block [adult swim] previewed an animated show about a family of quasi-anthropomorphic squids living in the Appalachian region of northern Georgia: Squidbillies. This show, written by Jim Fortier and Dave Willis, is reminiscent of other Hollywood representations of the Appalachian region in its portrayal of the Cuyler family as an impoverished, uneducated and fiercely xenophobic family of hillbillies. However, much like the Warner Brothers cartoons fifty years earlier, the 'otherness' of the hillbilly stereotype is rendered in complicated fashion in this animated series. Although on its surface, the show appears to be yet another satire about hillbillies and rednecks, further investigation into the show’s narrative reveals an emergent concept of otherness in how the writers portray non-Appalachian groups, such as suburban Whites. The final two episodes from the 2009 season – “Reunited, and It Feels No Good” (Episode 49) and “Not Without My Cash Cow!”(Episode 50) – display the contentious relationship between the hillbilly Cuyler family (Granny, Early, Rusty, and Lil) and the inter-'racial' Chalkie family (Durwood, Fiona, and two unnamed children) as the two families fight over possession of the squidbilly son, Rusty, and the “government money checks” that are to provide for his care. In the nested depiction of 'otherness' that occurs with these two families, the writers use satire to express a sense of self-depreciating humor towards their own suburban Caucasian culture.
Our paper examines the concept of otherness emergent in two episodes of Squidbillies, specifically focusing on how the priming of the hillbilly stereotype in these episodes is used as a literary device to invite the audience into a humorous and revealing critique of the white, suburban status quo that challenges the perceived superiority of one culture (upper-middle class whites) over another (hillbillies). First, we discuss the concept of ‘otherness’ and its meaning to the current study, as well as our understanding of the Burkeian concepts of identification and dramatism as they relate to ‘otherness.’ Related to this, we introduce our understanding of the benign scapegoat as a rhetorical method of offering social criticism without solution, and how humor can be used as a talking cure to alleviate the mental pain stemming from such criticism. Then, we present evidence in support of our assertions regarding the use of the ‘hillbilly’ stereotype as a commentary on the suburban white subculture, using both exemplars from the highlighted episodes as well as interview notes with the show’s creators and writers.
Otherness, identification, and Burke
In our understanding of otherness, we refer to Burke’s (1950) discussion of identification; that is, the notion that the interests of one party ‘A’ are joined with the interests of another party ‘B’. To us, otherness is the extent to which we can distinguish the other ‘B’ as something separate from our own reflective ‘A’. We feel that this understanding is in line with Burke’s (1950) explanation of consubstantiation, which explains that while A and B might be united in some substance (i.e., some common idea or attitude), they are not united in corporeal form. In application to the current study, we conceptualize the squidbilly characters – the ‘hillbilly’ land squid characters in Squidbillies – as distinct others, while we (as well as the show writers, as is revealed later in this manuscript) identify with the “Chalkies” – the Caucasian caricatures who are the subject of tendentious commentary throughout both of the presented episodes. Presented in the form of Burke’s pentad, we can begin to understand the ultimate motivation of the writer’s (and, to the extent that one identifies with the writers as we have stated, our own) metaphorical creation. While a complete rehashing of the Burkeian dramatistic pentad is beyond the scope of this paper , we will use the pentadic structure of explaining the Act, Agent, Agency, Scene and Purpose with a specific focus on the ratio between the Purpose (dominant) and Agency (non-dominant) to further explain the show’s goal using the tragic hillbilly stereotype as the literary device for purposes of highlighting the banality and absurdity of the white suburban status quo.
Scapegoating and the ‘talking cure’
Typically, when one discusses the role of scapegoating they are referring to a rhetorical device that is employed to expose, demonize, and eventually force the removal of a perceived societal cancer. This tactic, according to Braden’s (2000) interpretation of Burke, is used by those in positions of authority to heap the blame and guilt of in-group failures onto a third party in hopes of marginalizing this third party and driving them from societal prominence . While the notion of a scapegoat has been well-documented, a rather unique off-shoot of this practice is the benign scapegoat, in which the rhetor continually attempts to identify a scapegoat of which they have no real plans of destroying. Braden (2000) offers an explanation of the benign scapegoat – the notion that a group might be made a scapegoat without actually being removed. An application of Braden’s assertion is the 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, who often attacked the then-current government as being liberal and intrusive into the lives of private citizens. Reagan’s use of the benign scapegoat is one of misdirection more so than maliciousness – claiming to be against ‘Big Government’ as code for Democrats and/or liberals rather than championing for the actual removal of government – and he used these rhetorical devices to gain favor with the larger population, eventually securing himself eight years as the 40th President of the United States by carrying 44 states and a 440-point Electoral College margin. The concept of the benign scapegoat as explained by Braden (2000) can be applied to some extent to help us understand the hillbilly portrayals present in Squidbillies not as an attempt to disparage and purge Appalachian people from society, but rather to introduce a comparative anxiety in need of deeper thought and consideration.
The introduction of any sort of anxiety, of course, brings with it the need for a cure, as individuals are motivated to preserve the self by obtaining and sustaining an optimal level of emotional and experiential homeostasis (cf. Zillmann & Bryant, 1985; Bowman, 2010). In this case, as the social anxiety is induced through rhetoric, rhetoric might also be the tonic. Indeed the notion of rhetoric as a talking cure is not a novel one, as it was first introduced by famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, who championed the use of language and rhetoric as a psychiatric cure. Simons (1989) further explains Burke’s application of the talking cure to the field of rhetorical analysis:
In any attempt to achieve an understanding of the unconscious, the unconscious functioning of language is a strategic point of departure. The fact that language compels its speakers to articulate structures largely unconscious to them provided an important window through which to view the much larger sphere of unconsciously followed patterns of social activity (pp. 80)
For Burke, talking through rhetorical dilemmas was more than simply a way to alleviate individual anxiety but, in fact, was also a useful way of achieving greater social and mental health (Woods, 2009). The notion of the talking cure is especially prevalent in studies of comedy whichconceive ofhumoras a form of 'carnivalesque': thepalatabledelivery of social critiquein an isolated, humorousevent (Bakhtin 1941).
Explorations of 'otherness' are common place in scholarship on media portrayals, but most rely on a rather straightforward interpretation of the 'other' as the negative half of a binary (the group with which one does not identify), or the group from which the rhetoric alienates us as Kenneth Burke would have it. Frierson (1998) is typical of this approach, in which he argues that Warner Brothers cartoons:
reinforc[e] a negative image of mountain life...[which] fits neatly within...broader...stereotypes of the South, which teach us that in addition to talking funny, southerners generally are slow, lazy, and quick to become violent. (pp. 99)
Cooke-Jackson and Hansen (2008) are even more strident in their claims about the negative impact of stereotypes. In their discussion of Appalachian women, they write:
Entertainment media, for the sake of a laugh, depicts poor Appalachian women as barefoot and pregnant. This humor based on stereotypes leads media consumers, who are unfamiliar with the culture, to believe that all poor Appalachian women are indeed barefoot and pregnant. (pp. 187)
This type of one-sided assumption that any media stereotype must ipso facto be negative, damaging, and utterly unquestioned by the audience is the typical reading of hillbilly imagery. However, a few articles on otherness have taken an alternate tack, arguing that the 'other' is a position not necessarily devoid of goodness and positive value. Magoc (1991) argues that clear critiques of modern society exist in programs like The Beverly Hillbillies in which, in one episode, Jed is thwarted in his attempt to donate a massive amount of money to the government for environmentalist research by his banker, who represents “the inertia of modern institutions and the power of structure...[to] keep environmental problems from being solved” (pp. 29). Though much of the series was simple hillbilly humor, the program had an edge to it which allowed for a critique of the modern urban lifestyle as well. It is along these lines that the present essay with move. For the balance of this paper, we will argue that while Squidbillies certainly devotes a substantial amount of time chiding hillbillies for their perceived backward ways, this chiding is used as a narrative device in order to bring the audience along on a critique of a far less often maligned population: themselves.
So, what is a squidbilly? Show writer Dave Willis explains simply that “they’re rednecks…they huff and they scratch lottery tickets; they’re hillbilly squids” (Willis, 2010). In the third season of Squidbillies, a squidbilly is explained as an “ignorant land squid”; a protected endangered species native to Dougal County, a fictitious county supposedly located in northern Georgia (Fortier & Willis, 2008). Although their diet often consists of little more than “mud pies and turpentine” (Fortier & Willis, 2008), squidbillies are quasi-anthropomorphic and live relatively typical Western lives, driving large trucks and living in (comparatively) modern homes. So far as the audience knows, the Cuyler family and their progeny are the only remaining living land squids.
The show itself is an exercise in surreal humor, using a juxtaposition of the hillbilly stereotype placed upon the fictitious land squid. According to both Fortier (2010) and Willis (2010), one benefit of this approach is that it allows for the use of relatively specific and topical humor – such as jokes about race relations and bigotry – while avoiding the complications of addressing such topics in a more traditional, more blunt fashion. However, it breaks from typical surrealism in that the show is nearly void of non-sequiturs; that is, the narrative progresses rather smoothly from start to finish. The show is broadcast on Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network channel during their [adult swim] lineup, which is a collection of adult-themed cartoons, surrealist humor programming (both animated and live-action), and Japanese anime programs that airs from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. EST. [adult swim] is routinely a ratings boon for late-night programming, consistently earning the largest cable television audience numbers for adults 18-34, 18-24, and men 18-34 and 18-24 (Seidman, 2010), with Squidbillies itself ranking as one of the 10 most popular telecasts for all four of these audience segments (Gorman, 2009).
Figure 1. Enter Squidbillies.
Title screen for ‘Squidbillies’. The show is currently enjoying its fifth season of programming on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] late-night line-up.
Summary of analyzed episodes
The two episodes of Squidbillies analyzed for this study are the final two episodes of season four. These two episodes – “Reunited, and It Feels No Good” (Episode 49) and “Not Without My Cash Cow!”(Episode 50) – are selected for analysis specifically because of their specific focus on the dialectic between the native land squids and the ‘Chalkie scourge’ which provides ample fodder for our investigation. In Episode 49, Early’s cousin Durwood (who appears in whiteface, wearing a polo shirt, cargo shorts and a Bluetooth headset clipped behind his left ear) brings his family – including his Caucasian wife Fiona and his two mixed-race children – to the country. Notably, the motive for their initial visit is not revealed to the audience until later. Upon their arrival (they pull up in a red SUV listening to soft rock a lá Kenny G), Early immediately gropes and grabs Fiona, telling Durwood that he’d like to “put the wood to [his] wife” (see Figure 2). Horrified by Rusty’s maltreatment, and prompted by an art project Rusty presents Durwood – which is clearly a call for help – Durwood convinces Fiona and their children to take Rusty back to the city for a few days; later, it is revealed to the viewer (but not to Rusty) that he is being kidnapped. At first, Early is far from upset about the loss of his child. However, when Lil proclaims that without Rusty, the family will “stop getting those free government money checks”, Early breaks down and sobs: “It’s wrong that they took you from your daddy!”
Figure 2. Early Cuyler is introduced to Fiona.
Early Cuyler (left) is introduced to his cousin Durwood’s wife, Fiona. Durwood is pictured with his whiteface disguise, polo shirt, smartphone, and other decidedly ‘Chalkie’ regalia.
Episode 50 begins with a visit from The Sheriff, who has come to the Cuyler home to deliver the government money check. After discovering the boy is gone, The Sheriff launches an investigation into his disappearance (after first launching a flare gun in the Cuyler’s living room that destroys much of the home’s interior). The scene changes to Durwood and his family, who are driving back to suburban Atlanta with Rusty in the car. Meanwhile, Early and Granny hold a press conference where it becomes obvious to the audience that they know little about Rusty, explaining only that “the boy did exist…he did have interests” and, with tearful remorse, Early asks for his government money check. This press conference is picked up on all major television networks, which Durwood discovers when his family and Rusty (who appears with a newly-groomed haircut) gather around their large, flat-screen television. Back in the mountains, Early and Granny continue to discuss their woes - and to plead for more money – on the television talk show circuit. Granny exclaims that “we will not rest until our baby Rusty is found…but we will pace ourselves, because we do not want to step on the golden goose” (at which point, Early shows off his new riding lawn mower and Granny promotes an energy drink as part of her new endorsement package). Shifting back to Durwood’s home, we see that he has left for work, leaving Rusty and Fiona at home while the kids are in school. At this time, it is revealed that Durwood has actually been terminated from his job as an insurance adjuster, and rather spends his day at a male strip club “Flesh Dudes”; dressed in a suit and tie, we see Durwood on the phone with child services inquiring about whether or not his forced adoption (re: kidnapping) of Rusty Cuyler will qualify him for a “government money check”. Back at home, we see Fiona drinking heavily from her box of wine and sexually soliciting Rusty, asking him if he’s “ever inked on a grown woman before”. Fiona and a hesitant Rusty retire to the bedroom, when Durwood comes home early from work to find them in a sexually compromising position. Durwood and Fiona argue, beating Rusty savagely in the process, before sending Rusty back to the mountains in a burlap sack. Early and Granny are setting up for another photo shoot and television interview – by now, they display a very informed and knowledgeable understanding of media production techniques (including taking a pause in responding to Rusty’s return home to wait for the noise from an airplane flying overhead to dissipate), and the family is happily reunited. 
Chalkies in the pentad
In placing the show’s narrative into the dramatistic pentad proposed by Burke (1948), we are asked to answer five questions: “What purposeful act has taken place?” (act), “Who took this action?” (agent), “How or with what did they do it?” (agency), “Where, when and in what context did the act take place?” (scene), and “Why did they do it, or what was their intention?” (purpose). Notably, rather than applying the pentad to discrete, exemplar situations from our Squidbillies episodes, we present a ‘meta-pentad’ of sorts that attempts to provide answers to the above questions drawing from overarching, emergent themes in the two episodes discuss in the current paper. This pentad is applied under the interpretive frame of satire, fitting in line with the expressed creative intentions of Fortier and Willis.
Act. Throughout the program, the “Chalkies” are lambasted for their perceived normalcy; that is, their ultimate flaw of being a (stereo)typical white suburban family is under constant scrutiny from Early and, by extension, the show writers and the audience-at-large. While no one act is described here per se, we refer to all tendentious units of humor directed at the “Chalkies” as a single act for purposes of argumentation; that is, the constant derision – or the act of deriding – of the white suburbanite is constant and ever-present in these two episodes.
Agent. The constant “Chalkies” derisions are perpetrated by the Cuyler family qua the show writers' semantic constructions. If we understand Early Cuyler as the protagonist and the focus of Squidbillies, we can conceptualize him as the writer’s primary voice in response to the temporal nature of the ’Chalkie scourge’; in this case, Durwood and his visit to the Cuyler mountain home. At the onset, Durwood and the “Chalkies” are originally portrayed as saviors of baby Rusty’s malnutrition and thus constructed as the antithesis of what one would expect from the morally and socially inferior hillbilly Cuyler family. However, as the narrative progresses, we see Fortier and Willis turn the tables on Durwood, showing him and his Chalkie family as increasingly absurd. Between their reliance on digital media for family entertainment, the sexual unfaithfulness between Durwood and Fiona, the disrepair of their family unit (including one instance where the Chalkie son screams at his mother, “I’m going to get a tattoo on the back of my neck that says Fuck You”) and their eventual lack of compassion for Rusty, it is the Chalkie family that becomes morally and socially inferior. In the end, the Cuylers are shown to be at least equal to Durwood and his Chalkie brood, and at most the Cuylers appear in some respects to be even more genuine and sincere. As Fortier explains:
“As we were building the scripts for these shows – especially the second episode [which largely takes place at Durwood’s home] – we wanted to viewer to realize that, in the end, Durwood and the ‘Chalkies’ differ little from Early and the hillbillies. The only difference between Durwood and Early is that Durwood wears a suit and tie. (Fortier, 2010)
Agency. The ”Chalkies” are chided for their chalkiness with sight gags and verbal jabs directed at their actions and circumstances (i.e., Early’s comments about Durwood’s consumerism, and the numerous sight gags involving Durwood’s Chalkie wardrobe and his pathetic attempts to hide his own squidbilly-ness, see Figure 3), as well as the manner in which their family dynamic is presented in subtle-yet-satirical form (i.e., the antagonistic relationship between Durwood and Fiona, driving him to frequent male strip clubs and her to a regimen of muscle relaxers and wine-from-a-box). In the end, the hillbilly humor one would normally expect in Squidbillies is turned into a series of puns directed at chipping away at the presumably perfect Chalkie façade.
Figure 3. Durwood revealed.
Durwood in Chalkie disguise (left) and in natural form (right).
Scene. While the physical setting of the show shifts from Cuyler’s meager mountain home to Durwood’s suburban ‘McMansion’, the semantic scene of the ‘family portrait’ is ever-present; the acts and actors mentioned above are always made in relation to the larger family dynamic. One example of this – perhaps one of the most prevalent – is the similarity of the relationship between Early and Rusty as well as Durwood and Rusty (the ‘government money check’ relationship). The semantic scene of the family unit becomes increasingly important as the show’s focus shifts from hillbilly chiding to Chalkie derision, as Fortier and Willis use this scene to show the dysfunctionality of Durwood, Fiona, and their children’s interrelationships (as mentioned earlier). As the Chalkie family crumbles into dysfunction, the Cuyler family comes together, however fleeting the feelings of goodwill might be.
Purpose. In the end, the two Squidbillies episodes to which the afore-mentioned pentad are applicable serve to remind us of the absurdity of the white suburban status quo. With nearly 80 percent of Americans living in suburban and urban areas and 77 percent of American’s self-reporting as white or Caucasian (nationmaster.com, n.d.), there is a large audience for such commentary and, arguably, a need to remind oneself about the dangers of this hegemonic self-satisfaction. While hillbilly and ‘other’ humor aimed at minority or so-called fringe populations abounds in popular entertainment media, often the assumed dominance and superiority of the ruling Chalkie class is not open for discussion. Fortier (2010) explains that:
[in the Chalkie episodes] we’re making fun of suburbia. We’re making fun this notion of how the ‘saviors’ next door – the white, well-to-do suburbanites – will come and save everything. In the end, we see that Durwood’s ‘saving’ of Rusty is a sham. (Fortier, 2010)
Having this pentad allows us to perhaps understand more clearly the substance of Squidbillies narrative, but it also allows us to examine certain important ratios, or relations, between separate pentadic elements. Although any combination of the above pentadic elements can be used to construct different permutations of our arguments, we focus specifically on the relationship between the Purpose as a dominant element influencing the Agency of the satire; specifically, how the Purpose (deconstructing the assumed white suburban status quo as a flawed assumption more so than a natural truth) influences the Agency (constructing and implementing a series of puns directed at ridiculing them as “Chalkies” by showing their equivalence or subversion to a commonly-accepted buffoon group of hillbillies). This ratio is of particular importance, because it is the platform by which the rest of the show and, in the end, the commentary is based upon; moreover, it is a ratio not apparent at the onset of the narrative arc but painfully focused at the conclusion.
As the first episode begins, we see Early and his family literally eating dirt and celebrating their family dynamic outside of their dilapidated mountain home. As Lil prepares the dirt pies, Early appears to blow off the entire shindig for a sit on the front porch when he spots Durwood driving up in his shiny red SUV. Durwood and Fiona discuss how the children should behave around the Cuylers – including applying antibacterial “everywhere” – and, before they can even introduce themselves Early promptly attaches his tentacles to Fiona’s face and chest. As the first episode continues, we see the standard Squidbillies lineup of hillbilly puns and humor (see earlier discussion of episode 49, “Reunited, and It Feels No Good”). However, as previously stated, this rather pedestrian plot line is used to draw the audience into the true focus of the “Chalkie scourge”; that is, the intensified chiding of the triteness of the white middle class that reveals the true Purpose of these episodes and the Agency with which it is achieved. Willis explains:
To us [Willis and Fortier], this collection of Squidbillies episodes was one of the more unique episodes. The first episode was really just a bunch of puns on and about hillbillies, nothing unusual there…the second episode was much more surprising – even to us. It was more about who we are…it was more about us [as ‘Chalkies’]. (Willis, 2010).
Indeed, our analysis follows from Willis’ assertions regarding the different tact of the latter episode, as it is in this episode that we see the true Purpose of the show revealed. From the show’s onset we see Early in the car with his adopted brother and sister, tentacles glued to their portable electronic devices and attitudes derisively primed against their progeny. While Early appears increasingly genuine and sincere, his adopted siblings appear increasingly shallow and bratty. While Fiona has always appeared to be equally shallow, we see Durwood’s true intentions for saving Rusty from the Cuylers (to cover his own unemployment using the free government money checks that would result from adopting the baby Rusty). By the time the narrative has been concluded, we see that the “Chalkies” have been devolved from a position of moral and tangible superiority at the start of the first episode – appearing as saviors to a clearly neglected baby Rusty - to a position of moral and tangible corruptness that places them equal to or even below that of the lowly hillbilly stereotype. In fact, the show’s reliance on the accepted and anticipated string of “puns on and about hillbillies” successfully sets up the eventual Purpose of these episodes – to cause the audience to question the white suburban status quo.
About hillbillies, or about ‘us’?
Rather than using hillbilly humor as an endpoint for tendentious humor in which the laughs come at the expense of the moronic actions of the rural poor, Squidbillies uses its hillbilly stereotype in these episodes as a starting point for a more reflective form of what we call 'self-othering'. That is, Fortier and Willis use the familiarity of the classic Appalachian typecast to introduce the audience to a much wider critique of predominant white suburban culture that comprises much of the show’s constituency. Seldes explains that, in typical humorous images of the hillbilly constantly drinking and feuding with his equally moronic neighbor, “the American humorist...jeers at the stupidities of the stupid, and seems not aware of the fact that a prime object of satire is the stupidity of the intelligent” (as cited by Frierson, 1998, pp. 89).
In the Chalkie episodes, the Squidbillies writers seem to be answering Seldes' critique by playing both sides – the 'stupidities of the stupid' share equal billing with the 'stupidities of the intelligent,' or, to be more accurate, the stupidities of the hillbilly share space with those of the city dweller. Instead of a blood feud between rural families, the squidbillies in these episodes are feuding with an urban, wealthy family which proclaims itself as a different race (or species), but which shares more than a passing resemblance to the squidbillies themselves; this is made especially clear with both Early and Durwood’s desire for a free government money check as a motivation for showing affection toward Rusty.
The wind up for such a delivery is long and complex, and deserves lengthy attention at the outset, as it is the foundation upon which the self-critique rests. Rather than take the hillbilly as an inherently humorous symbolic image of the rural poor perpetually feuding with each other, writers Willis and Fortier overlay numerous other symbolic identifiers onto the squidbillies, turning them into a remarkably complicated rhetorical image that, though ‘othered’ via the still very apparent hillbilly stereotype, actually directs the bulk of the show's persuasive venom at the white male suburbanite – more explicitly, at the suburbanite who denies his heritage amongst the rural poor . Most overtly, this happens through inexplicable media savviness and racial coding; the latter is pursued from two angles: racism and 'passing'.
To start with the simplest first, the Cuylers are not simply backwoods hillbillies; they are, in fact, preternaturally aware of the media and how it is used and abused. Despite being so poverty stricken that, when showing off their house, they say things like “here's that room I was tellin’ you about” (the entirety of their home’s interior consists of one room) and “this is our window” (in both episodes, the home is shown with only one visible window), they have a deep knowledge of both television and the Internet. In typical fashion, the hillbillies are portrayed as not only lazy and unemployed but willing to leap at the chance to sell their image to the media (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. The Cuylers address the media.
Early and Granny Cuyler address the media, pleading for the safe return of their baby Rusty…Early: “the boy did exist…he did have interests”.
The father figure, Early, calls Nancy Grace in attempting to have their plight televised for an audience. When Rusty is 'taken', they start a website for his return: “Find Baby Rusty dot Love” (findbabyrusty.luv). They also have an intense awareness of manipulative media practices; while shooting a television interview on their front porch, “the archetypal stage for hillbilly culture” , they pause for an airplane to pass overhead (so as not to disturb the sound), airbrush a 'six-pack' onto Early's chest, and discuss the editing structure of manipulative documentaries (such as “whenever the v.o. [voice-over] says 'mired in poverty,' they just love to cut to that dead chicken,” and “look at that deflated snowman; that is symbolic as hell!”). Though it is never clear how they know these things, their sensitivity to media turns the Cuyler family into decidedly modern bumpkins.
The squidbillies are also deeply racist, but in order to get around the taboo subject of Southern racism, they are coded as non-white (in this case, they are literally cast as land squids, and are acutely aware of their species), with the object of the racist language being whites, or in the show’s parlance, “Chalkies”. In this way, they are able to scatter derogatory, racially-inflected phrases like “creamy white sign-up sheet” and “yogurt lovin' chalk-hole” throughout their dialogue. Show writer Jim Fortier explains that while the dialogue and narrative are inspired by a satirical look at the world surrounding the Cuyler family (that is, the perception of Georgia – and specifically rural Georgians – as racists), the transgression are being perpetrated by squids, and not any one recognizable human character (Fortier, 2010):
You have to ask yourself, who are the characters in this show? Are they supposed to be white? Black? Hillbilly? Some other race or ethnic group? Nope…they are squids! They don’t identify with any other group, and this opens up the possibilities for us to make commentaries about real-world perceptions. If we simply had black characters criticizing white ones, or white characters rallying against black characters, the humor just wouldn’t work. (Fortier, 2010)
Interestingly, the “Chalkies” themselves are not represented purely as white (or, for that matter, purely human). In fact, only one white human exists in the family – the mother, Fiona. The father, Durwood, is actually a member of the Cuyler family (relationship unspecified) married to Fiona and 'passing' for white; on several occasions, he is shown touching up his 'whiteface' make-up. Durwood and Fiona have also produced two 'mulatto' offspring, one with a squid face but a human body, the other just a squid with human hair. Effectively, then, Durwood is engaging in 'passing'; by concealing his land squid body in Chalkie clothing and altering the tone of his skin, he is able to construct a marginally convincing impression that he is, in fact, a Chalkie rather than a squid. This image of Durwood engaging in the traditional act of a racial other 'passing for white' (in this case, 'passing for Chalkie') normatively accomplishes two things. First, it brings the racism of the hillbillies out of the stereotype of the Appalachian backwoods squids and into the city. Durwood's need to 'pass' implies that the racist behavior of the squidbillies might simply be the unvarnished version of pervasive racism in the cities as well – and a racism that works both ways, as in the cities it is the squid who hides his identity. In fact, when Granny refers to the children as 'mixed nuts' and ‘pistachios’, Durwood politely chastises her with the phrase “the kids have enough trouble at school without having to hear it from family.” The racism thus leaves the realm of convenient stereotype and permeates the world. Secondly, however, it also allows for the racial theme of the program to cross over into class distinctions. From this perspective, it is less his race or species that Durwood is attempting to conceal, but his origin in a rural family that is poor, uncouth, and stupid. As a class distinction, the whiteface is emblematic of a more personal form of shame.
It is Durwood's complex 'passing' that the show then begins to treat as the more worthy of critique, as he is putting on airs of suburbanite 'normalcy' that not only artificially separate him from racism and his own family, but leave him somewhat powerless to engage in any sustained critique of misbehavior. Rather than the Cuyler family, it is Durwood who begins to seem like the negative pole of several binary constructions, even in cases where we might be tempted to claim that he comes out ahead: squid vs. white, rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor, and honest vs. 'politically correct'. Willis refers to this passing in the construction of both episodes, explaining that:
while the first episode really did presents a bunch of puns on hillbillies – not at all unusual for any episode of Squidbillies – the second episode is much more about us, about ‘Chalkies’ and about that critique. (Willis, 2010)
Fortier adds that:
while Squidbillies is an affectionate-yet-amplified portrayal of the folks around us [in Georgia], in these episodes viewers see that ‘Chalkies’ look just as ridiculous. For example, Durwood is uptight and preoccupied about just about everything around him, and this comes from different neurotic aspects of my personality and other ‘Chalkies’ that I know. (Fortier, 2010)
There are several playful jabs scattered throughout the episodes which imply that the squidbillies, for all their backwater stupidity, might still have some valid points to make about the absurdity of modern city life. One of the most overt is Early's line about the car air conditioner, which begins as simple hillbilly humor – with the uncomprehending line “payin' for air...; they got you comin' and goin' boy!” – but ends as a subtle attack on rampant consumerism when Early says “you probably payin' for water too!” As if to rub it in, moments later Durwood asks them if they recycle, and winds up putting what appears to be an empty plastic water bottle in the pocket of his cargo shorts. Likewise, the media manipulation performed by the Cuylers in service of their own interests does not just display their own awareness of contemporary technology, but also performs a not so subtle critique of the modern love of images of violence and poverty. For all their backwardness, sometimes the squidbillies can mount a valid critique of modernity. Fortier’s above comments about the uptight and pre-occupied nature of Durwood and his family speaks to this point as well, as while the Cuyler family dynamic seems unencumbered by the trappings of modern life, Durwood and his brood consistently bicker over everything from the number of headphone jacks in the family SUV to the number of muscle-relaxers Fiona should take with her wine.
In fact, there seem to be no distinct behavioral or moral differences between the “Chalkies” and the Squids. Both Durwood and Early want Rusty for the sake of receiving the “government money-checks”; Early because it forms the bulk of his income (he can't wait for the arrival of “Rusty Money Day”), and Durwood because he has recently lost his job. Secondly, the 'moonshine' drunkenness that usually accompanies the hillbilly image is distributed evenly, in these episodes, to both sides: Early may sniff turpentine and take drinks from the same bottle while calling himself an “al-kee-holic,” but Durwood's wife is a heavy drinker, pounding down a “box of wine” and getting aroused. Finally, both the Squids and the “Chalkies” are sexually untrustworthy. Early aggressively flirts with Fiona upon her first arrival, culminating in the line “I'm gonna curl them toes in time (repeated twice)”, while Durwood spends his days (since he has no job) in a gay strip club called 'Flesh Dudes' (in which a pair of legs 'dances' while wearing boots, chaps, gun holsters and a thong with visible dollar bills protruding from the buttocks); and Fiona gets drunk and actually has sex with Rusty while Durwood is away, prompting the angry return of Rusty to the Cuyler family. Ultimately, despite the show's continuation of the “clear visual dissimilarity between the mountaineers and city folk” (Frierson, 1998, pp. 93), in this case the distinction seems to be a mirage, as Durwood's 'passing' for white becomes a metaphor for the concealment of vast similarities hiding beneath the white suburban facade of intellect and 'culture.' Again, this is supported by Fortier’s earlier comments regarding the similarities between Early and Durwood that are eventually revealed in the course of the show narrative.
As such, the squidbillies, who had initially seemed like an outmoded, vicious stereotype of the uneducated rural poor, become something of a positive; in fact, their very 'stereotyping' renders them comically unreal. Meanwhile, it is the “Chalkies” who seem all-too-real and, therefore, in need of critique, as the moral rot underlying the mask of suburbanite superiority is equal to that of the stereotype.  The “Chalkies” then, simply become squidbillies in disguise, and it is the very disguise which goes under the gun. Stupidity may be real, but acting superior is not a response to it, as it simply evades the deeper issues. Rather than using the hillbilly image for its own sake and simply reveling in derisive hillbilly humor, Willis and Fortier drag the suburban whites into the common hillbilly plot device of the family 'feud' , resulting not in a divisive Burkeian binary that serves to highlight differences between each group, but rather a binary in which one group critiques the other in the same breath as it critiques the self. Squidbillies, then, joins in the tradition described by Magoc (1991), of “Rural-based television...level[ing] well written...attacks of comic irony and wit on the prevailing doctrine” (Magoc 33).
In Squidbillies, Fortier and Willis use classic images of the Appalachian hillbilly as part of a larger statement about their internal Chalkie selves. By presenting the typical white suburbanite as an object of ridicule, Squidbillies effectively challenges the status quo of the superiority of the upper-middle class lifestyle. By drawing parallels between the classic hillbilly bumpkin and the yuppie trapped by his or her own mediocrity, Fortier and Willis provide a largely “yuppie” audience with a cleverly-crafted mirror that uses an expected otherness of hillbilly humor as a self-reflective truth.
In a ‘regular’ episode of Squidbillies, there is an expectation that the Squidbillies will serve their literary role as scapegoats for the plagues of a modern society: stupidity, poverty, racism and other crimes of ignorance in an otherwise-progressive world. However, for these two episodes, the Squids are in fact benign scapegoats. While initially the Cuyler family is presented as an unkempt social cancer, unwilling and/or unable to overcome their stupidity and backwards ways and in need of social extraction and eradication, we learn over time that they are not the problem. Rather, it is the arrogance and contrived nature of the elitist Chalkie culture that is placed under the microscope for further scrutiny. As we see their interactions with the righteous Chalkies, we focus less on the faults of the Squids and more at ourselves as the status quo. Through this comedy, we are in a way tricked into a revealing and engaging critique of ourselves with the false promise of mocking the hillbilly other. In fact, closer examination of Squidbillies reveals the use of a far more complicated notion of a benign scapegoat – one in which the benign, culturally acceptedscapegoat (the hillbilly) is used as rhetorical sleight of hand to get the audience to be critical of normative culture. This is a variant of Braden’s (2000) discussion of the benign scapegoat, which is more concerned with a political victory (Reagan) through hollow rhetoric. To us,the use of the hillbilly in Squidbilliesis not simply benign, butis also what might betermed a transitional scapegoat: a sub-cultural scapegoat which isempty of significancebut acts as a bridge to a critique of the dominant culture.
These two episodes of Squidbillies provide the series as a whole a sense of overt meaning and truth. They serve as a talking cure, a ‘mea culpa’ of sorts, where members of a supposed superior social strata are able to talk through their own insecurities and faults by placing themselves – if even only for a moment – at the reverse of the normal social order.
* Nick Bowman (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Young Harris College. His research focuses on the psychological underpinnings of entertainment media. He can be contacted at email@example.com
*Jeremy Groskopf (M.A., Emory University) is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. His research focuses on the history of animal representation in fiction, film and television. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: A previous version of this manuscript was presented at the 2010 Southern States Communication Association in Memphis.
See Cooke-Jackson and Hansen (2008) for information on this program and the reaction by Appalachians themselves.
2 Frierson (1998) lists six such programs: When I Yoo Hoo (1936), A Feud There Was (1938), Naughty Neighbors (1939), Holiday for Drumsticks (1949), Hillbilly Hare (1950), and Backwoods Bunny (1959). Frierson's list is almost certainly not exhaustive.
3Note that an early episode from season one – “Chalkie Lover” (Episode 4, Season 1) – also makes reference to the existence of “Chalkies” as a separate species from the squidbillies. While this episode is not the part of the story arc involving Early and his brother Durwood, it highlights the dialectic between the land squids and Caucasians. Beyond this, few references are made about ‘“Chalkies” in any of the other 47 episodes of Squidbillies.
4 See Burke, 1945, Foss, Foss & Trapp, 2002, and Golden, Berquist, & Coleman, 2003 for a more exhaustive explanation of Burke’s pentad.
5 Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the rhetorical use of scapegoating as a means of subjugating and removing a particular group or social class is Adolf Hitler’s use of the Jews as a scapegoat during the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany (cf. Schmidt, 2004).
6 Baker (1993) would describe the squidbillies as a very slight example of 'therianthropic' anthropomorphism, in which the character is a physical combination of beast and man. In the case of the squidbillies, only the face is given human traits, while the rest of the body is completely animal. In Baker's work, this contrasts with 'theriomorphic' anthropomorphism, in which animals which are completely bestial in appearance are given the intellectual faculties of a human being. See Baker (1993, pp. 108) for further information on this distinction.
7 The only other “land squid” characters in the show are a large purple squid physician named Dr. Bug (an abandoned grandson of Granny Cuyler, whom she "never meant to flush down the toilet") and occasional visions of Squid Jesus and a squid Devil by Granny Cuyler; the former of which seems particularly embarrassed by Granny’s devotion to him and often suggests that she “consider Satan” as her new savior.
8 Both Willis and Fortier have collaborated, created, and written several other popular programs for [adult swim], including Aqua Teen Hunger Force (Willis), Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (Willis and Fortier), Sealab 2021 (Willis) and The Brak Show (Fortier).
9 Although it should be mentioned that, in the closing frame of this episode Early comes to the realization that his days in the media spotlight are numbered. Facing this realization, he kicks Rusty down a well on his property line and places a prompt call to “Nancy Grace’s people.”
10 Recall that Fortier and Willis identify themselves as more Chalkie than hillbilly, although both are quick to point out that they are Georgia natives and are not distinct from their Southern heritage.
11 Although perhaps not as cynical and directed, Fortier and Willis' commentary on the notion of white paternalism has been highlighted in other popular media, such as the 2009 Oscar-winning film Blind Side. This film, which centered on the story of a homeless Black child who is adopted by a upper-middle class white family, was lambasted by some critics for its supposed support of the “long, troubled history of well-meaning white paternalism” and portrayal of the "blinkered middle-class pandering at its most shameless” (Fear, 2009; Tobias, 2009). A similar critique of the ‘white savior’ bias in entertainment media was raised recently by University of North Carolina media critic James Trier, who – in reference to movies about education and teachers – criticizes the "standard teacher-savior clichés" in which white teachers cleans up dysfunctional urban schools (as cited by Toppo, 2009).
12 During our interview, Willis talked about his own identification: “While I’m way closer to a ‘Chalkie’ than a hillbilly, I still feel a good deal of Southern pride…sometimes an embarrassing amount.”
13 See Frierson's (1998) discussion of A Feud There Was for another example of this type of “cynical” commercialism in which the hillbillies “prostitute their music for commerce.”
14 Frierson (1998), pp. 90.
15 Animal characters are frequently used in animation in order to either broaden the representational ability of individual characters by disassociating them particular human traits, or distract the viewer from the fact that a taboo line is being crossed. Frierson (1998) argues that “[b]y 1959, the use of human characters as dumb hillbillies had perhaps gotten too touchy” for Warner Brothers, resulting in a return to animal characters in the hillbilly roles (pp. 99). The choice of squid here obviously joins in that tradition, as it allows for racial commentary without the problem of needing one of the characters to be a recognizable form of 'minority.' In this version of Appalachia, instead of white and black, we have white and squid. This is not a completely original concept; Frierson (1998) discusses the black and white ducks in Naughty Neighbors as a clear racial overtone.
16 In expanding this discussion, Fortier references an earlier episode from Squidbillies (Episode 4 of the premiere season) in which the Cuyler family holds 'anti-chalkie' rallies clearly modeled after the Klu Klux Klan. In response to the rally, the white sheriff character sits the Cuyler’s down to explain some of the many important contributions Chalkies have made the world (including former Boston Celtic Larry Bird’s invention of the slam dunk in professional basketball). This scene presents a humorous rather than a disturbing edge by turning the white, middle-class ‘norm’ into the object of intense racism and bigotry.
17 Though Frierson (1998) largely ignores his own observations along these lines in favor of an essentializing psychoanalytic critique, he does make the very accurate statement that “cartoon...hillbill[ies] can be used to hold up a mirror to...modern industrial society” (pp. 90), and further claims that “[e]ven while these [Warner Brothers] cartoons look down at...hillbillies...[they] highlight the mountaineers' rejection of urbanization...as an anarchistic antidote to...more patriotic images” (pp. 100). Squidbillies is clearly functioning in the same way, as the Cuylers are simultaneously the object of humor and the vehicle for satirizing urban life.
18 The sex scene is a variant of the equally taboo 'jungle fever' joke – the notion of white women having a desire for sexual relations with Black men – which in turn underlies her marriage to a squid in the first place.
19 This is strikingly similar to the portrayal of Archie Bunker, the ‘lovable bigot’ and focal point of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family who was famous for browbeating his “dingbat” wife Edith and displaying a superior acumen for racial slurs (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974).
20 Frierson (1998) remarks that the 'feud' between rival families is one of the central structuring motifs of film and television representations of the hillbilly - especially animated representations. Two families, usually impossible to differentiate by any means other than the color of their hair, would traditionally fire weapons at each other regardless of their having forgotten the reason for the blood feud. This type of permanent family feud has been twisted in Squidbillies into one in which the feud partners are the Cuyler family, who have retained the hillbilly lifestyle, and the “Chalkies” who have abandoned it.
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