What “S-Town” gets wrong about life in rural America
I don’t like “S-Town.” I didn’t like it when it was released, and I still don’t like it now. Listening to it makes me cringe.
The seven-episode look at one man’s life in rural Alabama is the most downloaded podcast in history. Phone calls interwoven with in-person interviews and reflections by the producer Brian Reed document a months-long saga in Woodstock, Ala., where Reed travels to investigate an alleged murder and instead winds up painting an intimate portrait of resident John B. McLemore.
The show’s success is due to its appeal to an urban, educated audience, and the story is presented through an urban, educated lens. Listeners who have no experience with rural life are fed sound bites that confirm tropes of Southern, rural living—specifically racism, “white trash” poverty and a “backward” way of thinking.
This is where “S-Town” fails. It lacks context and thus further reinforces listeners’ preconceptions. The poverty and racism that exist in rural areas do not exist in a vacuum. But instead of exploring the historical and socioeconomic forces that shape the “characters” of Woodstock, the show gives listeners racist epithets without context, such as one uncomfortable discussion that takes place in a tattoo parlor.
The town of Woodstock is nearly 95 percent white, and its residents have long family lines in the area. Not only are residents inheriting attitudes from generations of racist social structures, they also have little contact with people who look or think differently. Simply interacting with people of different races has been shown to change prejudiced white attitudes. People living in diverse cities take such interactions for granted.
None of this is to say racism should be excused or accepted. But before enlightened “S-Town” listeners cast off as irredeemable those who express racist views, they should consider how they themselves might see the world if they lived their whole adult lives in Woodstock, Ala. When a person’s only contact with someone who looks different is through negative media portrayals, it is easy to stereotype “the other.”
“S-Town” is also ignorant of the social circumstances that Mr. McLemore faces. The show asks, for example, why he did not seek mental health help, given that he talks openly about suicide. But there is not much sympathy for weakness, especially mental weakness, in places like Woodstock. Rural, largely agricultural or manufacturing areas were built with a hard-working, rub-some-dirt-on-it mentality. There is a stigma attached to asking for help.
“S-Town” borders on being another American “poverty tour,” which rarely benefits those who are on display.
Even if the Woodstock resident wanted professional help for depression or another mental illness, he would be hard-pressed to find it. There is a historic lack of health care providers in rural areas, leaving residents without nearby care..
This lack of access is the product of deeply entrenched poverty in rural regions of the country. In the second half of the 20th century, when unemployment and poverty rates began to fall in cities, rural areas did not experience the same economic growth. The cost of living is lower in the country, but so are wages, leaving many working people and families unable to make ends meet. Social services and job programs are less likely to reach these parts of the country, too.
These factors and more lead Woodstock residents to a mentality of rural isolation. Washington, D.C.—with all of its resources and power—is geographically and ideologically distant. If the leaders of your nation do not care enough about you to invest time or money, then “f--- it,” you say. If you don’t have anything to start with, what do you have to lose by talking frankly with some journalist from New York?
“S-Town” could have gone deeper into some of these rural complexities, instead of breezing past them for the next sensational sound bite. Without context, “S-Town” borders on being another American “poverty tour,” which rarely benefits those who are on display.
“S-Town,” of course, is not an academic study of racism or rural poverty; it is attempting to tell a story. But blind spots and a lack of context do listeners a disservice, leaving them with an incomplete picture. In a 2009 TED Talk on the danger of a single story, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.… Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
“S-Town” tells a single story of Woodstock and of rural American living. It is not the only story, and it is far from complete.