“Arkansas/Arkansaw”

In his wonderful new book “Arkansas/Arkansaw,” Brooks Blevins quotes from one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” skits.

It was one of the series of skits the program aired in 1992 to lampoon the presidential debates between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

Kevin Nealon played the role of debate moderator Sam Donaldson of ABC News.

And here’s what the moderator had to say: “Gov. Clinton, let’s be frank. You’re running for president, yet the main streets of your capital city, Little Rock, are something out of ‘Lil’ Abner,’ with buxom underage girls in cut-off denims prancing around in front of Jethro and Billy Bob while corncob-pipe-smoking, shotgun-toting grannies fire indiscriminately at runaway hogs.”

Next, the Perot character played by the talented Dana Carvey calls the Clinton character “cracker boy” and adds this: “Why are we talking about Arkansas? Hell, everybody knows all they got down there is a bunch of ignorant, inbred crackers, peckerwoods, catch me? Now, can we talk about the deficit? While we have been here jabbering, the deficit has increased by half a million dollars. That’s enough to buy a still and a new outhouse for every family in Little Rock.”

I thought the skit was funny at the time. I still think it’s funny.

It didn’t bother me as I sat watching in my den in Little Rock. I’ve tried my best through the years to escape our inherent Arkansas inferiority complex. During the four years I lived in Washington, D.C. (prior to Clinton becoming president), I learned an important lesson.

We spend far too much time as Arkansans worrying about what others think about us. We’re afraid people are looking down on us. Here’s what I learned: They aren’t looking down on us. They aren’t looking up at us, either. They just aren’t looking at us at all. We’re a state that rarely registers on the national consciousness.

And that’s just fine with me.

Blevins, who once worked at Lyon College in Batesville, is now the endowed associate professor of Ozark studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. He has done the best job yet examining the image of Arkansas and our aforementioned inferiority complex.

In the introduction to the book, published by the University of Arkansas Press, he writes: “Time and time again the Arkansawyer has been portrayed as a backwoods buffoon or a rugged individualist or some combination thereof. … In an overly simplistic yet useful dichotomy, these perspectives might be described as romantic versus progressive, with the former often cherishing the very Arkansaw characteristics condemned by the latter.

“It is my contention that the portrayals of the Arkansawyer, romantic or fantastic they may be, have been positive ones as often as not. For many a romantic or radical observer, as we shall see, Arkansaw has provided an antithesis to a variety of American illusions: the idea of American exceptionalism, the blind faith in ‘progress,’ America’s starring role in some cosmic, providential plan. In this rendering of the Arkansaw image, the Arkansawyer becomes a nonconformist who consciously or unconsciously rejects the tenets of an American narrative found in the Puritan-through-Progressive continuum.”

Blevins uses the spelling “Arkansaw” when referring to the state’s image and “when invoking the mythical place conjured by the various stereotypes and caricatures. This is not to suggest that Arkansaw represents some bizarro-world mirror image, an antithesis to the real Arkansas, but that Arkansaw stands for the complex mixture of fact, legend and stereotype that is summoned from the depths of the American consciousness at the mention of the word Arkansas.”

I remember vividly when the national media picked up on the fact that Gov. Mike Huckabee and his family would be moving into what the industry likes to call a manufactured home (still known by most Arkansans as a mobile home or a house trailer) while the Governor’s Mansion was being renovated.

It was the summer of 2000, and we were at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. I was Huckabee’s communications director at the time and was suddenly inundated by media calls.

For the following week, we booked appearances on all three of the major network morning shows along with a taped interview by Jay Leno for NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

The move into the mobile home was an effort to save the taxpayers money. It might also have been a way for the governor to thumb his nose at some snooty Little Rock residents.

I still smile at the thought of the liberal doyennes (including some in the Governor’s Mansion neighborhood who had put huge “Bill Bristow For Governor” signs in their yards two years earlier) who got their panties in a wad over this supposed blow to our state’s image. Not to be sexist. There were plenty of males expressing their righteous indignation. You don’t think it had anything to do with Huckabee being a Republican, do you? Surely not.

They had always considered the Huckabees to be redneck interlopers from Hope who wouldn’t drink with them at CCLR, didn’t eat with them at whatever was the “in” restaurant that year and didn’t attend an Episcopal  or some other church that “proper people” attended.

Goodness folks, our state’s national image had been pretty well determined prior to this.

At any rate, here’s what the governor told Leno: “One of the things we want to do is to show that people in Arkansas aren’t all that sensitive about people making light of us. We know who we are.”

At a news conference later in the week, he said: “Let the people laugh. I think the difference between an Arkansan and some uptight, wound-up Northerner is that … we’re laughing with you because we like the way we live.”

Blevins writes: “Huckabee knew full well that there were a good many Arkansans who took exception to their state’s reoccurring role as the butt of national jokes and that more than a few resented his decision to knowingly invite derision with his triplewide plan. Finally, Huckabee’s ultimate decision to subject his state to stereotyping and mirth-making in order to save taxpayers a few dollars reflected the old spirit of nonconformity that had inspired admiration for the natural Arkie.”

No, I don’t worry too much these days about what some fellow in Iowa, New Jersey or Idaho thinks of Arkansas. It used to bother me more. Now, I rather spend my time enjoying all this state has to offer.

What about you?

How concerned are you about the “Arkansas image?”

What do you think accounts for our collective inferiority complex?

I would love to know what you think.

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3 Responses to ““Arkansas/Arkansaw””

  1. Sara says:

    I am proud to be a born-and-raised Arkansawyer. Sometimes a joke will get under my skin, but most of the time I am laughing right along with them. We are not alone. In college I was dorm-floor mates with girls from all over the country, and even Newfoundland, Canada. The poor Newfie girl had people ask her if they had toilet paper.

  2. JMF says:

    Rex,
    I think your message and the ceremony to introduce the newest Quarter from the US Mint reflecting Hot Springs National Park on the same day is not just a coincidence. The new quarter is the very first of the collection of some of the greatest places in this Great Nation. Years and years ago our government recognized Hot Springs as a place unique to others and put in place laws to protect it. Hot Springs is like so many other Arkansas treasures both fixed places and our people, worth holding in the highest regard and preserving. There should be no complex in regard to a great thing like Arkansaw!

  3. Arkie says:

    I could care less about the misconceptions about Arkansas. Let everyone above the Mason-Dixon line think we are just a bunch of inbred hillbillies, that will keep them from coming down here and finding out the truth. Visitors continue to tell me Arkansas is one of the friendliest places they’ve ever been to, that we have a beautiful state and a wonderful mix of industry and agriculture. The last thing we need is a bunch of Yankees coming into your state and messing things up! Visit New York, LA, Chicago, D.C., nice places but I wouldn’t want to live there. Nor could I afford it. Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside!

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