, Corbin, KY


February 23, 2009

Outsiders looking in

Samantha Swindler

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

— Flannery O’Connor

The eyes of millions of viewers who tuned in or TiVoed Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 piece “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” were upon Appalachia last week. Undoubtedly, if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard about it.

The responses were widespread and mixed. Some Kentuckians were disgusted and embarrassed, saying it perpetuated negative stereotypes.

Others said it showed a social problem the majority of Appalachians ignore.

The first time I watched it — I am, admittedly, a Mountain Dew drinker — I questioned the seemingly disproportionate amount of time spent on the evil of “Mountain Dew Mouth,” as if all the dental problems plaguing this area could be pigeonholed to simply an addiction to a particular brand of pop.

“Might as well blame Ale 8 and moon pies, too,” I thought.

This region has the highest rate of toothlessness in the country — Sawyer didn’t make that up. And after talking to the Barbourville dentist featured in the program, he said Mountain Dew drinkers make up 90 percent of his patients with severe decay.

Much can be made about the greater issues of health and diet — obesity, lack of exercise, environmental pollution, tobacco use, junk food in general. A more complete picture would have been painted if all these factors were considered rather than focusing on a single, seemingly benign consumer product and one, stereotypical health issue.

But it’s TV, and it has its limits.

The difficultly in doing a piece like Sawyer tackled is stereotyping and marginalizing problems when you’ve got less than a hour to work with. And while I think she did a good job portraying what life is like for the most unfortunate children of Appalachia, I would have liked to have seen not only a broader look at health problems, but a broader look at the vast differences in the region’s towns and rural areas.

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