White trash fetish: representations of poor white southern women and constructions of class, gender, race and region, 1920-1941
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This dissertation analyzes depictions of poor white southern women produced by plays from 1920-1941 and the cultural context of their production through the lens of feminism and cultural studies. Emphasizing the importance of live performance in constructing, addressing, and challenging popular culture representations, this analysis builds on the work of feminist and cultural theorists, in addition to theatre historians who have researched this period, connecting these plays in new ways as cultural trends of gender, class, region, and race representation. The plays covered here include the Broadway hit Tobacco Road; the Group Theatre’s The House of Connelly (1931); Peggy (1922) and Fixin’s (1924), plays from the Carolina Playmakers, an organization that encouraged community-based productions reflecting the experiences of both playwright and audience. The representation of southern white poverty varies in these plays, but all reveal complicated images of women, whiteness, economics, and region. Defining white trash is complicated. If the term was simply a reflection of economic or racial status it would be interchangeable with “poor white,” but white trash also references cultural stereotypes of laziness, degeneracy, lewdness, and criminal behavior. Nationally acclaimed productions using these stereotypes as “authentic” representations of class and region, position the South as culturally backward, solidifying notions of regional and class-based prejudices. Images of poor white women in these plays, some more positive than others, repeatedly present the “white trash” woman as little more than bartered goods. I contend that the use of the “white trash” female character in these plays, as a fetishized object, permanently determines her popular culture image.