"Winter's Bone" and the Limits of White Privilege (Part I)

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Written by Lisa R. Pruitt

Progressive law professors talk a lot about privilege, including white privilege.  If we’re white (like I am), we try to be aware of it and not re-create it.  Law professors of color remind us that we benefit from it.

Writing about rural people in relation to the law, which I have been doing for a few years now, has put me in an awkward position in relation to white privilege.  A lot of my work is about rural disadvantage and class, and I’ve been told my work is “very white.”  The presumption about whiteness in my work is probably because rural places are popularly associated with stasis and homogeneity—and with white people in particular.  But I’ve written a lot about the sort of entrenched, inter-generational poverty that defines what the U.S. government labels persistent poverty, and the reality is that most persistent poverty counties are dominated by a cluster of a single racial/ethnic group:  Latina/o (Rio Grande Valley), African American (the Mississippi Delta and Black belt), American Indian (the Great Plains and Southwest) and, yes, white (Appalachia, the Ozarks plateau, the Texas panhandle).  A few of my articles have discussed racial and ethnic minorities in rural and/or persistent poverty contexts; examples are here, here and here.

I have also written about impoverished rural white communities, and I do admit to being concerned about them, too.  Which brings me to Ree Dolly, 17-year-old heroine of “Winter’s Bone,” the critically acclaimed indie film that won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance this year.  The film is set in the Missouri Ozarks, about 50 miles from where I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, so when it began to garner media attention in the run up to its national release, I found myself holding my breath.  Who and what would it show—and how authentic would the depiction be?  Was “Winter’s Bone” going to be the 21st century “Deliverance”?  In fact, “Winter’s Bone” is pretty ugly, a very difficult film to watch.  It is also, I must admit, quite authentic in its depiction of a certain milieu.

Indeed, one of the very interesting things about reading NYT readers’ responses to “Winter’s Bone” and its review is the extent to which those from major metro areas — say New York and Toronto–criticized the film maker for the lack of reality and the way she maligned the place by showing junk cars and dogs in people’s yards.  Film goers and readers from the Ozarks, however, generally agreed that the film was quite authentic in its depiction of people and place, though several of them pointed out that it showed only a particular stratum of that society.  These differing views make me wonder if urbanites want to believe that rural life couldn’t be that bad?  If they are clinging nostalgically to bucolic rural myths?

I could offer many other observations about “Winter’s Bone,” but I want to focus here on how little benefit Ree experiences by virtue of her whiteness. White privilege looks pretty anemic for this young woman trying to save her family home after her meth-cooking father does a runner from the law, having put the house up for security with the bail bondsman.  Ree’s mother checked out long ago, so Ree is responsible for her young siblings.  They sometimes go hungry, and they live in what most would consider squalor.  They survive off $20 a relative hands to Ree here or there, occasional help from a neighbor, and the squirrels they hunt.  There is no sign of a government safety net.  At one point, Ree considers joining the military because it is her only apparent option for saving the family homestead—thanks to the $40K bonus she could get for enlisting.  That plan is dashed when the recruiter tells her she can’t take her siblings with her.  College is nowhere on Ree’s horizon—if, that is, she is able to finish high school given the weight of her many responsibilities.

White privilege is, of course, notoriously invisible, but maybe it is especially difficult to discern in Ree’s world because everyone around her is white — and those in her circle of family and friends are all poor.  Ree attends Forsyth High School (by far the most salubrious locale depicted in the film) in Forsyth, Missouri, population 1,686.  Forsyth is the county seat of Taney County (embarrassingly named for Justice Roger Taney, author of Dred Scott!), population 39,703.  Forsyth is 98.6% white, while Taney County is 96.2% white.  Taney County is not a persistent poverty county, although neighboring Ozark County is.  (These stats are from the 2000 Census; the 2006-2008 ACS estimates show greater racial diversity and considerable population growth for Taney County; its largest city is Branson, the popular tourist destination).

In this setting, class is the primary axis of disadvantage/privilege.  And I’m not talking about the difference between upper middle class and lower middle class.  I’m talking about the range that runs from lower middle class to poor to dirt poor—down to what some call “white trash,” those Matt Wray has labeled “not quite white.”  If the sheriff is going to harass someone, for example, it’s going to be on the basis of class and who the “usual suspects” are.  Racial profiling isn’t the issue in homogeneous rural communities, where law enforcement officers are socially integrated with those whom they police; far more influential factors are who you and your kin are.

So what can we take away from Winter’s Bone regarding white privilege?  I see Ree’s life as a reminder that when you get “down” to a certain socioeconomic stratum, there is precious little privilege or material benefit associated with being white.  (I’m thinking the film “Monster” also illustrates this point). Another way of stating this is that disadvantages associated with class (e.g., bias against “white trash”) and geography (e.g., scarcity of jobs and opportunities) seriously undermine the white privilege that Ree might enjoy in other settings.

When the relevant universe of people are all white (Ree Dolly in the context of Forsyth, Missouri—and I acknowledge that it’s difficult to truly isolate the “local” for these purposes), whiteness presumably takes a backseat to class (and I’m actually talking here about more than just money), which looms much larger.  Unfortunately, “Winter’s Bone” fails to depict class difference in Forsyth in any explicit way.  For all we know from the film, everyone in Forsyth lives like Ree and the Dolly clan.  (Oh, and according to the film, the sun literally never shines in an Ozarks winter—overkill on the part of the filmmaker if you ask me; further, absolutely nothing in the film has the moderately pleasant glow of the image in the movie’s poster, but I digress).

In my next installment, I will discuss how Ree might fare outside Forsyth and Taney County, in a more diverse setting, such as a college or university.

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog and Legal Ruralism.