What We’ve Learned about the Tacky South

By Katharine A. Burnett and Monica Carol Miller        

Burnett and Miller discuss the impact of their new edited collection of essays on tackiness in the American South, explore how grandmothers play an outsized role in defining “tacky,” and reveal how tackiness can be utilized for both good and ill.

Red velvet cake is featured in The Tacky South as an example of “tacky” southern aesthetics. Photo by Amirali Mirhashemian.

There’s something about grandmothers.

Since The Tacky South entered the world in its fully published form, after every public event we’ve held to promote the book at least one (sometimes more than one) person has come up to share stories about their grandmother. “When you mentioned sweatpants, it reminded me of something my grandmother would say. . .” Or, “Oh, the one thing my grandmother would never tolerate was tackiness.”

Why are grandmothers—particularly southern grandmothers—such arbiters of tackiness?

In many ways, grandmothers represent the very thing that defines tackiness: its duality. They influence our sense of belonging, history, and ownership. Like those who claim tackiness as a sense of identity, grandmothers shape us, for better or worse. But when tackiness is wielded as a marker of exclusion, they are also gatekeepers for that sense of history and/or identity. They represent what belongs and what doesn’t. Sometimes their presence or lack thereof determines how we see ourselves and the world around us. For better or worse.

In this sense, grandmothers embody the tension inherent in something being deemed “tacky.” Often, we want to embrace it (sometimes literally), but other times it represents the rules and restrictions that govern our lives, particularly for those of us who navigate the cultural pressures and social expectations surrounding regional identifications tied to the U.S. South. In short, tacky, when ably utilized, is a celebration of identity. And when utilized for ill, it can go wrong very quickly.

Admittedly, when writing and compiling The Tacky South, we leaned into the former. As the Dolly Parton–emblazoned book cover implies, we reveled in the fun of tackiness.

But as the grandmothers and our readers have reminded us, the sinister aspects of tackiness are often much more present, much more felt in popular culture and politics. For one thing, these very grandmothers can wield tackiness as a way of judging and even controlling behavior that they deem inappropriate.

Perhaps even more significant, though, as we have been talking about The Tacky South at these events, we are increasingly aware of the powerful things that tackiness can mask, complicating our understanding of the fun it can impart. Certainly, this aspect speaks to the ubiquity of Parton in our discussions of tackiness. Many people forget that period in the 1980s and 1990s when, to many, she served as a punchline about big breasts and “vapid” music. But the entire time that people were making fun of her wigs, she steadily worked to grow Dollywood, her Imagination Library program, and the diversified empire for which she is so admired now.

We’ve started referring to tackiness as a new southern strategy of sorts, using it as a way of deflecting attention away from an amassing of power. In the case of Dolly, she seems to have used this strategy for good, creating an international literacy program and funding college educations for students in East Tennessee. But there’s also the tackiness of televangelists and promoters of prosperity gospel, and pundits and politicians chipping away at civil rights, who have similarly hidden behind jokes about their aesthetic style to amass what is arguably a much more nefarious power. These realizations have us even more convinced that The Tacky South is an important contribution to a wide range of academic discussions, suggesting new ways not only to engage with the fun of tackiness but also to recognize what tackiness has helped hide.

The Tacky South explores the multivalent quality of tacky, exploring how it is employed for positive ends and prompting further discussion about how some have weaponized it to further objectionable agendas.   

Katharine A. Burnett, associate professor of English at Fisk University, is the author of Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820–1860.

Monica Carol Miller, assistant professor of English at Middle Georgia State University, is the author of Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion.

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As a way to comment on a person’s style or taste, the word “tacky” has distinctly southern origins, with its roots tracing back to the so-called “tackies” who tacked horses on South Carolina farms prior to the Civil War. The Tacky South presents eighteen fun, insightful essays that examine connections between tackiness and the American South, ranging from nineteenth-century local color fiction and the television series Murder, She Wrote to red velvet cake and the ubiquitous influence of Dolly Parton. Charting the gender, race, and class constructions at work in regional aesthetics, The Tacky South explores what shifting notions of tackiness reveal about US culture as a whole and the role that region plays in addressing national and global issues of culture and identity.

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