My Aunt Ruth won’t watch Hillbilly Elegy, the movie adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in and eventually escaping Appalachia and a mother coping with addiction. Practically speaking, my aunt doesn’t have a Netflix account or any of the smart technology she’d need to stream it. But she also has no interest in watching a story of her community that doesn’t reflect what she sees and that she knows will be exploitative, harmful, and not helpful to moving her or her neighbors forward.
Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t show the positive side of Appalachia that my aunt and I know, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes. The film and book need Appalachia to be poor, broken, and dirty, because they depend on us believing that the mountains are somewhere we want Vance to escape. They need to frame poverty as a moral failing of individuals—as opposed to systems—because they have to imply that something about Vance’s character allowed him to get away from his hillbilly roots. Hillbilly Elegy has to simplify the people and problems of Appalachia, because it has decided to tell the same old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that so many of us reject.
Owsley County, Kentucky, where my aunt lives, is not so different from Breathitt County, where Vance’s grandmother was born and where, in the book, he spent a lot of time. In fact, the two counties share a border. Nearly 40 percent of the population in Owsley County lives in poverty, and even before COVID-19, less than half of the town participated in the labor force. The Census Bureau currently estimates the average per capita income to be $17,766, and Owsley is often cited as one of the poorest counties in America.
This poverty isn’t what Aunt Ruth sees when she looks at her community. She sees Melinda, a woman who has spent her life making sure needy children have access to nutritious food. She sees Eula, who almost single-handedly built a network of clinics to provide health care to the region. She sees Katie, who—despite having parents who struggled with addiction—earned a college scholarship and has spent her career as a nurse helping others.
I see these attributes too, because when I was growing up in Appalachia, Ruth and the other women in my family taught me to see them. The creativity and ingenuity that exist in this part of the world. The way individuals come together to take care of one another, even when outside systems have not taken care of them. The beauty and hope that undergird the poverty.
In many ways, the arc of my life looks like that of Vance, who eventually went to Yale. I was born in Appalachia to two college-age parents who brought me home from the hospital to a rented trailer. I grew up without a lot of resources and with a strong hillbilly accent. Despite my humble beginnings, I eventually earned three Ivy League degrees and am now a lawyer in Louisville.
But I don’t think of Appalachia as somewhere I escaped. I see it as the place that shaped who I became. It taught me to value family, community, and generosity. I understand that I was given opportunities that others worked hard to build for me. I don’t think I am undeniably better off for leaving Appalachia. I recognize that although I gained many opportunities, I lost a great deal as well.
I don’t have the same connection to land, community, and family as my relatives who stayed. My sense of identity and belonging is less anchored than that of many I know who have spent their whole life in the mountains. I am grateful that I had the chance to see the world, in part because it solidified my desire to return to Kentucky. But when I came home, I struggled to understand how I fit in to that which I had left behind.
If you watch Hillbilly Elegy, remember that its portrayal of Appalachia is designed to elevate Vance above the community from which he came. Remember that it seeks to tell his story in a way that aligns with a simplistic rags-to-riches narrative. Think critically about how that narrative influences the way we are taught to think about poverty, progress, and identity.
Most of all, remember that portrayals like Hillbilly Elegy have real consequences for people like my Aunt Ruth. She may not watch the movie, but she will still feel its effects—the judgment of her and her neighbors, the sense that Appalachia is not worth saving, the desire to let outsiders help Appalachia instead of giving these communities the resources they need to help themselves.
The way we portray struggling communities—and the people who inhabit them—matters. Seek out the wealth of writers and artists who recognize the value in small mountain towns like Owsley County and those portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy. Take the time to see the good, hardworking, intelligent people who are striving to make their communities better. And maybe join my Aunt Ruth and don’t bother to watch this movie.