What You Say and How You Say It
By Mick Jeffries
Most people would have to admit: it’s hard not to be a little curious about a university lecture presentation called “Kinky Hillbilly Queens.” Even more so when the talk, which filled a room with recently at the UK Student Center, is presented by someone with the undeniable and far-reaching academic credentials of Dr. Carol Mason.
At the appointed time, Mason cheerfully and adeptly takes the room, inviting prospective students to examine popular TV stereotypes of provincial women. She’s impishly Socratic, soliciting comments and opinions, putting the attendees at ease with her own natural and implacable confidence and curiosity. On one side of the room, a quorum of her departmental peers are seriously beaming over their new colleague. And for good reason, too: It’s a great introduction to Mason, who is UK’s newest professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, showing her particular knack for using popular culture to reach young minds and then drawing them into deeper scholarly waters.
“The 'Kinky Hillbilly Queens' discussion I led in October was sort of a ruse, kind of an inside joke.” Mason confesses as the semester draws to a close. “We were in effect claiming the very words and ideas that people use to denigrate Appalachians for the sake of discussion. You can’t study Appalachia without paying attention to pop culture because Appalachia was created through local color fiction and Hollywood movies as much as it is an actual geographic region with a splendid and unique heritage. Movies such as Pulp Fiction and Deliverance depict Appalachians as violent sexual predators, and literature that introduced America to the idea of hillbillies depicts the men as lazy and the women as overbearing and very physical. So issues of gender and sexuality are germane to the study of Appalachia, which popular culture has painted a certain way in the mind of most Americans.”
Mason backs up her scholarship with the personal experience of growing up in Appalachia.
Mason grew up in West Virginia, and her immediate family weren’t strangers to the Bluegrass, either: “My mom’s side of the family is from Kentucky. My grandmother studied at Berea and my grandfather got his degree in Louisville and worked as a physician in the coal camps,” she explained.
But let’s be clear: Carol Mason’s own studies have taken her pretty far from “hillbilly” — to places like Denison, Cornell, University of Minnesota and Harvard, to name a few. But she’s come back with a compelling insight about regionalism: going home can be strange for those pursuing education —especially for first-semester freshman struggling with finals and looking towards winter break.
This insight crystallized for her as a fellow at Harvard’s Bunting Institute, which the Boston Globe has called "America’s think tank for women:" “The semester I got to the Bunting, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the famous professor of African American literature and culture, gave a talk. He said that inevitably at the end of fall semester, one of his students would come to his office and talk about how odd it will be to go back home and how hard it will be to explain what he was learning to his family and hometown friends.”
Hearing this story from Gates, another native of West Virginia, struck a chord with Mason, who has worked with first generation college students a lot. “He (Gates) said the students always expressed a sense of guilt for living on this 'highfalutin' campus and discussing these amazing topics and then going home to a place where people didn’t talk about those kinds of things or experience the privileges that college life has to offer.”
It’s a condition that, as a professor, Mason revels in helping her students demystify: “It’s like (students) are caught between two communities, and they worry that they’re not being loyal to their roots by learning all this new stuff and being really excited about it,” she observed. “What I try to convey to those students is that it’s okay to learn all sorts of new things and they have to have faith that, in time, they’ll figure out a way to bring back to their community and their family the benefits of their education.”
Mason was the Frieda L. Miller Postdoctoral Fellowship for Cultural Studies at “the Bunting,” and used the time and resources to write her first book, Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics, an exploration of the incendiary terminology of the “Pro-Life” movement, which was followed in 2009 by Reading Appalachia from Left to Right: Conservatives and the 1974 Kanawha County Textbook Controversy. In both books, Mason examines how language has been used to manufacture moral divides in ways that prevent people from recognizing the nuances of social conflicts.
As seen with “Kinky Hillbilly Queens,”Mason’s own language captivates, too, but in a different way than the language about which she has become a recognized authority — her own language is inflected with mirth and always with the goal of enlightenment. A quick survey of titles from her scholarly writing — “the Hillbilly Defense,” “…the Partial Birth of a Nation,” “What’s This Cow Doing in My Queer Theory?” — shows her wry awareness of pop culture and recognition of its ability to engage students.
For 2012, in addition to settling in at UK, Mason will be continuing these explorations and taking these dialogues to a number of national forums, as well as across the Atlantic this summer in Paris, France, as a panelist at the Crossroads Conference: “I think it is so important that educators have a transnational perspective and that students do, too, even as we recognize how local and regional sensibilities shape us. In fact, the idea of transnational regionalism is influencing my next book and upcoming talks.” In France, Mason will be presenting recent research on the iconoclast Oklahoma-based architect Bruce Goff for her upcoming book Oklahomo for SUNY’s Queer Politics and Culture series (as well as in the Spring in Columbus, Ohio, at the Queer Places, Practices and Lives symposium).
“And there’s a Kentucky connection!” Mason proclaimed with the pride of a new resident. “I’m hoping over the holiday break to drive out to see a house Goff designed for a Buechel, Kentucky, woman and look at property he bought because he was so inspired by the natural beauty near Louisville. He wanted to build a house and studio there and call it Kebyar, which is a Balinese word that suggests a ‘sudden bursting open of a flower.’ Goff’s fabulous designs integrated natural surroundings with his clients’ inclinations even more so than the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, his mentor. I think it is so cool that the Kentucky landscape inspired him this much. I want to see what’s there.”
Which just shows that, globe-trotting aside, it’s still the local and regional that invigorates Mason and her studies: “As a department, Gender and Women’s Studies is increasingly becoming transnational in its orientation, so I’m sure what I learn from my audiences abroad will trickle down to my classes here in Lexington. And, no doubt, what I learn from students enrolled in my spring classes, which are based on some of these ideas, will help shape what I present to my audiences elsewhere. Teaching and research are always interconnected.”