An Exploration of Tackiness

Everyone seems to love Dolly Parton, but why? In their introduction to The Tacky South, editors Katharine A. Burnett and Monica Carol Miller write that “Dolly is one of the few things everyone can agree upon, precisely because as an outlandish, tacky figure, she suggests progressivism without being a threat to mainstream norms.” Throughout The Tacky South, a wide range of writers examine instances of “tackiness” to explain how this particular aesthetic category has functioned over time, and with Dolly Parton as a recurring centerpiece, the essays provide plenty of common ground and fun while teasing out the seams of this surprisingly complex term.

The Tacky South consists of eighteen essays written by different scholars, and the essays are arranged into three sections. In section one, writers consider “tackiness as a form of failure or policing.” Jolene Hubbs’ essay “Picturing the Tacky: Poor White Southerners in Gilded Age Periodicals” begins the section with a historical overview of the word “tacky,” its definitions, and its rise to prominence at the end of the 19th century. Other stand-out essays in this section include Joe T. Carson’s discussion of pine tar as it appears in works by Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass as well as its material reality for enslaved people in the American South; Jill E. Anderson’s examination of tackiness in The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote; and Monica Carol Miller’s “Southern Women Don’t Wear Sweatpants: Southern Mothers and the Deceptive Policing of Appearance.” Section one is the longest of the three, with nine essays, and it covers a wide range of examples such as fiction by Dorothy Allison, a plantation turned bed and breakfast called the Shack Up Inn, and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, in addition to the topics already mentioned above.

Despite the diversity of topics considered, the essays all fit together thematically as they return to consideration of what tackiness is, how it has changed over time, and how it informs our understanding of the South’s race and class divisions. Section two complicates things further by exploring “tackiness as a form of subversion.” This section includes Marshall Needleman Armintor’s “The Cultural Paradoxes of Red Velvet Cake” as well as Michael P. Bibler’s “That Tacky Little Dance Band From Athens, Georgia: On Seams, Assemblages, and the Democratic Beat of the B-52s.” Needleman Armintor writes that “The story of red velvet cake is one of undecidability that scoffs at the very idea of tradition and even good taste, disarming us and signaling that it’s time to shove our preconceptions aside and just dig in.” This assertion seems to characterize section two’s approach to tackiness as a “form of juxtaposition.”

Finally, in section three, the shortest section with only three essays, Anna Creadick, Isabel Duarte-Gray, and Susannah Young each consider “Dolly as Common Ground” by discussing “representations that overlap both definitions [from the other sections] and emulate the dual process inherent in the function of tackiness itself.” This third section is incredibly fun to read; the writers here consider not only Dolly Parton but also Trixie Mattel, Kacey Musgraves, and Nudie Cohn. While the entire book is well-written and thoughtful, this section serves to bring everything together for a neat conclusion.

The Tacky South is certainly a scholarly work, and each essay presents a clear argument with notes and citations to back it up. Some of the most frequently cited texts are by Matt Wray, Nancy Isenberg, Sianne Ngai, and Susan Sontag. Unlike some other academic works, though, this collection seems particularly accessible and engaging for anyone interested in the concept of tackiness as an aesthetic category or cultural phenomenon. Examples include everything from Reese Witherspoon, Duck Dynasty, and Miranda Lambert, to Ozark novelist Donald Harington, Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Tenderfoot,” and the poetry of Jim Wayne Miller. Even examples that may seem obscure to some readers are treated in a way that renders them accessible to newcomers, and I would not be surprised if some readers went on to pick up works by Dorothy Allison, Frank X. Walker, Donald Harington or others mentioned in The Tacky South.

Because of the range of topics this collection covers, there will be something for nearly every Southerner as well as other interested readers, and just like Dolly Parton herself, it is genuinely fun and pleasant. Overall, this collection reads like a popular nonfiction book; it provides thoughtful insights and careful analysis in an accessible and enjoyable manner. So put on your sweatpants, have a slice of red velvet cake, and learn more about The Tacky South. We promise not to tell Mama.

The Tacky South
Edited by Katharine A. Burnett and Monica Carol Miller
LSU Press
Published June 15, 2022