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A hillbilly is a term used for a person who conforms to certain stereotypical characteristics of rural, country Americans, or a person who self-identifies as a member of hillbilly culture. This term is used almost exclusively for people with apparently Caucasian skin. The identifying features of hillbillies are not clearly delineated, but may include unique linguistic patterns, style of dress, economic background, musical taste, and place of origin.
When used as a derogatory term, the word usually has a very loose definition that refers to a general character of a person, but when used affirmatively people generally have specific features in mind. Like most slang terms and ethnic slurs, the meaning and intention is highly dependent on context.
People who self-identify as hillbillies are almost always residents of a rural area. Most of the time, they bear little resemblance to the stereotypes about hillbillies, but often have an appreciation for what they see as the ethos of hillbilly life. They may consider themselves particularly appreciative of the simple things in life, or they may take special pride in their rural community, for example. The nature and origins of personal connections to this term are highly variable, but the term is usually either widely accepted or widely despised by members of a single community. Embracing the term is generally a community-wide phenomenon.
The stereotype to which hillbillies are thought to conform is a picture of life in the rural mountains of the United States, mainly Appalachia and the Ozarks. In derogatory contexts, this stereotyped mountain dweller is usually seen as uneducated, simple, and ignorant. Having a large family that cannot be supported on one's wages, making moonshine, and sitting on a front porch with a gun are all common stereotyped hillbilly activities.
While these images of rural life may be drawn from social problems that exist in the impoverished areas hillbillies are associated with, it is much more likely that this character has taken on a life of its own since it became a popular comical figure, and therefore bears little resemblance to the actual rural people existing today. Hillbillies are typically depicted speaking with a southern dialect. In many portrayals, men wear over-sized overalls.
Women are often portrayed wearing shirts that reveal a bare midriff and frayed, jean cut off shorts. Missing or yellowed teeth are a common feature of hillbilly caricatures, as are bushy beards for men. While men are almost always portrayed as alcoholics and fools in parodies of this culture, women often have a variety of roles, though none are considered positive.
For people who self-identify as hillbillies, the majority of these caricatured features are offensive. This is why even people who identify as hillbillies typically do not like being called hillbillies by people who are perceived to be from a different cultural group, such as those from a metropolitan area. Even people who would otherwise joke about these same characteristics, engaging in a kind of self-parody, usually do not appreciate the use of the term by outsiders. When the term is used derogatorily, it implies a sense of superiority on the part of the non-hillbilly, which is likely why it is so insulting.
I grew up in a large city, so when I moved to a small town in Arkansas for work, it was an eye-opening experience. The town was surrounded by a range of small mountains, and people actually lived deep in those hills. I don't know how they managed to live without stores or gas stations or utilities, but they did. My boss called them hillbillies, but I thought he was just making an insensitive joke about country people.
One day I was at the grocery store and a hillbilly family came in to shop. I thought I was stepping back into the 1930s. None of the children wore shoes, and they all wore the dirtiest overalls I had ever
seen. The mother filled her cart with nothing but staple items: sugar, flours, powdered milk, etc. The father spoke to the manager, but I couldn't understand most of what he was saying. They paid for their groceries and walked back towards the hills.
The whole time I was working in that small town, I only met a few people who acted like stereotypical hillbillies. Most of the families kept to themselves and didn't look for any handouts from us. They just loved the mountains and couldn't think of any place better to live.
In my current Deep South state, I hear the word "redneck" more than hillbilly. To my way of thinking, a redneck will spend most of his day working in the fields or doing manual labor, hence the red neck from sunburn. A hillbilly tries to avoid honest work in favor of other invisible means of support, such as government assistance or illegal sales.
Where I grew up in the Midwest, an unsophisticated rural resident might be called a country bumpkin, but actual hillbillies tended to be very insular. They tried to stay hidden in their mountain homes, only coming into the nearest town for supplies. We tended to limit the derogatory name "hillbilly" to people from states like Kentucky or West Virginia, not simple country folk from our own state.