Conversations outside the Hollywood bubble: Three southerners discuss media and politics

Ann Jones is an equine professional and cattle rancher with property in Georgia and Oklahoma. She's shown here with one of her favorite horses, Delta, on her farm, Jones Cutting Horses, in Flowery Branch, Ga.
(Bita Honarvar / For The Times)

One can tell what the world thinks of them by looking at the cultural productions in which they are depicted. For Southerners, the images are abundant and varied. From “Forrest Gump” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” to “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Treme” and even “Hustle & Flow,” movies and TV shows often portray those below the Mason-Dixon line as outside the mainstream, with rich and unique cultures that transport viewers to new worlds. As if the South weren’t really part of the United States. These images — even when full of admiration for the South, or told by Southern natives — are often paired with the general sentiment that Southerners are not only conservative but also politically regressive and out of touch with everyone else — or at least those in coastal major cities like Los Angeles.

Ironically, though, “out of touch” with the American mainstream is exactly what many Southerners think of Hollywood and the entertainment it produces.

“The folks in Hollywood, those that went there to ‘make it big,’ they got enamored with the bright lights and the money and forgot where they come from,” says Ann Jones of Flowery Branch, Ga. “They forget that we're all just people, but I think that comes from getting away from the family farm and getting ensconced in themselves.”

Jones is one of three Southerners we talked with in depth about their entertainment and media consumption — what they like, what they dismiss and what they think Hollywood does and doesn’t get about their lives in this time of cultural and political division. Their expressions are part of a continuing conversation we began after the presidential election — and will continue to have with others across the country — about the perceived clash of Hollywood values and American values.

‘Hollywood is dominated by people who lean left.’

Angelyn Dionysatos is president of the Atlanta Young Republicans. (Bita Honarvar / For The Times)
Angelyn Dionysatos is president of the Atlanta Young Republicans. (Bita Honarvar / For The Times)
(Bita Honarvar / For The Times)

Angelyn Dionysatos doesn’t have time for TV. A 30-year-old conservative from Sandy Springs, Ga., she works in public relations by day and goes to law school part-time at night. She’s also president of the Atlanta Young Republicans, an organization of “fiscally conservative young professionals, ages 18 to 40,” as described by the group’s website, “who come together to be politically engaged, network and socialize.” Despite her busy schedule, she subscribes to cable, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime.

The last TV show she watched regularly was “The Vampire Diaries,” long before it ended its eight-season run in March. Not only was she a fan because it filmed in Georgia but she was also intrigued by the fantasy of it all. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was another favorite, though she points out that such shows are “an aberration from my normal consumption style” because she doesn’t like to be scared. No Jason, Freddy or Frankenstein.

Dionysatos finds herself most attracted to rom-coms and Ryan Gosling movies. That’s what she pulls up when she has a rare Friday or Saturday night to herself.

“Sometimes just coming home after a long day and a long week, getting takeout and sitting on my couch and picking out a movie to watch — it's not fancy or expensive, but it's relaxing and cathartic,” Dionysatos says.

And don’t cheat her out of her happy endings.

“I watch the ones where they get married at the end,” she says, laughing. “I want to see the wedding. I don’t want the implications of one.”

Ultimately, Dionysatos said, she just wants be entertained, and that’s what film is supposed to do.

“It allows people for two hours to transplant themselves out of whatever is going on or things they are dealing with to be lifted out of that and spend some time in somebody else's world,” she says. “That's what entertainment is to me, and I don’t think it has to be fantasy or reality.”

I think there are lines that get crossed and venues where it’s inappropriate to insert so much of your political take on something.

— Angelyn Dionysatos

She would, however, not like to stumble into something that has a political view she disagrees with, such as “Scandal’s” episodes about abortion.

“It literally diminishes my enjoyment and my experience,” Dionysatos says. “I guess I'm not sure of what the real goal is, and when they do that, how they think it's achieving a goal.”

“If you were someone who agreed, you’d cheer,” she says. “But if you were someone who didn’t, you wouldn’t want to return. I don’t know who it's persuading. Maybe there is a range of people in the middle who are affected, but I’m not sure that's true.”

Granted, everyone wants to use their platform to disseminate their views. It’s a concept Dionysatos understands, respects and appreciates.

“But I think there are lines that get crossed and venues where it’s inappropriate to insert so much of your political take on something,” she says. “And when you do that to a point where it becomes distracting to your central purpose — which I think is to entertain people — I see that as a problem.”

Dionysatos is an avid Facebook user. Most of her news comes from the social media site, which she checks every morning before getting out of bed. She also subscribes to a number of curated email newsletters. For her Georgia political news, she reads the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and to “stretch your brain,” the Wall Street Journal. Her most consistent form of news, however, is talk radio.

On her commute to work and school, she tunes in to conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt’s weekday radio show.

“It’s an effortless way to learn about what's going on that day when you may not always have time to read as much as you want to,” Dionysatos says.

She’s also a fan of Christian radio as “a great way to remind you of who’s in charge and what’s really important, because faith is the bedrock of everything.”

“Without that foundation and connection with God, then the rest of the things in your life just don't quite click together,” she adds.

And while she’d love Hollywood to leave politics to elected officials, she knows it's easier said than done.

“That oversimplifies what's going on and what forces are at play,” she says. “It’s not a little-known fact that Hollywood is dominated by people who lean left. It seems to me that there are only a handful of conservatives, some whom are public about it, as well as an underground network of folks who are fearful of disclosing that they are conservative.”

‘Sometimes they try too hard.’

Katie Burke is from Columbia, SC and lives in Greenville. (Jeremy Fleming)
(Jeremy Fleming /)

Katie Burke, 24, is originally from Columbia, S.C. After graduating from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., in 2015, she settled in the college town, which has a population of just over 60,000 and is less than two hours from family. Save perhaps her job as a blood drive organizer for a local nonprofit blood bank, many might say Burke lives a normal twentysomething’s life. She goes to work, hangs out with friends and comes home to crank up something interesting on Netflix or Hulu.

Every now and again, however, Burke leaves Greenville for a little excitement, like the time she traveled to Atlanta to see Beyoncé’s Formation tour.

“It was the best night of my life, seriously,” she says. “And I thought her pregnancy photos were beautiful. She would have twins. She’s just so… perfect.”

(Yes, Burke’s a member of the Beyhive, the music icon’s most devoted fan base.)

When she’s not jamming to all things Bey, Bruno Mars and Jason Derulo get her dancing. She does admit, though, that country music has lately found its way onto her playlist.

“I just started hearing the same songs over and over [on the radio],” she says, noting a newfound love of crooner Thomas Rhett.

But on Thursday nights, the music is off, the phones are silenced and the TV — yes, Burke has cable — is tuned to her go-to scripted drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“I have to be home at 8 p.m. to watch every Thursday, and though this season, I have some creative differences, I [still] love the sexual tension and the romance mixed with the medicine action and good, sweet story lines,” she says.

As for other scripted shows, she notes “Private Practice,” “The West Wing,” “Friends” and “Gilmore Girls” as standouts — most of which she gets via streaming services. Her cable subscription is also put to good use on the reality shows she loves, such as “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” “The Real Housewives” (Orange County, Beverly Hills and Atlanta) and “Dancing With the Stars.”

It’s best when they’re not trying to be as trendy and cutting edge.

— Katie Burke

On the film front, Burke’s all-time favorite is “Forrest Gump.” In fact, anything Tom Hanks does is good with her, she says. The last movie she saw in theaters was the Emma Watson-fronted “Beauty and the Beast.”

“I thought it was so good I saw it twice,” she says.

And yet, while Burke clearly counts herself a lover of film and TV, when asked to give the industry a grade, she offers a B-minus.

“I think it’s best when they’re not trying to be as trendy and cutting edge,” she says. “Sometimes they try too hard.”

Like NBC’s short-lived “The New Normal,” where a gay couple allowed their surrogate and her 9-year-old daughter to move in with them.

“Sometimes I wonder if I live in a bubble and everyplace else there's all these things that people might be experiencing that it relates to,” Burke says. As an example, she mentions a 2016 episode of “Modern Family,” one of her favorite shows to watch with her mom. Titled “A Stereotypical Day,” it featured a trans boy as one of the new friends of a pre-teen character.

“It felt like [the show was] trying to make a statement versus something we'd ever see in South Carolina,” she says. “But sometimes I feel like shows feel like they have to have things like that or they're not relevant.”

Burke does not identify as conservative, though she did volunteer on a Republican senator’s campaign last election cycle. When it came time to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for president, she voted for Clinton, and says she considers herself “politically moderate.” Since Trump’s election, she admits she’s stepped away from politics and now mostly gets her news from her Facebook friends, coworkers and the infrequent alerts between commercials during “Lockup” on MSNBC.

Of course, Hollywood has become more expressly political in the last six months, with late-night show hosts taking on the healthcare fight and award-season red carpets brimming with banter about the government's various antics.

One of the season’s most talked-about moments came with Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes in January, in which she criticized Trump for making fun of a disabled reporter.

While conservative commentators from Dana Loesch to Sean Hannity criticized Streep Burke sees a potential utility in using such a massive platform in this way.

“It's tough, because as annoying as it is, they are saying things that need to be said,” she says. “And there are a lot of people who don’t watch the news that do watch these award shows, like people in South Carolina who might be blinded to things if they only watch one news network.”

Even so, she says, “it can be overshadowing the reason why I watch the awards show — for the celebration.” And, of course, the dresses.

Her least favorite movie of the 2017 awards season was “La La Land.”

“It was overrated, and I know it's not a popular belief,” Burke laughs. “But the fact that it had as many award nominations as ‘Titanic’ is embarrassing, because they're not in the same class.”

Her favorite movie was “Hidden Figures,” because of the strong female characters and that it was based on the lives of real women who helped put men on the moon.

On reflection, however, Burke realizes that she didn’t connect with any film last year.

“None of them really applied to me,” she says. “But I’m OK with it. That’s why I go to movies.”

To escape.

‘Let’s just be entertained.’

"“I realize as a conservative that we all gotta meet in the middle to get this country straightened up," said Ann Jones. (Bita Honarvar / For The Times)
(Bita Honarvar / For The Times)

Ann Jones is a businesswoman. A fourth-generation farmer, she’s known throughout Georgia and the world for her cattle and equine expertise as owner of Jones Cutting Horses in Flowery Branch. Credentialed with 11 related associations in more than 130 countries, she often travels, sometimes 30 weekends a year, judging horse shows. Such status has afforded her the opportunity to rub shoulders with a number of Hollywood's elite.

“Some of them are ordinary people and some of them are of the opinion that they deserve special attention,” she says. “Hollywood is probably made up of regular people that now have more money than they have sense.”

That lack of sense, she says, can result in a community of folks who have lost touch with reality.

“I know what it is to survive and meet a payroll and have people depend on you,” Jones says. “I think that sometimes the folks in Hollywood don’t realize that though the star makes the big bucks, there are 150 other people depending on that person’s performance right down to the gentleman or lady that sweeps the floor.”

She notes her “excellent friend” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican presidential candidate for whom she campaigned, as an example of someone who “gets it.” She remembers how when he visited places on the campaign trail, he shook the hands of every person who helped make it possible.

“He values everybody,” she says. “That’s sorely lacking when you get outside of the South and into some affluent areas.”

John Wayne chats with newsmen at Orange County Airport in 1978. (Los Angeles Times)
(/ Los Angeles Times)

Because of that, Jones adds, most movies and television shows don’t pay enough attention or cater to the common man. Instead, she prefers “Law & Order” and old James Bond movies. Her packed schedule doesn't allow her time to see the latest films in theaters, but she notes, “John Wayne was a great cowboy.”

News is perhaps the most consistent form of media she consumes, from a variety of sources, including newspapers, apps on her phone and Fox News. Despite folks’ perceptions that those who watch Fox News are closed-minded, she contends, “Whether you’re conservative or not, if you're liberal, I’ll agree to disagree with you.

“I realize as a conservative that we all gotta meet in the middle to get this country straightened up. You can’t divide up, because a house divided cannot stand. It’s just that simple.”

Jones does, however, believe that the intense and unrelenting criticism lodged at Trump since his January inauguration is “slanted and a little bit across the line.”

“I don’t feel like the [Obama] administration got the treatment that this administration is getting,” she says. “If I felt like the last administration had gotten the same treatment, then it wouldn’t make a difference.”

The incongruous treatment, she says, might have had something to do with President Obama being the first black man to hold the office. Media, she says, “felt that some of the questions [they should’ve been asking] were taboo.

“And it mattered not to me if the man was purple. It didn’t mean a hill of beans to me, because, I tell you, this go around, I worked for Ben Carson, a very intelligent gentleman.”

Much like the media, Jones says that Hollywood goes unchecked, meaning it can put whatever messages it wants into TV shows and movies.

A scene from "Alice."

“I’m very much a Christian, and when you get far away from your maker, you allow the turmoil,” she says. “I prefer not to let it in. If you want to watch it, watch it. But I think sometimes TV does push the point, for whatever reason. I think sometimes it's just because they can. They go unchecked, because they think they’re above [the rest of us].”

As for the types of productions she’d like for Hollywood to do, Jones is hoping for “something a little bit middle of the road.”

“They have reality that is beyond reality, and then you have the stories that push the limit,” she says. “Let’s just be entertained. Let’s not pick an agenda. I want realism, [not escapism], the actual life that we're living.”

She mentions the TV series “Alice,” which ran from 1976 to 1985, as an example of “pure entertainment.” But does Hollywood even have the capacity to do that?

“Probably not right now,” Jones continues. “There’re so many liberals there, and because of it, [nothing] has been told from a conservative viewpoint in so long. It’s probably going to take a new generation of filmmakers before that occurs.”

Until then, she says, the industry’s effort to be truly universal will go unreached.

“They've not achieved the universal appeal, because I don't think when they do their research for a film, that they're willing to understand [our] point of view. I don't think they are willing to do that research to get at what actually goes on [in our lives].”

“But if they were only interested in what really happens, would they attract viewers? I don’t know.”

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1:28 p.m.: This story was updated to delete a phrase that implied that Angelyn Dionysatos took issue with Black Lives Matter or the TV show “Glee.” She does not.