Popular media has created and perpetuated many myths about Southern identity over the years. They stereotype us as brainless, slow-talking trailer trash without culture or any understanding of a world outside of our region. Perhaps most insulting is the myth that we are all homogenous and all think the same. However, this idea is being challenged by young Southerners who don’t quite fit the idea of what outsiders think they should be. Southern progressives, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and even former-horse-girls-turned-goths have found their identifier: Y’allternative.
The movement began on TikTok before it even had a name. Emo farm boys and scene cowgirls were scattered throughout some For You Pages, much to the arousal of many users. But it was user @camrudwaffle who proclaimed that his “type” is Southern goth women, “y’allternative.” Other users quickly latched onto the term and responded with their own takes on the idea. From secretly knowing the words to country music to a goth girl skillfully picking a banjo in the back of a pickup truck, the content was thriving. Soon, #yallternative popped up on other platforms. One can now find Spotify playlists that borrow the movement’s title and feature modern and classic country, indie/folk, and early 2000s alternative. It’s even reached Instagram, where one can find snapshots of emo kids in all-black getting down on the farm with their cowboy boots and hats. This funny little made-up word is not only a mix of musical genres and fashion sense but is quickly becoming a way of life for many.
So, what does “y’allternative” really mean? As with any cultural movement in its early stages, the term itself is difficult to define. For the purposes of this article, it refers to anyone raised in the southern United States who does not align with the “traditional” picture of Southerness, but who values certain elements of that picture and seeks to reclaim the identity associated with it. For example, the stereotypical Southerner might look like a middle-aged conservative white man who only takes his cowboy hat off when he’s in church or climbing into his Ford F-150. It may look like his wife, the textbook Southern Belle who puts a hearty supper on the table by 7PM every night, especially on Sunday. It may look like their children: Tanner, the football player, and Rayleigh, the cheerleader, who spend every vacation possible at Panama City Beach. An exact replica of this family may exist in a subdivision near you. Some Southerners are comfortable fitting in with this picture, but many are not and wish to redefine it.
The y’allternative movement seems to be composed of people who are nostalgic for the traditions of their youth and the positive aspects of Southern culture. Who doesn’t love fried chicken and pithy country songs? According to Vice, the movement is “one part appreciation of where you grew up, and one part reclaiming something that rejected you.” These are the people your mama calls “weirdos.” They have odd-colored hair and piercings and tattoos. Their playlist is a heavy rotation between Dolly Parton, My Chemical Romance, and who knows what else. They weren’t popular in high school or, if they were, they were just going along with the crowd to escape ridicule and even protect themselves.
In a small, informal study that I conducted, one anonymous respondent reported that he “never felt safe coming out” as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in his small Southern town. Later in life, these people have claimed their identities and decided that other people’s opinions of them don’t matter as much as owning who they are. Instead of relaxing into the mold like so many Southerners before them, they’ve broken away and created their own.
Admittedly, few Southerners are aware of the movement happening right under their noses. The term is not yet found in everyday conversation. Half of the volunteers surveyed said they might identify as y’allternative while one quarter said they didn’t at all. “I’m still on the fence,” said Kayleigh of Georgia. “I just have an inner battle with myself. I don’t want to be associated with the stereotypical Southern person, but I do want to make this shift towards inclusivity.”
Some who once considered themselves to be part of the alternative scene feel that they don’t need another label. “It feels pretty new for me and like something I don't really need? I feel like even identifying as ‘alternative’ isn't really a part of my identity anymore,” said Reneaux of Louisiana.
Another anonymous survey-taker claimed that she likes the sound of the word y’allternative but rejects most labels as a rule. “Living in one of the most judgmental parts of the U.S., because let’s be honest: the Bible Belt is full of professional Judgy Judys, I have learned to hate labels. Instead of labeling me as a white female in her 20s that identifies with a lot of things (but doesn’t want to label my fickle heart), can’t I just be me?”
Most of those surveyed identified as people of color and/or LGBTQ+. They also largely expressed progressive political leanings and interest in “edgy” media. Ironically, those who could be labeled y’allternative are those who would rather not be labeled as anything at all.
Despite a reluctance to accept labels, we are all put in one box or another. What sets these people apart from the mainstream isn’t just their rock’n’roll fashion sense or their diverse identifiers. It’s their commitment to moving the South forward. These are people dedicated to being themselves and, therefore, showing the world a different side of the region. The movement, at its core, isn’t just an aesthetic (although, a goth girl picking a banjo in the back of a pickup truck is truly an aesthetic). It’s about inclusion and acceptance. It’s about sticking it to the “Judgy Judys'' and making the South a more welcoming place.