QMI writers Liz Braun and Jim Slotek offer their opinions on a variety of showbiz topics.
LIZ BRAUN SAYS:
Are we laughing at them or laughing with them?
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, reality redneck TV is a very big deal. Besides the obvious success stories such as Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo, there are a handful of other hillbilly hits in the way of Moonshiners, American Hoggers, Food Network’s The Shed, Gator Boys, My Big Redneck Wedding, Swamp People and Deep South Paranormal. A new show coming up in January is Hollywood Hillbillies, which concerns a family from Georgia making a move to tinseltown.
The shows are not all created equal. Buckwild, the show that depicted West Virginians as low-normals and invited you to sneer at risk-taking hicks, ended with the accidental death of Shain Gandee. Nobody was too brokenhearted when MTV cancelled the program,.
But what about shows like Honey Boo Boo and their massive viewing audience? What gives? The Christian Science Monitor suggests that traditional southern storytelling is the big draw here, or maybe it’s the chance to play show and tell with another culture. Other critics say you either identify with the characters or you enjoy mocking them, but it’s not really that black and white. People may tune in for sport, thinking they’ll have the chance to feel superior, but it’s almost impossible not to find some common ground. The mockers wind up identifying with the strange and wonderful people who populate this TV world.
Both the south and Appalachia, often the setting for these reality shows, are distinct cultural communities. For city slickers, the inhabitants of either are usually riveting. (And some of us are obsessed with hearing Appalachian English, a mind-boggling dialect closer to the English Shakespeare used than anything else you’re likely to hear in America. Or anywhere else.) Both the music and the moonshine of the neighbourhoods are big attractions; who doesn’t root for the guys on Moonshiners when it comes to keeping their product away from the law?
It’s the living off the grid, the working outside the law and the nose-thumbing at authority that make for great TV.
And of course, there are visceral thrills — our own abject terror when it comes to alligators (and crocodiles, too, if you wish to get specific) is the reason Swamp People is appealing. Who doesn’t want to watch a bunch of guys catch ‘gators in a necessary cull? It’s terrifying, but easy to watch from the comfort and safety of an easy chair.
It’s noted that these reality shows sometimes dredge up people who will best fit the stereotype of poor and ignorant, and that may be so, but pleasing an audience that wants to gawk and mock isn’t tough. Those looking for something they can “love to hate” can choose from any number of reality candidates, including Kardashians, professional bachelors and terrifying teenage moms. On reality TV, it’s not hard to find someone you can look down upon, if you’re so inclined.
However, as Honey Boo Boo’s Mama June can tell you, that’s a form of bullying. She has several strategies for dealing with that sort of thing — maybe you saw that episode?
JIM SLOTEK SAYS:
Thirty-plus years post-SCTV, some American friends still occasionally throw, “Hey ya hoser, how’s it goin’ eh?” You laugh it off, and if that’s some people’s entire perception of Canadians, whatever.
But imagine if Bob and Doug McKenzie were a genre, and there were a dozen top-rated reality shows starring guys sporting mullets and plaid jackets, drinking Moosehead and drunkenly driving their snowmobiles on thin ice. For variety, there might be one with toothless French Canadians eating poutine and tapping maple syrup.
This is reality to Southerners I know, who really don’t want to hear your impression of a Southern accent. My neighbour, from Mount Airy, N.C. (hometown of Andy Griffith) is a nurse who moved up here, and tells me she’s about had her fill of hick jokes from Canadians.
But what are you going to do when the reality-TV lineup features shows like Hillbilly Handfishin’, Swamp People, Moonshiners, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and of course, the reigning ratings champ, Duck Dynasty? The latter pulls in an average audience of 8.5 million — which is why the duck-call manufacturing Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana, essentially went on strike a while back to get a bigger piece of that action. Southerners aren’t so dumb. Ratings analysts have found that the audiences for these shows are made up of two demographics — a minority who identify with the characters, and a majority who laugh at them.
But many Southerners don’t fall into either category. After one of the stars of Buckwild — about young, hard-partying West Virginians — died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia demanded the cancellation of the MTV show. He got it.
Yes, you can find stereotypes wherever you go. But they don’t actually walk around accompanied by banjo music. That’s editing-room sweetening patronizingly added in Los Angeles.
If you wanted, you could also find cancer researchers in Durham, N.C., home of the Duke Medical Centre, arguably the world’s best medical facility. Or scientists and engineers at the Marshall Space Centre in Huntsville, Alabama — where much of the International Space Centre was constructed and pretty much all NASA astronauts were trained.
In fact, if the TV world made sense, those people would be the stars of reality shows on the channels that carry the hick shows. In almost every case, the yokels are on former “boutique” channels with high-minded promises of performance, but which let go of their mandate with both hands when their programmers saw the money that could be made by pointing a camera at a drunk grade-school drop-out in the backwoods.
There are respectful exceptions to how people who get their hands dirty are portrayed — including Dirty Jobs and The Deadliest Catch. But there’s more money in mocking.
And as North American pop culture gets dumber, and a cruel economy pushes more people towards the bottom of the ladder, eventually we have to ask ourselves: Who are we laughing at? And why?