Hillbilly Redux: MTV’s “Buckwild”

A year and a half after writing an op-ed for the New York Times about the South in reality television, I am here again with the latest installment of the trend.  “Buckwild,” MTV’s newest “reality” program, is a look at the shenanigans of a group of young men and women from my home state of West Virginia.  Set in Sissonville, just outside of the state capitol of Charleston, MTV tells us that this show and this group of 20-somethings is going to take over where “Jersey Shore” left off.  My prediction:  “Buckwild” dies a quick death after the first season and none of the show’s cast members will see the kind of money that Snooki or “The Situation” has enjoyed.

buckwild
The cast of MTV’s “Buckwild”

So what do we have in “Buckwild?”  After a first look at the show, what I saw was very contrived.  The cast seemed a little nervous to be on film at all, and their conversations didn’t seem as organic as they likely are when the cameras aren’t on.  There were also several places within the first episode where you could almost hear a producer telling cast members what to do next.  “Okay, you two girls, jump in that mud hole and start wrestling.”  Because that would seem natural for two hillbillies from West Virginia.

If you’re from the state, you have a right to be embarrassed.  On the one hand, the antics of youth can be found anywhere.  But there’s always a spin when the show is set in the South, or in this case, Appalachia.

First, you have the subtitles as most of these shows have, which indicates that the people in this place speak with a foreign tongue–but mainly foreign to urban ears. (I find I am distracted and annoyed by the subtitles in southern-based reality shows, because the speech and/or accents are often perfectly understandable.)  Second, you have some activity that suggests to you that the place is a cultural backwater, literally.  Cue the hoses to create a mud pit and send in trucks to splash through it or young women to roll around in it.

Now, some would say “these people really do exist.”  Sure they do, but are they representative?  I’m from West Virginia and my cousins and their children are all hardworking, decent and smart people.  And they don’t get their kicks wallowing in mud.  Why don’t we see THAT represented?  Because then we wouldn’t have people we could laugh at.

You see, this hillbilly stereotype goes back for more than a century and has often been used for purposes of humor.  Very often this stereotype highlights the urban and rural divide in American culture.  The city slicker versus the country rube.  So, “Buckwild” just continues to perpetuate that long held stereotype, so that urban dwellers can get a cheap laugh at hick culture and feel superior about it while they do.  If MTV, or any other reality show (like “Moonshiners”) truly wanted to represent the diversity of Appalachian culture they would.  But they are content to make money by striking the same note–over and over–much to the chagrin of so many people who live far richer lives there, in those same mountains, than what is presented. That’s a shame, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of shows like these.

Cue a toothless man holding a moonshine jug with XXX marked on the side.

Honey Boo Boo and the Country Ghetto

After watching the first two weeks of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the tragic comedy reality show on TLC, it’s clear that some “hixploitation” is going on at the network.  The cast of characters–at the center of which are Mama June and her pageant queen daughter Alana–are what you might call “country ghetto.”  They rattle off phrases (“A dolla makes me holla” and “I’m all that and a pack of crackers”) that Helena Andrews writes makes them appear as if they channeled an “angry black woman” from a ’90s sitcom. (See her article in The Root, Aug. 15, 2012).

Alana and her family

Yet, Alana (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) and her family are firmly situated in rural Georgia, and what I see is more than just the language of the ghetto.  This family literally lives IN a country ghetto.  They are, as a friend suggested, like the Evans family on the sitcom “Good Times” because they have to laugh to keep from crying about the poverty which they can’t seem to escape.

I see the cycle of rural southern poverty on full display.  Underneath all that sass is a family that struggles to stay afloat financially, while also gambling on Honey Boo Boo.  If you listen closely, in between all the colloquialisms (ignoring the subtitles even when they aren’t needed), you’ll hear Mama June tell you that her “baby daddy” works 7 days a week and that she got pregnant at 15, which meant that her education was cut short, although to her credit she finished her GED.  And now her 17 year-old daughter is repeating the cycle of teen pregnancy, and there will be one more mouth to feed.  In addition to “extreme couponing,” June also goes to food auctions and her family happily accepts a deer carcass, even if it was roadkill, because the meat they preserve from it will save them money.  Her older daughters complain that their mother considers anything over $5 expensive.

People may find it irresponsible that Mama June would spend the money she’s scraped to save to invest in Alana’s pageants. But this is consistent with people who live in poverty who pin their hopes on a gamble they hope will pay off.  It’s no different than if they were playing Powerball or scratching off tickets–maybe one day they’ll hit the jackpot, although the odds are stacked against them.

This isn’t just moralizing on my part, because I’ve experienced poverty and can remember a time as a little girl when my Mom (a single mother who scraped by on a secretary’s salary) gave me $2 to purchase a raffle ticket in hopes of winning a new car since we didn’t have one. I still remember the look in her eyes that even she knew this was a long shot.  Of course, we didn’t win, but I hoped with everything we would because it might make life a little easier.  I can see this in little Alana.  She’s a sassy kid, to be sure, but underneath she’s vulnerable and still just six years old. She desperately wants to win that Miss Grand Supreme title and it hurts her a little more each time when she doesn’t.  It hurts June, too.  This is what makes it hard to watch, because I understand how poverty makes you feel “less than” and so I also hurt a little for them.

Maybe they have hit a small jackpot with their show (no doubt TLC has).  During commercials, you’ll see that the network is offering ringtones of Alana’s sayings like “a dolla makes me holla.”  I just hope TLC is cutting Alana a check for those ringtones, since it is profiting by exploiting her.  Maybe she will earn enough to fund a college education, break her family’s cycle of poverty, and escape the country ghetto.  I’m rooting for her.