Southern progressives could learn a lesson from Julia Sugarbaker

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Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I write essays in an effort to counter some of negative images of the South that permeate popular culture or to contest the drivel that national journalists churn up in order to take swipes at a region they’ve never visited, much less know.

With the government shutdown, writers from The Nation to Salon to the Washington Post have all pointed their fingers at the South, especially conservative Republicans from the region, the most intransigent of which are members of the Tea Party caucus. Here, they say, the Civil War has not ended.  Here, they say, are nothing but a bunch of “Neo-Confederates.” I’m not suggesting that these journalists don’t have a point to make, but in making it, they are using a fairly broad brush that hits me and other southern progressives like a slap in the face.

This is when I wish I could muster up a rant that would make Julia Sugarbaker proud.  In the 1980s television series Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, played so well by the late actress Dixie Carter, knew how to rip someone a new one. In one particular episode, she lashed out at a writer from the New York Times for printing an article about dirt eating in the South.

Today, the articles about dirt eating may have subsided, but the stereotypes of the region remain.  The use of banjo music for television programs, illustrations of the Confederate battle flag for articles about the South, and so on. In one week John T. Edge might write a nice food article for the New York Times that gets all sorts of compliments (southerners do okay when it comes to food), but the next week a comedy-news show (The Daily Show or perhaps Real Time with Bill Maher) will interview a hillbilly type to make a point.

It’s tiresome and I wish Julia Sugarbaker were here to let them all know.

The Daily Show and Tired Southern Tropes

Al Madrigal
Al Madrigal

I love The Daily Show, I really do.  But when it comes to segments about the South, they often do a piss poor job of it. The latest example came from correspondent Al Madrigal who did a story on the dispute between Georgia and Tennessee regarding state borders and the water supply. (Watch the segment here.)

Georgia essentially wants and needs access to the water provided by the Tennessee River, and in typical Daily Show fashion, the actual story was less important than Madrigal’s effort to highlight the stupidity of local officials.  This is nothing new, because the show’s correspondents are often satirizing politicians.  Where it fails is in its pitiful attempt to poke fun at the South, which can be done, but with more intelligence.

Instead, it’s so lame, it’s as if the writers dialed this one in. Want to discuss the South? Incorporate banjo music and, these days, mention Honey Boo Boo.  Want to suggest that rural southerners are inbred? Incorporate a clip from Deliverance. Need to establish that people are ignorant? Mock their accents to their face or include “man on the street” interviews with people who fit the stereotype.  It was on this last point where The Daily Show showed its hand, because it was clear to anyone with a keen eye that a couple of those interviews were plants, what I’ll call “hicks for hire”.

Unknown Hinson
Unknown Hinson

First, there were the two men in camouflage: one held a shotgun, while his friend offered a bug-eyed look. These two were obviously playing to the camera. Second, there was the guy who had mutton chop sideburns, slicked back hair, and sunglasses circa-1970s Elvis. The tip off that this guy was playing to the camera was his Unknown Hinson t-shirt.  While the studio audience in New York was laughing at this guy, I knew that he was saying things Al Madrigal needed to pull the piece off. And he was probably having his own laugh at Madrigal’s expense.  Like Unknown Hinson, he was portraying a character.  Everything he said played to stereotype on purpose.

So, suffice it to say, I’m disappointed with The Daily Show’s latest attempt at satirizing the South.  As usual, the writers relied on worn out tropes about the South and not only was it not amusing, it wasn’t even funny.

What Happens When a New York Company Tries to Brand “Southern Style” Sweet Tea

Southern Style Sweet Tea from AriZona by way of Brooklyn, NY.
My friend’s Southern Style Sweet Tea from AriZona by way of Brooklyn, NY.

Recently, a friend and I were having lunch when I noticed an image on the side of her AriZona “Southern Style” sweet tea.  It caught my attention because of the image used to brand this tea as southern–19th century steamboats on what we can probably assume is the Mississippi River.

I find it interesting that in 2013 that a company determined that it would associate “southern” with antebellum paddle-wheelers that were used to not only carry travelers, but tons of cotton cultivated by thousands of slaves. That’s when I did my research and discovered that AriZona had originally used an even more offensive image to suggest “southern style” when the product came out in 2008.

Back then, the tea was branded with the image

The original image of AriZona's Southern Style Sweet Tea featured an antebellum plantation.
The original image of AriZona’s Southern Style Sweet Tea featured an antebellum plantation.

of the “big house” of a southern plantation, with a southern belle in the foreground.  It was reminiscent of early advertising that incorporated images of the Old South–advertising tropes that are more than a century old. The original can rightly drew the ire of consumers for promoting an image of the Old South and the slavery that’s associated with plantations. It forced the company to change the image and make a public apology.

But why did the company approve the image of a plantation in the first place?  Why did they follow it up with another image from the same era? I’d argue that it’s because the company, founded by two guys from Brooklyn, have no sense of American history nor do those in charge of its marketing understand modern southern culture.  Rather, they rely on the same tired tropes of the South. Clearly, there’s some sense that the South not only hasn’t made it into the 21st century; it never made it into the 20th!

So, to marketing firms above the Mason-Dixon I say this:  Come visit and quit relying on tired stereotypes.  You’ll thank yourself and you won’t make stupid mistakes like AriZona.

Reese Witherspoon and the Fallibility of the Southern Woman as “America’s Sweetheart”

Celebrity culture is an interesting phenomenon.  We come to know a celebrity’s public persona and many people assume they “know” the person.  And in some cases, the celebrity assumes that “the people” know him or her.

Reese Witherspoon's "sweet" mugshot.
Reese Witherspoon‘s “sweet” mugshot.

Enter Reese Witherspoon, or better yet a drunk Reese Witherspoon, whose celebrity persona is “America’s sweetheart.”  Except that this past week the nation learned something about her true personality when, while driving in Atlanta, her husband James Toth was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving.  She was in the passenger seat and instead of keeping calm and letting the officers do their job she got out of the car to announce to the officer “Do you know my name?” This was followed by “You’re about to find out. . .”  Blah, blah, I’m an entitled Hollywood actress who should get special treatment and I have lawyers.  Um, Reese, this is being videotaped.

Since this is a blog about the South, I wonder why it is that southern women often get the title of “America’s sweetheart?” We’ve had Mary Lou Retton (West Virginia), Julia Roberts (Georgia), Taylor Swift (from rural Pennsylvania–also known as North Alabama–and in country music she might as well be from the South), Britney Spears (Louisiana) and Reese Witherspoon (Tennessee). There have also been a number of beauty queens from the South who’ve won Miss America.

After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this "umbrella incident."
After shaving her head, Britney Spears had this “umbrella incident.”

I have a theory that white southern women who supposedly exhibit a certain feminine innocence and charm, not unlike the southern belles of old, are still held up as models of femininity for the nation.  Even if their private behavior isn’t innocent, very often their public personas suggest that they are well-behaved, models of traditional womanhood.  So, when they show their human frailties (Britney Spears) or that they aren’t sweet at all (Reese Witherspoon) it seems like they’ve taken a big tumble from their pedestals.  Except they shouldn’t have been placed there to begin with. It’s a precarious perch and they were bound to fall.

It is inherently problematic to assign southern women the title of “America’s sweetheart.” Southern women are not the mythic creatures of traditional femininity, nor do they embody the behavior that Americans and the media continue to portray them as having.  They are, like other American women, fallible human beings who can sometimes behave poorly.

The Death of Shain Gandee and MTV’s Cancellation of “Buckwild”

gandeeOn April 1st, Shain Gandee, one of the breakout stars of MTV’s “Buckwild” died along with his uncle and a friend. After going mudding, Shain’s truck became stuck in the mud so deep that the tailpipe on the muffler became clogged.  Because it was cold that evening (and perhaps they had been drinking), the three men probably turned on the heat and fell asleep, and subsequently died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The show was controversial for its negative representations of West Virginia, even drawing ire from Senator Joe Manchin. But during its first season “Buckwild” attracted an audience of 3 million viewers per episode.  And what did the young folks who were being exploited by MTV earn?  A measly $1,000 per episode.  That’s right.  All of you people out there who think reality television stars are making money hand over fist (because they know what they’ve gotten themselves into) need to read this again carefully:  $1,000 an episode.  Viacom-owned MTV on the other hand, reaped some handsome profits.

Now, in the wake of Shain’s death, MTV has canceled the show.  Why? In a press release, the network reasoned that the show could not go on “given Shain’s tragic passing and essential presence on the show.” In effect, his “essential presence” meant that “Buckwild” without Shain Gandee affected Viacom’s profit margin, but nothing near what they made off of this young man’s life.

The kicker is that the producer is furious about the cancellation.  According to an interview featured on HuffPost TV, J. P. Williams (who plays up West Virginia as his birthplace) is determined to save the show, going so far as to say that “My job is to protect these kids.”  Say what? He exploited them to line his own pockets and not even the death of one of them is enough to keep him from being self-righteous (or being worried about his own bank account).

I was in West Virginia last week visiting with family and learned that MTV had NOT offered to assist Gandee’s parents with funeral expenses.  Instead, fellow West Virginians stepped up to the plate and held a “Shain Gandee Memorial Mud Run” to help the family.  Meanwhile, the network is going to have a memorial special to honor Shain, which will likely have a large audience and squeeze a few more dollars of profit from this poor soul.

All I have say about that is shame on you, MTV.

Correction:  J. P. Williams’ company did pay funeral costs.  However, this was after it was reported that the family didn’t have the money to pay for the funeral.

Double Divas or Our Cups Runneth Over with Southern-based Reality TV

As I’ve said many times, the explosion of southern-based reality television series make it difficult for me to keep up.  One of the more recent is Lifetime‘s Double Divas, starring Molly Hopkins and Cynthia Richards, owners of LiviRae Lingerie in Kennesaw, Georgia. Lifetime may refer to it as a “docu-series,” but that’s just a highfalutin term for reality show.

The premise of Double Divas is that Molly and Cynthia are out to help women, one bra at a time, who’ve been frustrated in their effort to find one that fits.  Their motto “no bust too big or too small” is the premise of their business, although there’s nothing particularly southern about that. Women from all over the country can appreciate a well-fitted bra.

While Lifetime describes the show as one that brings “southern charm and hospitality,” a claim made by many southern-based reality shows, what makes it “southern,” in my opinion, are Molly and Cynthia’s accents.  Having grown up in the South, I truly appreciate a southern accent, of which there are several variations.  Yet sometimes it seems that Cynthia lays it on a bit thick with hers, almost to the point where I have to hit the mute button.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if the production company is behind the exaggeration.

NorthSouth productions, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, (and Knoxville?), produces this show and others in the greater Atlanta area, including Say Yes to the Dress, where a strong southern accent seems to be a requirement. The company also produced You Don’t Know Dixie, a show that promoted southern stereotypes, as I’ve written about previously.

Despite the exaggerated accents, there is something very likeable about Molly who seems genuinely interested in helping women find a bra that boosts their confidence as well as their breasts.  And while Cynthia’s accent can get on my last nerve she, too, seems to really want to help women by creating the right bra for them.

I think women are watching this show (and heading to LiviRae Lingerie in droves) because so many of us are eager to get a bra that fits. That’s no joke. Even I might make the trip to LiviRae for that reason.  Still, you don’t really need a southern accent or characters to sell you on that simple truth, but in the world of reality TV it’s a big part of what sells the show.

Duck Dynasty: Those Beards are Nobody’s Fool

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Image credit: A&E Television

The guys with the beards are back.  On reality television that is.  Duck Dynasty’s new season premiered last night and its legions of fans tuned in to see the latest happenings in the Robertson family, especially those of the hirsute men of the clan.

Duck Dynasty has become the most successful of the reality shows set in the South.  It’s part of what I like to call the “Louisiana genre” of reality TV that includes other successful show like Swamp People and Billy the Exterminator.  Though let’s not forget the lesser known Cajun Pawn or Cajun Justice.

What makes Duck Dynasty different, for me at least, is that the guys with beards are nobody’s fool.  So much of southern-based reality TV seems geared toward stereotyping people from the region.  Very often they are placed in ridiculous situations for comedic effect and their speech is accompanied by subtitles. This is most famously the case with the Thompson Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  Not so with Duck Dynasty.

One gets the impression that Willie and the boys are very much in control of their show and while there’s humor, it’s the kind where we can laugh with them and not at them.  Uncle Si might be the one in the family who’s picked on, but “hey,” he and the rest are in on the joke.  Moreover, the show about these self-made millionaires, whose company Duck Commander makes duck calls among other products, seems more like a strategic move on the family’s part to further their brand.  And it’s worked like a charm.

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Uncle Si Robertson and his catch phrase on a T-Shirt

Now the brand includes the show itself.  The success of Duck Dynasty has resulted in sales of all sorts of items that have less to do with duck calls and more to do with the family’s keen marketing sense.  Products range from bobble heads of father Phil and his sons Willie and Jase to shirts and coffee mugs with Phil’s saying “Happy, Happy, Happy,” to images of Uncle Si and his catch phrase “Hey!” printed on t-shirts. The Robertson women are also in on the boondoggle with products of their own.

One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I can see that the Robertsons are very grounded, self-aware, and clearly wise to the ways of the world.  When their fame dissipates, they will still be doing well financially.  Unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule when it comes to southern-based reality TV.  True, many of those stars may temporarily be enjoying some windfall, but they are not as savvy as the beards.  And that’s too bad.

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.