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.

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“Accidental Racist”: Brad Paisley & LL Cool J’s Folly

Brad Paisley‘s controversial new song “Accidental Racist” is causing a media stir and backlash creating what is euphemistically called a “shit storm.” Essentially, the song is that of a good ol’ boy who wants to show his southern pride and not have to apologize to the black guy who is waiting on him at Starbucks for doing so.  He’s “just a white man, living in the Southland” who wants to wear his red shirt emblazoned with that innocuous symbol (not), the Confederate battle flag, because really, he’s just a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd and his generation didn’t own slaves. Damn, Brad, even Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to remove the flag from their concerts because of the flag’s ugly history–you know, the one associated not just with slavery, but with segregation and let’s not forget the Ku Klux Klan.  Although in the end, Skynyrd’s legions of white fans shamed them into keeping it because it’s about “heritage, not hate.”

This is essentially Brad Paisley’s argument.  Poor guy feels caught between “southern blame” and “southern pride.”  Well, Brad, there’s a good reason for that and if you had done your homework, which you said you’re just doing now in order to defend yourself, you wouldn’t have written lyrics asking a black man to give you a pass for wearing that battle flag on your t-shirt with all of the political baggage that it carries.  And why THAT symbol of southern pride above all others? Can’t you pick another one? Did you have to choose the one co-opted by hate groups? And why is a guy from the northern neck of West Virginia defending his southern pride?

And teaming up with LL Cool J did not help matters.  He’s drifted a long way from “Mama Said Knock You Out,” which would have been a more appropriate response to Paisley’s lyrics.  Instead, he joins in with ridiculous rhymes of his own like “The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin'” and “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” LL, don’t you think you’re making a sweeping generalization suggesting that all black men wear do-rags and gold chains? Then, incredulously, he gives a shout out to Robert E. Lee, offering a “RIP.”

Take a listen.

The one line LL has correct is “can’t re-write history, baby.”  No, you can’t. And these two men should have familiarized themselves with the history of this country and of contentious symbols like that “red flag” before releasing this song.

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.