In the past year, the onslaught of shows featuring Southern people doing silly things has been relentless. I’m certain that the networks defend the shows by saying they are all celebrations of our rich Southern culture. But, mostly, they’re train wrecks.
Recent “redneck” reality shows include Hillbilly Handfishing, Rocket City Rednecks, Moonshiners, My Big Redneck Vacation, My Big Redneck Wedding, Redneck Island, Swamp People, Lady Hoggers and American Hoggers. There are at least two shows that take the Beverly Hillbillies-esque “rednecks with money = twice the funny” approach — Duck Dynasty (about the Robertson family, which went from poverty to riches thanks to a thriving duck-call business) and Bayou Billionaires, about a family who struck it rich by allowing an oil company to drill on their land.
And then there’s Honey Boo Boo, the child princess of “redneck” reality. The show about the precocious beauty pageant contestant and her family has drawn blockbuster ratings for the TLC network (“TLC” once stood for The Learning Channel, but now stands for nothing, like KFC). Here Comes Honey Boo Boo stars 7-year-old Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, who says adorable things like, “You better redneckognize!”
If you surf the web and read stories about some of these reality shows, you will find some outrage in the comments sections. Some take the shows as an assault on their “whiteness” and suggest that if such shows featured low-income African-Americans, they’d never make the air. There’s a mild stench of racism coming off many of those kinds of comments, but it’s not a completely unfair point. My Big Ghetto Wedding or Black Folk Handfishing would draw boycotts faster than you can say “NAACP.”
Why isn’t there more outrage? Is it because those who find such shows offensive are in the minority? Or is it cushioned by the “redneck pride” that people like Kid Rock and Larry the Cable Guy promote in their acts? Is it like “Blaxploitation” films in the ’70s, originally seen as caricatured stereotyping for profit, but eventually embraced and taken over by black viewers and filmmakers? Could it be that the largest part of the audiences for these shows are self-identifying rednecks? Like “bitch” or “fag,” is “redneck” a word that has been reclaimed in the name of pride?
I predict at some point in our history dismissive words like “redneck” or “hillbilly” will be seen as offensive as “faggot” or “midget.” But for now, people in the South and throughout Appalachia will have to surf through an onslaught of quasi-minstrel shows on their TV dial and either laugh along or marvel at how a cottage industry degrading a particular group of American citizens continues to grow with no end in sight.
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