If a word or phrase reaches a point where a large number of people are offended by it, we, as humans, should collectively agree to stop using it. But there’s one word that seems stuck between borderline insulting and genuine source of pride.
The evolution of the word “redneck” seems to be in flux. And until it stretches further into “offensive” territory, there are plenty of people willing to exploit the concept of the word. The barometer of exploitation is nowhere more evident than in the world of reality TV.
Last week, The Soup — the often funny E! program that ridicules talk and reality shows — presented an entire half-hour special dedicated to clips from these shows called The Goodest Moments of Redneck Shows. The shows featured were so ridiculous and exploitative, for The Soup writers, making fun of them must’ve been like shooting Snooki fish in a Jersey Shore barrel.
A lot of reality TV has a mocking quality; I’m sure there are some viewers that (gulp) admire the Jersey Shore cast or the stars of the Real Housewives of … franchise. But there is no way shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians would still be on the air were the only viewers those who were simply super-curious about these fascinating creatures who seem to subsist by doing nothing but having their alleged day-to-day lives filmed.
Like the exploitative daytime talk shows before them, reality TV has largely become an outlet for viewers to feel better about themselves. As shitty as your day might be, you can always come home, turn on a show like Bad Girls Club or Bridalplasty and comfort yourself in the knowledge that, as awful as life may seem, at least you’re not doing that badly or acting that stupidly.
While most of the popular reality shows of the past have largely dealt with people either rich or well off enough to take a break from their real jobs to be part of a TV show, “redneck” reality shows often feature poor or, at best, working-class people.
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.
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: firstname.lastname@example.org or @CityBeatMusic