Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The same old South

Recently, an article in the New York Times covered a new genre of programming: southern-focused reality television. While this seems like an untapped market full of potential for TV executives, there are two thoughts that must be highlighter: (1) programs in this genre stand to perpetuate a negative over-generalization and (2) it isn't all that new. Which reinforces the author's central point: these stereotypes ignore southern progress.

The article talks about several shows, but I want to highlight just a few. First, we see Southerners teaching urban counter-parts how to fish with their hands in Hillbilly Handfishin' on the Animal Planet. Then in the History Channel's Swamp People, we see a documentary, of sorts, that details alligator season in swamps and how the Southerners are maintaining their "ancient way of life." In CMT’s Sweet Home Alabama, we see a Southern belle looking choosing her mate between city and rural suitors. And in the upcoming Redneck Riviera we might see a portrayal of the South reminiscent to Jersey Shore. I say might because Alabama towns are currently saying, "thanks but no thanks," to the show and not letting producers film. Two stereotypes are present within all of these shows: the hillbilly and the Southern Belle. But, as the article contends, neither of these stereotypes are accurate portrayals of Southern life. As Matt Wray explains in Not Quite White the hillbilly stereotype has long-been a way to divide Southerners from the larger group of Caucasians. In this way, Wray explains, white is more of a social class and Southerners are left out of it.

Meanwhile, the Southern belle stereotype completely ignores modern rural realities. As Professor Pruitt explains in Towards a Feminist Theory of the Rural, modern rural women face a number of hardships, such as: low wages, low education, and frequent underemployment. Infrastructure problems, such as bad transportation and lack of childcare, exacerbate their condition.

Absent from Professor Pruitt's discussion is the knight in shining armor who rescues the southern belle. Instead, she notes that these women must frequently rely on carefully balanced social networks to meet their needs. And these networks are fragile and temporary, they are hardly the same thing as waiting on Rhett Butler.

But these stereotypes are not new. In fact, television has made a lot of money off them over the years. Consider the Beverly Hillbillies featuring an Appalachian family finding oil and subsequently moving to Beverly Hills where their failed assimilation and unfamiliarity is the primary source of comedy.

This new batch of shows relies on the same tricks and stereotypes that older shows did. In the upcoming Redneck Riveria the union jack will cover clothing, hates, and even lifted trucks. But recall the Dukes of Hazard where the General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger, was adorned with the same bars and stars. The Dukes's primary plot device was outsmarting the city folk. Fast-forward to the present and we see the same ideas and similar portrayals.

All of this is even more interesting if you look at the progress of other stereotypes in popular culture. Consider African-Americans in cinema and television. Take the Uncle Remus character from Disney's Song of the South for example. There we have a character speaking a stereotypical dialect which left many then-contemporary critics thinking that the movie demeaned African-Americans.

Contrast that same character with Philip Banks from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He is a rich attorney (and later judge), who takes in his nephew and raises him as his own. Or Carl Winslow on Family Matters, a patriarch over a modern family in Chicago. Both portray African-Americans in a positive light.

The same evolution is true for women. Consider the Alice Kramden character from the The Honeymooners. Or consider Marion Ross and her portrayal of Mrs. Cunningham in Happy Days. Both depict stereotypes of women as stay-at-home mothers, reliant on their husbands. But glancing around modern airwaves, we see powerful female roles. From Friends to Ally McBeal to any cop-show, women play roles that could have easily been written for a man.

But the comparisons don't have to end with only the two most obvious groups. Even children's roles have evolved. Consider Dennis the Menace or Oppie Griffith in the Andy Griffith Show. In each we see one-dimensional portrayals of young boys: Dennis is a trouble-maker, through and through, and Oppie is a generally clueless boy devoted to his father. Fast-forward to modern times and we see children dealing with important real-world issues. Hannah Montana features a young girl forced to balance a double-life as a teen and a superstar. Or the long-running Boy Meets World, which dealt with an array of issues from substance abuse to love, sex, and even a little rock and roll.

But the Southerner? He's still typecast as a hillbilly; playing the same role on the same stage.

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