Barnard College's Monthly Magazine
By Lauren Wingenroth
Rarely in New York do we hear the sweetly twanged greeting of “Hey Y’all!” This phrase, along with an entire set of traditions, colloquialisms, and pride only exist in the American South–a place where many world-traveling, cosmo- politan Barnard women wouldn’t dare go. We call the residents of the deep south names like “rednecks” and “hillbillies,” monikers in which they themselves often take pride, but that also hold severely negative connotations and unload a John Deer truck full of stereo- types onto these Americans. Today, the trend of reality TV exploiting the lives of stereotypi- cal Southerners raises questions. What exactly are these stereotypes? How are they created and perpetuated by the media, and how det- rimental are they to the public image of our neighbors?
With two chickens, five coolers full of squirrel meat, and a four-wheeler in tow, an RV crammed with native southerners heads north to the Hamptons where they will be vacationing for a month. The Clampets, the featured family on CMT’s My Big Redneck Va- cation, have never ventured further than a two hour ride away from their Louisiana home. “What do we do if they don’t have a Walmart?” a member of the Clampet clan asks.
The Clampets are a closely-knit, (quite lit- erally) down-to-earth family, and they hardly have a clue about what awaits them in New York, or as one family member accurately puts it, “There are lots of pollutin’ people.” After having a shooting contest to decide which couple earned the master bedroom in their Hamptons house, and after having some hi- larious misunderstandings with the locals, the Clampets develop a relationship with their new northern neighbors. “They taught us how to let go and have fun,” says one northern-bred neighbor, whom the Clampets had invited on a day-long mudding and hunting trip.
Another CMT reality show, Sweet Home Alabama, also demonstrates the differences in southern attitudes and culture of compared to those of the northern city-dwellers. The show includes groups from both categories in a reality show similar to The Bachelorette. Though past southerners featured on the show certainly fulfilled many stereotypes, good and bad, so have the northern boys – the Jersey muscle shirts, the combative Bostonians, the rough and tough New Yorkers – all vying for the love of Paige Duke, former Nascar Spirit Cup ambassador, South Carolina native, and southern belle. “I think I like southern girls more than Jersey girls,” professed a Jersey boy, one of many of the men who showed signs that they had bought into the idea of the sweet, but highly sexualized, southern girl. “People in ‘the country’ are trashy people in my mind,” commented another city boy, al- though Ms. Duke’s sexuality later seemed to have convinced him otherwise.
Throughout the show, the southern con- testants stood out against the badly tempered northerners, proving to be true gentlemen. With charming naïveté, quaint sensitivity, and polite chivalry, the southern boys captivated Paige. These traits, appearing both in Paige’s southern boys and the Louisiana Clampets, make people watch shows that transport them to a place outside of the city limits.
The way southerners are portrayed on real- ity TV isn’t inherently harmful–in fact, these shows have the ability to act as an escape for those of us who have never thought to spend our days fishing for catfish with all thirty of our closest family members. It is the way that these traditions are seen as low-brow, out- dated, and barbaric that is harmful, especially when paired with names like “hillbilly.” These dishonorable terms undercut the strong fam- ily values, simplicity, and respect for nature that make the south an important part of American culture. Refreshingly enough, real- ity TV seems to be living up to its name in this instance–portraying the lives of southern- ers for what they are without exploiting our preconceived notions about what their lives should be. When viewed with open eyes, the shows that use the south as a vehicle for en- tertainment may more importantly be infor- mative, enlightening, and stereotype-defying.