Hoo doggie, how ’bout them Southern tee-vee stereotypes?
The cable reality show landscape is crawlin’ with them these days, with epithets like “hillbilly” and “redneck” prominently displayed right in the titles.
On shows ranging from Hillbilly Handfishing and Swamp People to Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks and American Hoggers, sons (and daughters) of the South make moonshine, chase wild hogs, stuff dead pets, carve duck calls, wrestle alligators, catch catfish with their bare hands, mess around in swamps and generally hoot and holler.
While these shows often play it for laughs by highlighting the antics of their rural stars, TV executives say the shows also appeal to viewers who want to see regular folks on television.
“We haven’t received any negative response at all,” says Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet, home to the popular Hillbilly Handfishing. “These shows are not painting people in a derogatory way, because they’re affectionate. I think some people see themselves in the show, but for others it’s reflective of an iconic way of life.”
The shows are popular because of “the desire to connect back to something that’s a little more raw and a little bit more real,” Kaplan says. “And hillbillies are the epitome of that — no artifice, living in the moment, the real deal.”
Dolores Gavin, senior vice president of development and production for Discovery Channel, who produced such hits as Moonshiners, Ax Men and Sons of Guns for the network, says they come out of the “voracious appetite” of elusive male audiences who crave “people who are salt of the earth and work with their hands and say what they mean and mean what they say.”
Still, Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, says “people of the South get frustrated at the narrow range of representations.”
Ownby says it’s easier for TV producers to “build on preexisting stereotypes, so they don’t need to build characters. There’s the assumption there’s something about the character of these people that are already in a lot of viewers’ minds already.”
According to Ownby, the fascination with — and parodying of — the American South can be traced to the Southwestern Humor movement of 1830-1860, involving writers such as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson Jones Hooper and even Mark Twain.
“It was an era of journalists from the Northeast and Europe going into what they consider the backwoods and writing about physical habits, speech patterns or food habits, making everything larger than life,” he says.
TV executives insist the stars of their shows are authentic, such as the toothless Turtleman of backwoods Kentucky, Ernie Brown Jr., who is enlisted to ferret out possums and raccoons from rafters and storage sheds on Animal Planet’s The Call of the Wildman.
Turtleman is depicted as a problem-solver who is much closer to nature than the cosseted viewers, whose closest brushes with wildlife comes in navigating highway traffic. Of course, producers don’t hesitate to add twangy music and edit the shows to emphasize the broad physical humor found in grabbing an armadillo by the tail, as the Turtleman will do, and then capping his achievement with a rebel yell.
On CMT’s My Big Redneck Vacation, which is set in the Hamptons, it is Tom Arnold who pops up in scenes to make a wisecrack about the obvious rubes. But it is often the city folk who are made to look foolish — for example, the lady in the store who doesn’t know that “camo” is short for camouflage.
The idea of simple Southern folks suddenly in the realm of the rich is also the underlying premise of Bayou Billionaires and the more recent A&E offering, Duck Dynasty, featuring a family that looks like ZZ Top and has made millions in a mail-order duck call business.
Once applied to backwoods denizens, the term hillbilly is now used to describe just about anybody with a Southern accent, from Alabama to Oklahoma, where Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishing originates.
In that show, people — usually city dwellers — enlist Skipper Bivins and Trent Jackson to teach them the technique of catching catfish by wading out in a muddy lake and sticking a hand down the fish’s gullet. It’s so popular that it spawned a copycat (copy-catfish?) show, Mud Cats, on the History Channel.
Hillbilly Handfishing, whose new season starts July 29, has so many high-profile proponents, from Kristin Chenoweth to Joel McHale, that a celebrity edition is in the works.