The South on TV: white, redneck, and stuck in the past

As we have reported here, the South is becoming very diverse. Racially, there has been a huge influx of Latinos in the last decade according to the Census (and there has been a backlash in places like Alabama). And there are plenty of moderate and progressive Southerners, who are not xenophobic, dumb, redneck-y, or otherwise odious buffoons. But you wouldn't know that from watching TV, according to an Op-Ed in the New York Times:

These stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists. Even worse, they deny the existence of a progressive South, or even progressive Southerners.

Southern reality TV programs fall into a few subcategories. Sometimes, producers seek to portray the South as culturally foreign to the rest of America, and they choose characters or remote locations that reinforce this image.

The History channel’s “Swamp People,” for example, focuses on alligator-hunting season in southern Louisiana by showcasing individuals who live and work in the Atchafalaya Swamp, thereby preserving their “ancient way of life.” The show uses subtitles to emphasize the cultural differences between the bayou and the rest of the country, even though the “stars” speak plain English.

Other shows focus on those Southerners that Americans feel as if they already know, like Southern belles and hillbillies. In its own bid to buy into the trend, Animal Planet has given us “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” in which two Oklahomans, Skipper Bivins and his pal Trent Jackson, teach people, generally big-city Northerners, how to catch catfish by using their own limbs as bait.

Then there’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” a Dixiefied version of “The Bachelorette,” only in this setting she is choosing between city slickers and Southern boys. It’s not unlike the show with the catfish duo: both feature a competition between country and city or, put more pointedly, North and South. The message is reduced to a Hank Williams Jr. song: a country boy can survive.

This is not too surprising: TV shows do not originate in the South even when they're about the South. Those who create and green light them might just want to spend a little more time in the region, talking to people who live there, instead of going for the easy stereotype again and again. But, maybe, these Dumb Southerner stereotypes are what sell. Maybe they've done their research. Maybe this is what the national audience wants to see, reinforcing their beliefs. If so, that's sad.



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