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Redneck Television – A look at stereotypes (or at least the perception of stereotypes)

I heard a preview for a story on NPR this morning whose subject immediately caught my attention – stereotypes of Southern “rednecks” on television. Yes, I thought, redneck stereotypes are wrong and now NPR sees it too. Complete validation.

Then I heard the story.

Reporter Eric Deggans does a fine job of saying what is wrong with the presentation of rednecks on television, specifically reality television. In theory, I agree with the premise of the story – stereotypes of the South and of southern people as uneducated, toothless, bigoted, country bumpkins are very unfortunate indeed. Frankly the whole genre of reality television is one unfortunate stereotype after another, but the southern ones are especially grating for they are almost taken as fact, rather than as caricature.

However, in some of the titles discussed the only thing that appears to present these people as uneducated is the fact that they have a job Mr. Deggans has never heard of and they have a southern accent.

Hillbilly Handfishing presents “noodling,” which is a type of fishing I would never do, just as I would never do the dangerous Bering Sea fishing presented on Deadliest Catch. But it is just that – a different way of fishing other than sitting on a boat waiting for a catch. My dad watches this show, and from the brief glimpses of it I got when visiting my parents’ house this summer, the guys who actually lead these “noodling” trips are pretty smart. Fishing is nothing if not an art, and putting your arm in some unknown crevice to get a catfish takes that art to a whole other level. I don’t make an effort to watch this show, but I don’t think the people on it need stereotype protection anymore than anyone else on a reality show does.

Another show Mr. Deggans used in his examples of “awful” southern stereotypes is Rocket City Rednecks, a show literally about rocket scientists and/or others who have many advanced degrees who just also happen to have a southern accent. Here’s a clip of them using moonshine to launch a rocket.

Things you will notice in this clip:

  • Southern accent – yes
  • Moonshine – yes
  • Rural area – yes
  • Intelligence – yes
  • Uneducated country bumpkins – no

But what does Mr. Deggans say about them? “Even when these guys have Ph.D.s in aerospace engineering, the show makes them sound like extras in a Hee Haw skit.” (aka their regular accent which does not appear to be played up at all but apparently even makes rocket scientists dumb).

As with all reality television shows, these people signed up to be on these shows and thus have a say (or at least have an opportunity with their actions) to affect how they are perceived. I have to wonder how the Rocket City Rednecks feel they are portrayed.

But then Mr. Deggan’s argument changes to not being so much against redneck stereotypes as he is just against rednecks in general. I was especially irritated by this line:

”These shows give you a South with no people of color, and they weirdly lack contact with sophisticated southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas; I guess it’s tough to play the bumpkin card when you’re looking at skyscrapers and a booming technology corridor.”

What I took from this is only “sophisticated southern cities” are worth talking about when you feature the South, because rural areas do not have booming technology corridors or skyscrapers. I believe there are already several shows about “sophisticated” Dallas – let’s see there is Most Eligible: Dallas, and also The A-List: Dallas, don’t forget Big Rich Texas, and of course Dallas Divas and Daughters, oh and one more Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team. Now granted all I know of any of these shows is what I see on the clip show The Soup but I don’t think any of them feature booming technology corridors. The skyscrapers, though, probably do make an appearance.

Now, I know I’m taking too much out on NPR and Mr. Deggans here. Overall I’m thrilled that a major “cultural” media outlet would give time to such a story. In a time when we have shifted away from un-politically correct ethnic/race/religion/gender stereotypes, regional stereotypes, and in particular the Southern backwoods bumpkin stereotype is one of the few that remain culturally acceptable. But what could have been a frank discussion about southern media stereotypes instead turned out to be an effort to divert your attention elsewhere – “hey why don’t you leave those country folk alone and come look at our nice cities,” – thus, validating the stereotypes that they initially were saying are bad.

Oh, and a real thing of beauty – NPR placed this story on their website and allowed people to comment on it, but it took almost all day for them to realize that the reason so many comments were being blocked was because they had listed “redneck” as a bad word in their blockage dictionary.

I am a huge supporter of NPR and this won’t change that at all, but I think they really missed a great opportunity here and clearly it ruffled my feathers. I don’t buy into the NPR left-leaning bashing and I think they are the most balanced of any coverage you’re likely to find anywhere, but even the most ardent NPR supporter can have a real “wtf?” moment with one of their stories.

To recap, here’s why I did not care for this story: southern accent = stupid; cities/industry = sophistication; rural areas = bumpkin.

Let me leave you with Mr. Deegan’s closing line: “Despite reality TV’s tendency to stupefy everything it touches, perhaps it’s time for these programs to actually get real and give us a vision of Southern culture that reaches beyond the fun-loving redneck.”

This is the stuff stereotypes are made of folks, and NPR bought right into it today.