Two Americas exist in the imaginings of popular entertainment and media. One is a multicultural utopia cosseted in mawkish high-mindedness; the other makes Thomas Hobbes description of humanity as “poor, nasty, (and) brutish,” sound overly optimistic.
MTV’s newest reality shows “Buckwild” and “Washington Heights” cynically indulge both stereotypes. For anyone inclined to tune in, be forewarned: This is elitist exploitation at its contemptible worst.
Shadowing nine post high-schoolers from Sissonville, West Virginia, “Buckwild” is the latest entry in reality television’s fascination with “hillbilly” culture. From “Bayou Billionaires,“ “Duck Dynasty” and “Swamp People” to “Hillbilly Handfishing,” “Rocket City Rednecks,” “American Hoggers” and the execrable “Honey Boo Boo”—each perpetuates the notion of Southerners and rural Americans as crude, semi-illiterate rubes. In a letter to MTV, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin called “Buckwild’s” portrayal “repulsive” spreading “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.”
The Governor is absolutely right. But his disgust won’t slow down MTV as long as it can ridicule as well as make a cheap buck off of folks they consider culturally inferior. For the network and its media cohorts, that’s a win-win.
Trash hauler Shain Gandee, whose molasses-thick Appalachian accent is so pronounced MTV has added subtitles, is filmed engaging in high-risk hijinks such as riding atop an excavator shovel and careening his truck through a muddy swamp. While not as clownish, the show’s eight other stars live up to the white trash cliché—Rednecks with marginal smarts and even less class drinkin,’ fightin’ and hooking up. Cue the banjo music and panoramas of rundown mountain homes: Welcome to “Buckwild,” West Virginia.
It is painful to watch. A simple kid from Wolf Pen Holler, Gandee has been anointed MTV’s hillbilly Forrest Gump—problem is he doesn’t seem to know it. On a recent “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” Shain presented the host with a jar of home-processed deer meat and guilelessly shared how this trip was his first experience on an airplane. Fallon feigned horror while the audience jeered.
The flip-side to “Buckwild’s” vulgar rednecks are the trendy New Yorkers of “Washington Heights.” Based in the Manhattan neighborhood of the same name, the show follows nine young adults of Dominican ethnicity for what MTV calls “a celebration of friendship, neighborhood pride and making your way in life while having a good time along the way.”
Damn, are they hip! These cool cats don’t dare pick up garbage or work in factories, nosirree; they include a hip-hot artist, poet, an aspiring fashion designer and a young man with dreams of making it as a professional baseball player. And whereas the images of the young Latinos are more flattering than their Appalachian brethren, both embrace condescending and illusory typecasting.
From the response in Latino media and social networking sites, not everyone in the Hispanic community is pleased. Some feel patronized; “Huffington Post” columnist Julissa Bonfante asked “where’s the Dominicanness?,” with one viewer lamenting that the show “doesn’t feel like home.” “What’s missing from “Washington Heights” is a true depiction of the rich, bicultural uptown Dominican (-American) culture,” wrote Univision’s Monika Fabian “… Stylized imagery trumps authenticity.”
Tsk, tsk… probably not what the MTV big-wigs intended, but in all seriousness, hardly surprising. Media’s dogmatic labeling of Americans by race, religion, region or political views determines how we will be represented again and again in popular entertainment.
As a result, the sub-cultures caught in the crosshairs of “Buckwild” and “Washington Heights” are transformed into simplistic caricatures—problem is these images are all-too-real to an uninformed public. Three-quarters of respondents in a recent survey know little or nothing about West Virginia (with 16 percent not even aware it is a state). Small wonder many so fervently buy into the bumpkin stereotype.
Dumb or dumber, it matters. The deception MTV sells resonates far beyond laughing at a clueless trash collector or following the fanciful dreams of a Latino poet. Neither is honest; both are racist.
We should demand better.