CMT has released a trailer for its new reality show, Party Down South which is brought to you buy the folks who produced that sterling gem, Jersey Shore. Reminiscent of MTV’s Buckwild (which was cancelled after the tragic death of cast member Shain Gandee), the show’s trailer promises viewers programming that features the standard reality TV tropes like promiscuity, drunkenness and just general foul behavior – but with a supposedly southern twist.
And even though the behavior presented on Buckwild is appalling, the inclusion of Party Down South on TV listings is depressingly predictable. Often reality shows strike a chord with their audiences by presenting grotesquely manipulated subcultures that may seem unfamiliar with general mainstream viewers. And the more outlandish and over-the-top, the better.
The debit of this strategy of programming is that often these images become the standard of media representation of these certain populations. Southern people aren’t usually shown on television unless they’re used as plot devices to portray the following:
- Reactionary conservatism
- Lack of formal education
Obviously these views are thoroughly narrow-minded and do not represent the rich diversity of the south. But we don’t get that from Party Down South, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, or Duck Dynasty.
Hixploitation, once used for slasher films set in the south, is now a term attached to pop culture’s condescending and offensive view of southern people. The gap-toothed, barefoot, banjo-picking yokel is a popular image, as burned into our collective conscience as Mickey Mouse or the Coca-Cola logo. And because of white privilege, it’s still a form of mockery and discrimination that goes by, largely unchecked.
But what are we rejoicing in, when we watch these shows? Essentially, we’re making fun of poor people who lack the mainstream set of social graces that most of us take for granted.
Take Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, for instance. Despite all the strenuous attempts by revisionists to see something “deeper” in the show, the show is merely an excuse for viewers to feel superior over questionable choices of others. Don’t be mistaken: the matriarch of the program, June “Mama June” Shannon is what she appears to be – a smart, canny woman, who has been able to provide for her family because of her daughter’s media success. By all reports, Shannon has been wily with the family’s finances.
But despite all of the appeal of the Shannon family – and they are appealing, because, after all, they seem to be nice, decent people – the “sell” of the show is a gross, archeological look at “redneck” culture that is reduced by the clever editing of the producers to flatulence, inarticulate speech, poor eating habits, and a lack of education. But what we’re laughing at is how our country is failing a significant part of our population. Teenage pregnancy, childhood obesity, diabetes are particularly prevalent in poorer, rural areas, and yet these issues become punchlines when they’re wrapped up in cartoony comedy.
And some of these problems lie in Party Down South because the cast members remain aggressively defiant in their boorish behavior, that will unfortunately merely affirm anti-southern prejudices (the only positive stereotype these people seem to adhere to is a charming piety).
There was an old episode of Designing Women, a show that strove to breakdown southern stereotypes, about just what we see on reality TV right now. In the episode, the sanctimonious and preachy Julia Sugarbaker (the late, great Dixie Carter), reads a snobby east coast journalist (another unfortunate cultural stereotype) the riot act for making southerners look stupid by printing a story reporting that southerners eat dirt.
The show’s writers could’ve predicted the growing tide of anti-southern comedy that has been stoked by tabloid talk shows, reality TV, standup comedy, and hacky sitcoms.
I know that I’m coming off as a humorless prude, but I don’t think comedy has to necessarily attack – or at least if it does, it should go after institutions of power, and not vulnerabile populations. And I’m not against southern humor – some of my favorite humorists like Mark Twain, Brett Butler, Flannery O’Connor are southern – but it’s important to ensuring a dignity when enjoying southern humor. And that’s something that I don’t see in these reality shows.