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Reality TV’s explosion of Southern stereotypes

By Roger Catlin,

oo doggie, how ‘bout them Southern tee-vee stereotypes?

The cable reality show landscape is is crawlin’ with them these days, with epithets like “hillbilly” and “redneck” prominently displayed right in the titles.

In dozens of 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.”

But TV executives insist the stars of the shows are authentic, such as the toothless Turtleman of backwoods Kentucky, Ernie Brown Jr., who is enlisted to ferret out possums and racoons from rafters and storage sheds on Animal Planet’s “The Call of the Wildman.”

Like the folks featured in “Swamp People,” “American Hoggers” or “Billy the Exterminator,” Turtleman is depicted as a problem-solver who is much closer to nature than the cosseted viewers in air-conditioned homes, whose closest brush 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, as in “My Big Redneck Vacation,” 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.

The use of “Redneck” in a show title, thought to be offensive, is also applied to a group of technicians and inventors in Somerville, Ala., on National Geographic Channel’s “Rocket City Rednecks,” whose first-season episode titles included “Hillbilly Moon Buggy,” “Hillbilly Hovercraft” and “Hillbilly Armageddon.”

While the term once referred to backwoods denizens, hillbilly is now used to describe just about anybody with a Southern accent, from Alabama to Oklahoma, where “Hillbilly Handfishing” originates. In it, 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.

Produced by the Bethesda production company Half Yard, and running on Silver Spring’s Animal Planet, it’s been so popular that it spawned a copycat (copycatfish?) show, “Mud Cats,” on the History Channel, which also brought the extremely popular six-hour “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries.

“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.

According to Ownby, the fascination with — and parodying of — the American South can be traced to the Southwestern Humor movement of 1830 to 1860, by such writers 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,” Ownby says.

The tall tales of Mike Fink and Davy Crockett would fit right in with “Tales of the Wildman” and “American Hoggers.”

More on summer TV:

Summer TV: Anticipatory treats, with a little extra Snooki on top

Summer TV’s returning series

What else is new? More shows, docs arriving this summer

TNT’s ‘Dallas’: A satisfying roll in the sentimental hay

Roger Catlin is a freelance writer based in Washington.

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