Sunday, April 22, 2018
TV and Media

Why no protests against 'hicksploitation' TV reality shows?

He steps into the broken-down trailer, a scruffy-looking hunk looking at a bathroom so dilapidated he'll need to use water from a garden hose to shower. After a minute looking though the cramped quarters, Jared Stetson delivers a verdict:

"Long as I got a fridge for beer, I'm good."

That's a sample of the whip-smart dialogue from Welcome to Myrtle Manor, the latest series from TLC to push the boundaries of taste while turning a subculture of Americans into a living sitcom bit.

It's also the latest example of a troubling trend on cable television: Hicks­ploitation TV.

Set at a colorful, family-run trailer park in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Myrtle Manor presents the lives of its mostly white, working-class Southern subjects as fodder for a knee-slapping TV comedy.

The show, which debuted at 10 p.m. Sunday, includes a manager who conducts evictions clad in a mink stole, fluorescent green T-shirt and shorts; a tattooed party promoter who sets a television on fire in the park's courtyard; two twentysomethings known as the "weiner girls" who earn a living selling hot dogs; and a dim-bulb head of security with a Hitler moustache who happens to be the only black character on the program.

There are also signature touches from other TLC "hicksploitation" shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo: One character with a thick Southern accent has her words displayed in subtitles, as if she's speaking a foreign language; bluegrass music plays to remind viewers exactly where the place is located; and situations couldn't be more contrived if you saw producers going over scripts with the "cast members" onscreen.

These shows are big business. A&E's Duck Dynasty, another popular hicks­ploitation show about a family from backwoods Louisiana with a multimillion dollar duck caller business, drew 8.6 million viewers to its third season premiere last Wednesday; the biggest broadcast in that channel's history and the largest nonfiction series on cable this year.

But these days, the trend reaches beyond stereotyping Southerners to taking on any subculture featuring eccentric, often dysfunctional white people.

TLC just ordered up another season of its controversial show Breaking Amish, which supposedly featured naive young people from the isolated Amish and Mennonite religion heading to New York, but included a woman who already had a child and may have been married before. (In the new season, they head to Florida, completing the circle of stereotypes.)

Gypsy Sisters, a TLC show centered on a quartet of hard-partying West Virginia girls of Romani descent, debuted in mid February. It features a 38-year-old mother of nine who is also a grandmother, and a twice-divorced, 23-year-old stripper who was a star of TLC's other ode to Romani culture, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.

(Change.org features a petition denouncing Gypsy Sisters as a racist show that includes a slur inside its title and "in no way represents Romani, Romany, or Romanichal culture." It has been signed by more than 5,600 people so far.)

From the knuckleheaded party hounds on Jersey Shore to the combative families on Mob Wives, so-called reality TV is filled with stereotypical depictions of white people that would never be attempted with subjects of color.

For proof, consider the uproar when Oxygen made a pilot called All My Babies Mamas, featuring rapper Shawty Lo, who is African-American, and his 11 children by 10 different women. Before the cable channel could even pick up the series, a coalition of advocacy groups gathered in protest, including the often liberal ColorofChange.org, the conservative Parents Television Council and Los Angeles radio personality Mo' Kelly.

The Change.org petition against Mamas drew 37,000 signatures and wide press coverage, leading Oxygen to cry uncle through a terse statement: "We have reviewed casting and decided not to move forward with the special."

So why doesn't this kind of protest arise against shows like Breaking Amish, Gypsy Sisters and Myrtle Manor?

My suspicion: White people often don't see themselves as a racial or cultural group who can be hurt by stereotyping in media, even though there's a long history of assuming Southerners are eccentric and stupid because of just such images.

Watching the reaction to Shawty Lo and Oxygen, I wondered if any organized group would ever stand up for the Southerners, gypsies, Russians, Italians, Amish and other white subcultures who see themselves stereotyped in ways black, Hispanic and Asian people would never tolerate.

Some might say these shows have less impact because white people have enough quality portrayals in media to outweigh these garish caricatures.

But I suspect a breed of younger viewer has just grown addicted to entertaining stereotypes on TV.

When they exploit a group we don't typically see as oppressed, it's that much easier to look away.

   
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