Thanks to a recent Stephen Colbert segment, I went back and found an interesting item that appeared in The New York Times earlier this year. It’s one of the more hopeful stories I’ve seen in a while: The city council in a small Appalachian coal town in the hollers of eastern Kentucky has voted to ban discrimination against gays.
From the Times’ story:
VICCO, Ky. — In a former pool hall that is now the municipal building for a coal smudge of a place in eastern Kentucky called Vicco, population 335, the January meeting of the City Commission came to order. Commissioners and guests settled into patio chairs, bought at a discount and arranged around a long conference table. Those who smoked did.
The Commission approved the minutes from its December meeting, hired a local construction company to repair the run-down sewer plant and tinkered with the wording for the local curfew. Oh, and it voted to ban discrimination against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity…
Hold on there! Is this the eastern Kentucky that’s situated in the Appalachians somewhere near the West Virginia setting of cancelled MTV reality show Buckwild? Yes, that would be the general area.
You probably won’t be seeing any of Vicco’s city officials caricatured on reality TV, though. The smart-ass creators of shows like Buckwild, TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, History Channel’s Swamp People, A&E’s American Hoggers, CMT’s Bayou Billionaires and Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishin’ prefer another kind of reality — you know, the bumbling, ignorant redneck. The geniuses of reality TV defend their oh-so-clever contempt for poor, blue-collar Southerners by claiming the shows simply reflect the honest humor and down-home essence of the rural South. ‘There’s a sense of discovery and delight to seeing these stereotypes that we may have heard about and read about — they are real.” That’s what Robert Galinsky, a “media trainer” who founded The New York Reality TV School (surely one of higher education’s more august institutions), told Daily Beast writer Tricia Romano, in December 2012. In other words, the city officials in Vicco just aren’t real enough.
One might assume that a culture critic such as Romano would have taken Galinsky to task for such an absurd statement. But no, in her “analysis” of the Southern caricatures on reality TV, Romano (who once boasted in a Village Voice Q&A that she lives “in the East Village, naturally”) went on to romanticize those stereotypes in the same way earlier clueless writers romanticized the “happy slaves” of pre-Civil Rights-era movies like Gone with the Wind. Here’s what Romano wrote: “There’s something weirdly nostalgic about these shows … The takeaway from Buckwild could be the strong bond of youthful friendship — a hillbilly version of us against the world.”
Gag me. Reality was the death earlier this summer of Shain Gandee, one of the fun-loving “us against the world” “hillbillies” that MTV exploited on Buckwild. That “world” apparently beat Gandee when he became dead while participating in one of the very activities — “mudding” — that Buckwild glamorized. Adding insult to injury was the maudlin tribute to Gandee’s “joie de vivre” that MTV aired in April, shortly after the 21-year-old and two others died from carbon monoxide poisoning when their 1984 Ford Bronco crashed in some mud on a dirt road, causing the exhaust pipe to fill the inside of the vehicle.
You want some more reality, Ms. Romano? That would be the 29 families from Montcoal, West Virginia, who saw their loved ones die in a 2010 mining disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine. Their authentic “strong bond” can be seen in Faces of the Mine, a short video created by Huffington Post senior politics editor Paige Lavender, who gives a shit about the disaster because she grew up in West Virginia and cares about people there. “One day they’ll wake up and relive it all over again, and then other days they’ll wake up and be OK,” a girl in Lavender’s clip says of those who lost family members. “Most people now have went on to their jobs and their families and their everyday way of living,” a man in the clip says. “Those 29 families have not.”
Still, retired TV executive Tim Brooks validated Romano’s reality-TV-fueled feelings of “nostalgia,” suggesting that the scripted lives of the Thompson family on Honey Boo Boo can be looked upon as role models for other Americans. After all, the Thompson family “is a nuclear family,” Brooks told Romano. “It’s an overweight nuclear family; it’s a redneck nuclear family. But it’s a family. And that’s reassuring in a world where there is fewer and fewer of those.” Amy Winter, general manager of TLC, goes further in her description of Alana Thompson, the show’s cuddly star. “What you see is what you get,” Winter said in a Boo Boo press release, “and we are excited to share even more of Alana and her family’s unbridled hilarity, sincerity and love with our viewers.” In Hollywood, presumably, it’s OK to exploit the simple people of “flyover America” if you characterize them as sincere and loving.
As it turns out, some of those pesky hillbillies are a bit more complex than the smart folks of reality TV allow. Meet Tony Vaughn, the average-guy police chief of Vicco, Kentucky. In perfect English (and without an iota of wacky redneck humor), Vaughn told Colbert’s camera crew about his relationship with Vicco’s gay mayor, Johnny Cummings. “Yeah, I know he’s gay, and yeah, he’s my best friend … That boy knows more about me than most people in my life, and I love him like a brother, and I’ll take care of him just like that, just like a brother.”
Wait… not only did Vicco councilmen pass a gay-rights ordinance, but the mayor himself is gay? Mayors in the hollers of eastern Kentucky aren’t supposed to be gay. And “redneck” police officers certainly aren’t supposed to like gay people. Just ask the Hollywood folks. They know tough rednecks. “As much as the people in Virginia are complaining how they are being misrepresented (on Buckwild), they are not,” reality-TV “coach” Galinsky told Romano. “Those people are real. They exist. They are from Virginia. They are mountaineers.” Actually, they were from West Virginia, but never mind U.S. geography. When you’re a smart TV guy and an expert who truly knows the mind of the average Southerner, like Galinsky apparently does, you can be geographically challenged.
Police chief Vaughan wasn’t the only denizen of Vicco who supported the town’s gay mayor. Colbert’s crew found lots of them. “I’m in favor of the gay-rights ordinance,” said one young man in a blue-collar work shirt with a name tag that read Jeff. “People think this is just a small town. They think it’s just a bunch of closed-minded hillbillies.” (Suffice it to say, Jeff will not be appearing on an MTV reality show — unless he gets busted for running a meth lab and learns to yell “woo-hoo!” while shooting his guns.) And then there’s the guy who told Colbert’s camera crew, “If God makes them born gay, why is he against it? … I can’t understand that. I’ve tried and tried and tried to understand that, and I can’t.”
Shit — these people actually think? They contemplate? And they do this without college degrees? The nerve of them! Their thoughts might confuse American TV viewers.
Here’s an idea for a real reality show, and perhaps Colbert, who actually grew up in the South (South Carolina, to be exact) would be the perfect guy to do it. Cast a bunch of smart, educated, devious businessmen like North Carolina’s Art Pope and national conservative billionaires the Koch brothers, along with their smart, educated, desperate puppet politicians like N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Watch them completely bastardize the political process and make a mockery of democracy. Then pan the reality-TV cameras over poverty-stricken areas of Southern and Appalachian states like Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. What a hoot that would be, huh?
Nah, it’s more entertaining to stereotype poor white trash and then validate the stereotyping by crafting ridiculous defenses of it. It makes us feel smart and superior. Never mind reality.