The Situation Goes West
Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, is not pleased with Hollywood. In particular, Manchin is upset with MTV, which is replacing the cancelled Jersey Shore with another sober anthropological exploration of youth culture in a unique sociocultural milieu. This time it's Manchin's home state, and the show is called Buckwild. As you might imagine, like their peers in the Garden State, the cast members of Buckwild look to be doing little to burnish their state's image; instead they'll be getting drunk, hooking up, fighting, and generally making fools of themselves, albeit in a characteristically West Virginian way (there's a preview for the show here). You can understand why Manchin wouldn't be a fan, but why should it be a politician's concern?
Well, if Manchin doesn't defend West Virginia's good name, who will? "As a U.S. Senator," he said, "I am repulsed at this business venture, where some Americans are making money off of the poor decisions of our youth." You might argue that making money off the poor decisions of our youth probably accounts for about a quarter of our GDP, but Manchin may have something of a legitimate beef. There are plenty of TV shows set in New York or Los Angeles, but as soon as West Virginians get their own show, they end up being portrayed as a bunch of crazy hillbillies.
But outrage is good for the politician's business, and that makes Buckwild good news for Senator Manchin. After all, few officeholders have a greater need for ostentatious displays of cultural affinity than him. As a Democrat in a state that was once reliably Democratic but has become firmly Republican (President Obama lost there by 27 points in November), Manchin, like other white Democrats in the South, must continually show the voters that he's "one of us," which sometimes means complaining about big-city Yankees looking down on them, and sometimes means looking down on all those effete urbanites sipping chardonnay and eating brie, a two-way street of cultural contempt. Most Americans outside West Virginia were introduced to Manchin in 2010, when the then-governor ran for Senate and aired an ad in which he trumpeted his NRA endorsement and hatred of big government, then fired a bullet through a copy of a cap-and-trade bill (Manchin is a strong advocate of turning his state into a bleak lunar landscape through mountaintop removal coal mining).
Other politicians play this game, too. The news that actress Ashley Judd was considering running for Senate led her potential opponent, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, to respond, "She hates our biggest industry, which is coal, so I say good luck bringing the 'I hate coal' message to Kentucky." It turns out that not only is coal not Kentucky's biggest industry, it isn't even in the top ten. But there's no quicker way for a politician to prove he's down-home than to proclaim solidarity with miners (particularly if, like Paul, you're a dentist whose father was a doctor), which is why that's just what Mitt Romney did when he came to West Virginia. By the miners' presence, with their dusty faces and well-worn overalls, they testified that Republicans appreciate Appalachian culture–or what they can glean of it on a one-day visit, anyway.
Buckwild will give the rest of the country a chance to see, and maybe laugh condescendingly at, that culture. But does that mean that Hollywood looks down on blue-collar America? After all, on reality TV, you can find so many people of almost any class, race, or region to dislike. If you tire of sneering down the social ladder and want to sneer up, you can come on over to Bravo's endless Real Housewives franchise, or the unspeakably horrifying My Super Sweet 16 (also on MTV), in which you watch see the world's worst parents in the process of creating the world's worst teenagers ("A Lexus? I hate it! I told you I wanted a BMW, Daddy, you idiot!").
Up and down the cable dial there are now dozens and dozens of reality shows to suit every taste. There's plenty of variety among these programs, and some of their subjects are treated with more respect than others. But their appeal lies in watching people make terrible choices and marveling at the wreckage that ensues, whether it's the ghastly stage parents of Dance Moms, the pathetic hoarders of Hoarders (or Hoarding: Buried Alive, or Confessions: Animal Hoarding), or the puzzling creatures of My Strange Addiction (don't ask). As Alyssa Rosenberg points out, today it's harder to call these programs exploitative than it once was, since by now the people who participate in them know exactly what this genre is about. If a potential cast member of Buckwild is hoping to become the Snooki of West Virginia, she's well aware of what that entails, and she's willing to endure people laughing at her if it means she can achieve some measure of fame. You can bet Snooki and The Situation would do it all over again if they had the chance, and isn't as though Honey Boo-Boo's family (and probably the girl herself, precocious as she is in her own way) don't know that they're being laughed at. But they don't much care.
Feeling superior has always been the point of reality television, dating all the way back to Candid Camera, which first came to television in 1949, and was as cruel as anything on TV today–and its victims weren't volunteers. A few years ago some thought that the boom in reality shows kicked off by The Real World in 1992 would peter out, but they endure for a few important reasons. The first is economics; the shows are incredibly cheap to produce compared to scripted programming. The second is our bottomless well of pathology and misbehavior, making it possible to come up with endless variations on the theme. (People who get embarrassing tattoos for idiotic reasons? There's a show for that.) And finally, there's the desire we all have for at least occasional reassurance that there are people more foolish and in worse shape than ourselves. Sure, my kids may drive me crazy, but have you seen the little hellions on Supernanny? My hobbies may be odd, but I'm not spending my days catching catfish with my bare hands like the lunkheads on Hillbilly Handfishin'. I've got some weird relatives, but none of them think they can talk to dead people like the crazy lady on Long Island Medium!
West Virginians can take solace in the fact that no matter where you live, there's probably a reality show that makes the people near you look like a bunch of self-absorbed half-wits. I grew up in New Jersey, but I never got all that angry about the effect Jersey Shore would have on the state's reputation (my reaction was more, "Yep, that's pretty much what the shore is like"). And I suspect that ordinary people in West Virginia won't get too worked up about Buckwild, either. The politicians may complain, just to let voters know they're vigilantly protecting the unique contribution their state makes to our national culture, but the people who live there will watch eagerly for a few episodes, then quickly get bored and move on. After all, right now there's probably a network developing Minnesota Mudeaters or Real Teens of Tampa. And everybody knows those people are crazy.
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