COMMENTARY

Reality TV creates and keeps feeding hicksploitation mania

Trailer park reality series is latest to ridicule a certain demographic

Tampa Bay TimesMarch 7, 2013 

WELCOME TO MYRTLE MANOR

The denizens of the Myrtle Manor trailer park include Amanda Adams, left, who works for the "weiner girls," and wiccan Shellie Groff.

ZACH DILGARD — TLC

He steps into the broken-down trailer, a scruffy hunk looking at a bathroom so dilapidated he'll need to use water from a garden hose to shower. After a minute at 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 last week, includes a manager who conducts evictions clad in a mink stole; 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 is show's only black character.

There are also signature touches from other TLC "hicksploitation" shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo 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; 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 record viewership of 8.6 million for its third season premiere Feb. 27.

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

TLC just ordered 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 might have been married before. (In the new season, they head to Florida, completing the circle of stereotypes.)

TLC's Gypsy Sisters, centering 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 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 nearly 5,600 people.)

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 never would be attempted with subjects of color.

For proof, consider the uproar when Oxygen made a pilot called All My Babies Mamas, with rapper Shawty Lo, a black man with his 11 children by 10 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.

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 effect because white people have enough quality portrayals in media to outweigh these garish caricatures.

But I suspect a breed of younger viewer has 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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