Karen L. Cox is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.”
IF you go by the sheer number of programs and casting calls, reality television has become thoroughly Dixiefied. Whether it’s Lifetime’s “Glamour Belles,” truTV’s “Lizard Lick Towing” or CMT’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” series purporting to show a slice of Southern life are huge, and getting bigger: more than a dozen new programs have been introduced so far this year, while others have been renewed for second or even third seasons.
Such shows promise new insight into Southern culture, but what they really represent is a typecast South: a mythically rural, white, poorly educated and thickly accented region that has yet to join the 21st century. If you listen closely, you may even hear banjos.
These stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists. Even worse, they deny the existence of a progressive South, or even progressive Southerners.
Southern reality TV programs fall into a few subcategories. Sometimes, producers seek to portray the South as culturally foreign to the rest of America, and they choose characters or remote locations that reinforce this image.
The History channel’s “Swamp People,” for example, focuses on alligator-hunting season in southern Louisiana by showcasing individuals who live and work in the Atchafalaya Swamp, thereby preserving their “ancient way of life.” The show uses subtitles to emphasize the cultural differences between the bayou and the rest of the country, even though the “stars” speak plain English.
Other shows focus on those Southerners that Americans feel as if they already know, like Southern belles and hillbillies. In its own bid to buy into the trend, Animal Planet has given us “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” in which two Oklahomans, Skipper Bivins and his pal Trent Jackson, teach people, generally big-city Northerners, how to catch catfish by using their own limbs as bait.
Then there’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” a Dixiefied version of “The Bachelorette,” only in this setting she is choosing between city slickers and Southern boys. It’s not unlike the show with the catfish duo: both feature a competition between country and city or, put more pointedly, North and South. The message is reduced to a Hank Williams Jr. song: a country boy can survive.
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