Rednecks translate to greenbacks on TV
The singing vegetarian wanted nothing to do with the backwoods ducks.
When Morrissey was scheduled to appear on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show last month along with the cast of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” the ‘80s cult rocker issued an ultimatum: Boot the “animal serial killers,” as he described the Southern family that made its fortune selling duck-hunting paraphernalia, from the guest list or he would walk.
When showtime came, Kimmel’s choice was clear. Rednecks 1, Rocker 0. “They have guns,” joked the ABC talk-show host in explaining his rationale for standing by the ducky ones.
He could have also added that “Duck Dynasty,” which costars the forest-thick beards of the male Robertsons, far outranks the smooth-faced Morrissey on the popularity scale. The cable show’s third-season premiere two weeks ago shattered viewer records at A&E, pulling in 8.6-million viewers — a figure that included edging out broadcast hits such as “Modern Family” and “American Idol” that same night in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic.
The Louisiana bayou clan are among the brightest lights in a veritable redneck renaissance unfolding on television, where a homespun brand of humor, mashed-up family values and uncomplicated authenticity are transforming old stereotypes into media darlings. In a raft of reality and scripted programming already on the air and in the works, rednecks are in demand, and not always in typical one-dimensional ways.
“It’s like the South has risen again,” said Karen Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. “It’s so unbelievable how many shows are coming on that it’s hard to keep up.”
More than two decades after comedian Jeff Foxworthy introduced his “You might be a redneck if ...” into the cultural lexicon, a new stream of Southern-fried offerings have eclipsed the metropolitan housewives, real and unreal, and urban entertainment shows such as “Smash.” “Duck Dynasty” has touched a nerve with family audiences who watch the series together and are seeking a quieter, simple alternative to the overblown, materialistic antics of the “Real Housewives” and the Kardashians, say cultural observers.
On the other hand, the phenomenon is giving little Southern comfort to some critics, entertainers and even politicians concerned about what they see as the celebration of drunken laziness, reckless behavior and the perpetuation of demeaning regional stereotypes.
Close behind the high-flying “Duck” is the reality series “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” set around a precocious pre-adolescent beauty pageant contestant in small-town Georgia. Together, “Duck” and “Boo Boo” rank at the top of more than a dozen reality series with titles such as “Buckwild,” “Swamp Pawn,” “My Big Redneck Vacation,” “Moonshiners,” and “Rocket City Rednecks.”
Beyond reality last year, History’s award-winning miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” scored record ratings with its take on the infamous backwoods blood feud. Meanwhile, on FX’s critically acclaimed “Justified,” U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens dispenses Kentucky justice with a smooth drawl, fast gun and Stetson hat. The show plays with rural clichés and has Givens take down his share of moonshiners, snake-handling Pentecostals and meth heads — all with a wink.
Graham Yost, executive producer of “Justified,” said the Kentucky setting has enriched the show’s narrative. “It’s not terrain that has been chewed over a lot,” he said. “And people in that region love seeing their world portrayed accurately.”
Perhaps two of the best-known rednecks on television today are the Dixon brothers of AMC’s zombie apocalypse hit “The Walking Dead,” whose weekly audiences routinely beat almost all major network shows. One brother, Merle, played by Michael Rooker, is a fleshed-out version of negative Southern stereotypes — poorly educated, racist, crass and extremely violent.
By contrast, brother Daryl, played by Norman Reedus, is a far more complex and likable character who battles the instincts from an abusive upbringing to become a champion of the group. In a violent show that is fond of killing off major characters, Daryl in particular is viewed by fans as untouchable.
“Those two are the characters I’m asked most about,” said Robert Kirkman, executive producer of “The Walking Dead.” “They’re rednecks, but they also have a lot of heart. They know how to track and hunt. They’re the kind of people you want to have with you during a zombie apocalypse.”
Among critics, Morrissey’s protest over hunting was just the latest salvo. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.), lashed out last year at MTV’s “Buckwild,” which has been described as “The Jersey Shore of Appalachia.” The senator tore into MTV executives for exploiting the “shameful behavior” of the reality show’s cast of ATV-riding, hard-partying twentysomethings.
And a writer in USA Today voiced the show’s push-pull appeal to many by calling “Honey Boo Boo” “either the end of civilization as we know it, or a loving picture of joyous redneck family values.”
Less colorful drawings but no less compelling for their time have previously dominated prime-time. Among them over the decades were such classics as “The Beverly Hillbillies, “Green Acres,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Hee Haw.”
“It’s the commodifying of the South,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It has been going on forever — the gothic or surreal South. It’s stereotyped but always entertaining.”
Added Foxworthy, the host of GSN’s “The American Bible Challenge” and who still includes the redneck routine in his stand-up act: “It’s never really gone away — it’s just got a new spotlight on it now. Some have called it the lowest common denominator, but they’re so wrong. It’s the most common denominator.”
Apparently, it’s not just an American denominator either. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” recently began airing in eastern Europe and Australia, where it quickly became a hit. The TLC series features Alana Thompson, a rambunctious tot with tornado-speed energy as she competes for a beauty pageant crown.
The episodes do little to promote a positive image. In one, the child and her mother, June Shannon, sneeze on a turkey she was preparing with massive amounts of butter. On another the little girl frolics on a “redneck water slide” — a plastic sheet on a muddy lawn.
Two kinds of extremes
The “Duck” and “Boo Boo” series represent the extremes of redneck television, said UNC’s Cox, the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture.” On “Duck Dynasty,” the Robertsons “are very self-conscious. They know who they are, and they’re in on the joke. Honey Boo Boo is not in on the joke. Her family is naive and being exploited.”
Somewhere in the middle may be a show like “Rocket City Rednecks” on the National Geographic Channel. The program showcases an aerospace engineer and his family of “backwoods geniuses” from Huntsville, Ala., the birthplace of the space program. They combine “hillbilly ingenuity” with advanced science, which yields successful experiments like making rocket fuel out of moonshine.
For better or worse, more such fare is on the way. TLC just premiered “Welcome to Myrtle Manor,” about residents of a South Carolina trailer park where yelling and raucous behavior seem to be the norm. “I think part of this has to do with the South being America’s final frontier,” said Cox. “It’s exotic and interesting. It’s not part of the urban, industrial world.”
Rather than being offended, participants on many of the shows are wearing their redneck labels as a badge of honor. Or, as Honey Boo Boo declared in one episode, “You better redneck-ognize!” — a phrase snatched up by T-shirt makers.
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