The South -- or at least redneck culture -- has risen again
Comedian Jon Reep isn't shy about playing the redneck card. During one of his stand-up routines, he tells his audiences that he's from Hickory, N.C., a town that already contains the word “hick.”
Reep, who performed last month at the Pittsburgh Improv, was photographed for the cover of his DVD, “Metro Jethro,” dressed in red long johns and sitting on a tree stump. Nearby is a bottle of moonshine, marked XXX. In February, he'll host a show on the Speed Channel. Its title: “Are You Faster Than a Redneck?”
The South has risen again, particularly redneck culture. Moonshine, that backwoods contraband, is being marketed and sold by distilleries in Philadelphia, Kentucky and Pittsburgh. Incidentally, the illegal trafficking of moonshine by good ol' boys in souped up hot rods gave rise to another rural tradition — NASCAR, which remains one of the country's top sports. Restaurants such as the Double Wide Grill on the South Side use playful Southern kitsch in their decor.
But a new crop of cable reality-television shows that focus on eccentric backwoods clans have some questioning whether the trend constitutes empowerment or exploitation.
“Duck Dynasty” on A&E follows the bayou-based Robertson family, who wear ZZ Top-style beards and run a successful duck-call and decoy business. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on TLC takes viewers inside the Georgia home of Alana Thompson, a precocious 7-year-old beauty pageant competitor whose outrageous behavior alternately amuses and horrifies.
Dennis Murray, professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology at Mansfield University, Tioga County, says there's a fine Mason-Dixon line between subverting a stereotype and perpetuating it.
“There are times when people who have been the object of other people's scorn flip over their previously negative identity and take pride in it,” he says. “It makes sense that some would want to embrace what others have made fun of. It seems that can be healthier than feeling put down or inferior. “
Still, even the ostensibly easygoing Reep has his limits. Some people in his adopted home of Los Angeles don't seem to understand that it's just an act. When they hear his Southern accent, he says, they sometimes assume that he counts using his fingers and toes.
“Here's what they think: one, I'm either an idiot because I come from the South. Or that you're prejudiced,” he says. “It's geographical discrimination.”
Thought to be Scottish in origin, “redneck” is said to have referred to poor sharecroppers who got sunburned necks from working in the fields. In the '60s, many used the term to mean backward Southern racists who also opposed women's rights, hippies and the counterculture in general.
The term has since become a badge of pride. In 2004, Gretchen Wilson became the first female to top the Billboard country charts in more than two years with her debut hit “Redneck Woman.” She sang about preferring beer to champagne, shopping at Wal-Mart and keeping Christmas lights on her front porch year-round.
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy debuted his comedy CD, “You Might Be a Redneck If…” in 1994. It was the equivalent of Jed Clampett striking black gold. One-liners like, “If you've ever been too drunk to fish, you might be a redneck,” convulsed audiences and made the Georgia-born comedian a household name.
“I think I was able to do it because it wasn't laughing at somebody,” Foxworthy says. “It was laughing with somebody. I don't know that Seinfeld could have done it. With me it was like, ‘Hey this is the way we are!' It ain't just us!”
But shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” are clearly intended for mockers and gawkers, he says.
“I'm not trying to be a wet blanket,” he says. “My job is making people laugh. But shows like that aren't in the best interests of the family. They encourage the stupidity almost.”
He says he discouraged some friends in Atlanta, who he describes affectionately as “rednecks with money,” from accepting a proposal to do a reality television show.
“I said, ‘Run the other way. They don't want what's best for your family.' They want to pit the mother against the daughter, and father against the son. It makes entertaining TV but it's totally detrimental to (the) family.”
Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, says he still cringes at the casual use of “redneck” “hillbilly” and “white trash.”
“Part of the pleasure of reality TV is a sense of superiority,” he says. “I think that's very much a function of ‘Honey Boo Boo,' which is problematic. But when the smoke of stereotype clears, there's a sense that this is a fairly not-dysfunctional family. They seem to love each other. They remind me of the Osbournes. For all their craziness, they seem to be a family that's going to stay together.”
Thompson says the rural culture dates back to days of the American frontier.
“We kind of left the civilization of cathedrals and museums, and we came in here to live in sod huts and shoot bears and live in the wilderness,” he says. “I think that created a unique American character that we have never quite let go of.”
William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7986.