Here’s a confession: I’m from New Jersey. I spent 16 formative years in the Garden State. And when I left—except for a few years in Minnesota and Chicago for college—I lived in West Virginia.
And for some reason, those are the two states MTV has most recently selected for—or subjected to—reality show scrutiny.
Watch out, Louisville. If this suggests any kind of pattern, you’re next.
MTV had great success with Jersey Shore, the six-season reality show that documented the drinking, tanning and sex lives of a group of 20-somethings vacationing in Seaside Heights, N.J. Now, Jersey Shore is over and MTV is taking the show’s premise and moving it to a new community: Charleston, West Virginia (and nearby Sissonville).
There are lots of ways the new show, Buckwild, and Jersey Shore are the same. The casts of both (if the preview for Buckwild is accurate) enjoy drinking, fighting, drama and sex. These shows could take place anywhere in America — but they don’t. And that’s for a reason: MTV has perfected a genre of reality TV that thrives on embodiments of stereotypes. First, Italian-Americans, and now Appalachians.
In the two-minute trailer for Buckwild, the cast drinks, rolls down a hill inside a giant tire, rides fourwheelers, swims in a tarpaulin-lined dump truck and licks each other. Yes, there is licking. There’s a lot of mud wrestling.And I’m willing to bet moonshine will make an appearance, as well as a passing reference to marrying your cousin.
There are people in West Virginia—and everywhere else—who engage in all of the activities shown in Buckwild. And there’s nothing wrong with that; some of those activities are legitimately really fun (I’m not talking about incest, but I have fond memories of nighttime carp fishing and moonshine). But by gathering a group of young people, orchestrating a season’s worth of “hillbilly” events, and filming them, MTV is profiting from rural stereotypes and cheap shots at Appalachia.
Just as Jersey Shore drew criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for importing New Yorkers and pretending they’re from Jersey, Buckwild apparently draws most of its talent from outside Sissonville. Sissonville is only about 15 miles north of Charleston, but in an area where there’s relatively little sprawl, Sissonville is definitely the country, while most of Charleston is solidly urban and suburban.
According to the Charleston Gazette, some of the season is shot at a house in South Charleston (the suburbs), and most of the cast comes from the nicest neighborhood in Charleston. Living in a suburb doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy things like riding around in the scoop of heavy machinery (yes, this happens), but it’s probably not part of your everyday life.
Here’s the thing about reality shows: everyone knows the actions shown are usually staged and fake, but they believe the people are real. And the stereotypes persist even after the shows are gone. I wonder whether in setting Buckwild in a state that’s particularly sensitive to stereotypes, MTV is doing more damage to a culture than it did to New Jersey (and Italian-Americans) with Jersey Shore.
In some ways the stereotypes of rural people are more entrenched now than the Jersey stereotypes were when Jersey Shore launched. I think some people believe there’s a kernel of accuracy in the way New Jerseyans are portrayed in the show — big hair, fist pumping and all. But let’s face it: almost everyone knows someone from New Jersey. It happens all the time: someone tells me they have a cousin or an aunt or a college roommate from New Jersey. Knowing someone from Jersey is the great unifier of humankind. And this personal experience that’s not in line with the “Jersey” stereotype can create enough cognitive dissonance that stereotypes aren’t as powerful.
On the other hand, I’m willing to bet most Americans haven’t been to West Virginia and haven’t necessarily had much personal contact with West Virginians. That’s maybe not true for Louisville residents, where the path to Washington, D.C., and the beach leads right through the Mountain State. But for people who haven’t been there, rural stereotypes are the only information available.
What would be really cutting edge and innovative would be a reality show that takes place in West Virginia and doesn’t make a point of perpetuating these outdated ideas.