“Buckwild”: Exploitative MTV Reality Show Comes to Laugh and Stare at Life in the Appalachian Mountains
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After MTV announced its new reality show “Buckwild” last month — the series debuts tomorrow night — it wasn’t long before friends started sending me links to the trailer without comment — the virtual equivalent of excitedly tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Look! Your people!” The show, described as the “‘Jersey Shore’ of Appalachia,”stars “an outrageous group of childhood friends” who live, party, and shoot potato guns in Sissonville, West Virginia. In the trailer, one cast member receives a “birthday lickin’”; another boasts, “I don’t have no phone, Facebook — none of that Internet stuff.” My fellow West Virginians were quick to cry “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes!” and the state’s “Democratic” senator (formerly, governor) Joe Manchin III even went on the “Today” show to denounce the “travesty.” After using the phrase “heck-bent,” he called West Virginia “one of the greatest states in the nation” and suggested, cringe-worthily, that maybe MTV could “show a balance” by presenting the state’s “greatest young adults who’ve accomplished an awful lot” alongside the “Buckwild” cast. The big, bad media responded with the noble savage argument; in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, one of the show’s producers called the lack of Internet thing “refreshing” while Tricia Romano, writing for the Daily Beast, deferred to TV historian Tim Brooks. “There is some self-awareness over what they are doing,” she quoted Brooks. “They are proud of it. One of the things you learn from these shows is that people who aren’t like us may be proudly not like us. They live differently intentionally.”
I grew up about 40 miles away from Sissonville in a town called Hurricane — mildly amusing, I know. Because I “escaped” to Yale, I’ve often been, if not lumped into, at least an expert anthropology student of that “they.”When professors or classmates heard I was from West Virginia, their responses were almost always some variation on, “But you don’t seem like you’re from there?” I was often told that I don’t “make sense”: How could a smart, liberal feminist who works out five times a week come from a place known for making Jamie Oliver cry because they’re so obese? I once had a conference with a writing professor who, after exhausting every possible explanation for my existence, asked me flat out, “How are you like this?” I responded with a familiar combination of I-didn’t-go-to-Exeter shame and at-least-I’m-kind-of-quirky-right? pride: “I don’t know.”
I often let stuff like “Buckwild” (or obesity statistics, or “devastating” slideshows of mountaintop-removal images, or a median income ranked 48th in the United States) answer for me when someone asks, “Where are you from?” Unlike, say, Nebraska, West Virginia is at least distinctive. When I crack self-deprecating jokes about being uneducated and toothless in an exaggerated ain’t/y’all drawl, I seem like an academic Cinderella story. Given that I am actually so educated that mention of my alma mater connotes crustless cucumber sandwiches and the inability to converse with one’s plumber, people like that. The truth, however, is more complicated.
I didn’t spend my childhood rolling around in a giant tire. It’s a little ridiculous that I have to make this point, but experience tells me I should: Most West Virginians aren’t seven-toothed rednecks who spend days in the coalmines and nights with their cousins. I often felt out of place at Yale not because I was used to living in a trailer and gorging on pepperoni rolls, but because I never had a private French tutor or even a household subscription to The New Yorker. The West Virginia I grew up in is boring and unremarkable, and sensationalizing it is easier than facing how I really feel: a fluctuating combination of resentment, shame, guilt, and begrudging fondness. In comparison to former refugees of wartorn African nations, first-generation college students, or a Russian immigrant dumped into an American kindergarten class with a lunchbox and not a single word of English, a suburban, middle-class National Merit Scholar isn’t exactly a portrait of struggle. The thick accent, the loud, obnoxious insistence on “freedom,” the mud-splattered all-terrain vehicles — none of that is me.