Karen L. Cox: The South…In Reality

UNC Press author Karen L. Cox draws from some of my favorite not-so-guilty pleasures in a guest post about representations of the South in reality television and popular culture. Her forthcoming book, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture, examines how entertainment, advertising, and the media construct a romanticized view of Southern culture that, until recently, was perceived to be forever stuck in its Dixie past. This is the first in what will be a monthly series of guest posts by Cox about the South in popular culture.-Alex

If you were looking for ethnic or regional stereotypes, you need look no further than reality television. Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious and The Real Housewives of New Jersey offer familiar stereotypes of Italian-Americans. But “guidos” and “guidettes” and mafia references are small in number when compared to the reality shows dedicated to the South. Oh, there’s a Real Housewives of Atlanta, but have you seen Southern Fried Stings (serving up “justice with a side of biscuits”), All Worked Up (featuring a repo firm from Lizard Lick, North Carolina), or Ma’s Roadhouse in Texas where Ma is serving up more cocktails and sass than southern hospitality? Louisiana, alone, has become a minor industry in reality television and provides the setting for at least two shows dedicated to catching gators and other southern vermin—Billy the Exterminator and Swamp People.

Reality television’s portrayal of the South and its people is part of a long tradition of how the South (and southerners) have been cast in American popular culture. In fact, since the emergence of a mass market in the late nineteenth century, southern iconography and southerners themselves have proven to be profitable to selling both consumer goods and the products of mass media. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and Maxwell House Coffee were two of the most successful brands of the twentieth century and both were based on southern icons—the southern mammy and the Maxwell House, a real hotel founded in Nashville, Tennessee, during the nineteenth century.

By far, the most influential form of popular culture in the first half of the twentieth century was the movies and the region provided the setting for countless films that idealized the Old South long before Gone with the Wind premiered in 1939. In 1935, for example, America’s little sweetheart, Shirley Temple, starred in The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel—two of the year’s highest grossing films. The plantation South continued to be trotted out as a film location in the 1940s and early 1950s until television surpassed movies as America’s most watched medium.

Television, of course, has provided us with many Souths. The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show portrayed rural southerners as hicks with savvy enough to outwit urban posers. The variety show Hee Haw drew on a tradition dating back to radio shows of the 1930s that showcased country music and cornpone comedy, in effect, perpetuating the hillbilly stereotype so long associated with the mountain South. The 1980s brought us both the film Steel Magnolias and steel magnolias in the way of television’s Designing Women, who were modern day versions of the southern belle.

The medium of television has certainly changed drastically in the last twenty years, but as a form of popular culture it continues to rely on tried and true formulas often based on stereotypes as reality shows prove. Even when the setting is not the South, southern “characters” find their way into a show’s cast with some regularity. What this all means is certainly up for debate. Yet what is not debatable is that as long as the South and southerners are perceived as outside what is considered mainstream, the region will continue to provide fodder for the purveyors of popular culture.

Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook.