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Media Representations of the Poor

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Published: Thu, 26 Jul 2018

  • Maia Vogt

Comms: Television criticism

The Social Perversion Towards the Poor

There has always been a negative stigma of the poor, and what’s more it is highly accepted to stigmatize, those who are lower in the social economic chain. Reality T.V is an inexpensive program which exploits its cast/situation by pitting them against social groups (in this case the poor). It also perpetuating stereotypes and rewards ruthless behavior. As a result, it has normalized this Darwins animalistic behavior. Reality TV offers the allure of stardom in its messy intricate web of exploitation. It promises casts fame by trying to have them constantly push buttons on acts that make it more of a guilty pleasure to watch (Strachan, 1). In this case, shows such as Buckwild, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and The Beverly Hillbillies has further perpetuated the stereotyping of rural Americans, especially in the South.

CBS’s The Beverly Hillbillies depicts rural “rednecks” who are put into wealthy Beverly Hills with their lives recorded for a year to see how this family reacts to the life of the lavish. Despite this innocent intention, The Beverly Hillbillies inevitably became the laughingstock which created great controversy. However, this show was like the catalyst which sparked the creation of future Reality TV shows which starred urban low classes (Telegraph Herald,1). The show was less about healthy family dynamics but more about mocking of the poor rural citizens through their spontaneous, out-of-place reactions. Ghen Maynard a CBS alternative programming executive, indicates that reality TV is not harmful and quotes that “viewers enjoy the humor that comes from the fish-out-of-water scenario of the show.” (Telegraph Herald,1) He also goes on to say that main purpose of selecting of this cast is because “we want a family who has a sense of humor about themselves.” (Telegraph Herald,1). In other words, there is no intentions to harm or stigmatize the poor. Viewers want a glimpse of a humorous family. However, that is not the case because these shows do not bring a sense of community. Instead, it directly mocks rural culture.

Another illustration is the raging MTV show Buckwild, which depicts young rural Appalachians teens who like to spend their free time drinking and mudding. Despite its light-hearted atmosphere, the show made viewers oblivious to the mere fact that they are laughing at the cast not with the cast. This not only gave viewers the negative received idea of Appalachia, but also internalized the cultural norm of mocking the poor. On the other hand, some critics argue that the show actually highlighted poverty in that region.

As a result of this show, numerous popular program such as ABC’s 20/20, PBS Frontline and even the popular teen clothing brand, Abercrombie & Fitch have attempted to make money off the hardships of rural life ( in this case, Appalachia). Conversely, these attempts actually steered viewers away from the core issues that affect the Appalachian community and further perpetuated more stereotypes (Bradner, 2). The truth is, seeing people suffer is perversely entertaining. For example, when Grandee a cast member of Buckwild says “I don’t’ have a phone. I don’t have a Facebook. I don’t have none of that Internet Stuff.” (Brander, 3) We as viewers find that laughable and pathetic, but viewers forget that Grandee saying this in broken English is the result of years of exploitation of Appalachians from the mining companies that once operated there. Viewers do not understand the correlation of lack of education, basic healthcare, high teen birth rates and chronic disease that ravaged through this Appalachian community. The primary focus is the humor which stems from the lack of these necessities (Bradner, 2).

However, executive producers of MTV defended these shows by indicating that this is reality. On the contrary, if that was the case, MTV would be showing how these people are isolated from the most basic needs. The reasons the casts go “mudding” to waste time is because they have no disposable income to do anything else. The show would highlight the everyday struggles of the cast and families living under the poverty line in Appalachia, but that would not result in a high ratings show (Bradner,3). It is a risk producers are not interested in risking.

The reason for this exploitation of the poor is to create a barrier. As Bradner states “without the foil, we would have to face our own poverties, our own barbarism, our own shelterness, our own lack of sophistication.” (Bradner,3) Brandner’s point is that this is an emotional barrier in which we as viewers intentionally let ourselves to be divided from how we truly think of ourselves and our values. The psychological effects on targeting the poor is that it results in viewers, in this case non-Appalachians feel that the are somehow superior to their rural counterparts (Bradner,3).

Harold Rogers, a U.S. Rep. once asked said “no one would dare propose creating a program focusing on stereotypes about African Americans, Muslims or Jews…Why then would it be ok to base those of us living in rural America?.” (Bradner,2) Roger’s point is that American society is a double standard which makes it acceptable to bash the poor and make them the ridicule of our jokes. Ultimately this perpetuation of the poor changes our values. The depictions of reality TV about the poor are not only seen through the cast, but it is lived vicariously through its viewers. Stereotyping poses a problem because it forces groups to conform into a set standard and this affects the viewer’s perception by not allowing them to break past these set standards. Consequently, one can not create healthy relationships because there is a barrier due to what we see on reality TV (Bradner, 4). Moreover, the greatest damage of all will forever be the cast which will be seen as the fake personalities producers have made them to become (Bradner, 4). These shows are devastating on both viewers and the demographic. These findings have important implications on the border domain of just how much reality TV has become an American staple. Its negative jokes are contagious (Strachan, 1).

The point is there can still be Reality TV shows starring the poor, however these shows should not show the molded personalities of the cast and their outrageous behavior. Instead, it ought to show how these people are just like everyone else, with a dream a sense of individualism and how the conditions of poverty has propels them to better their life. One example of this kind of show could be The Wire which shows how urban inequality affects the poor and their drive to overcome these set stereotypes (Blair, 2).

Today, we we live in a realm of Reality TV because we have been so internalized by set standards. Reality TV’s influence is a persisting force which in the end, results in the producers having the last laugh. It is our duty as citizens to not become ambiguous to the colorblind biases perpetuated through television. It is our job as audiences to determine what is real, what is reality and redefine the accepted life lessons taught by reality TV.

Citations:

  1. Blair, Elizabeth. “From ‘Good Times’ To ‘Honey Boo Boo’: Who Is Poor On TV?” NPR. NPR, 05 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 May 2015.
  2. Brandner, Alexandra. “America’s Favorite Joke Is Anything but Funny.”Saloncom RSS. Salon, 7 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 May 2015.
  3. Strachan, Alex. “Effects Are Real, Even If Shows Aren’t.” Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia) (n.d.): n. pag. LexisNexis Academic [LexisNexis]. Web. 14 May 2015.
  4. Herald, Telegraph. “Reality TV’s Potshot at Poor Goes Too Far; Turn It Off: CBS Hopes to Get America Laughing at the Expense of Real-life “hillbillies” in California.” Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA) (2002): n. pag. LexisNexis Academic [LexisNexis]. Web. 14 May 2015.

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