Andrew Jackson was one of America’s first presidents to come from rural roots. He earned the nickname “Old Hickory,” which suggested that he was tough and enduring like an old hickory tree. Jackson was deeply admired by the residents of remote and mountainous areas, people who therefore came to be known as “hicks.” Like most inventive terms that are used to denote a sect of people, it has become a derogatory one, implicative of the uneducated, low-income, insular people living in the most rural parts of the United States.
Turn on any channel that features an array of reality programming in its current lineup and you are sure to find an ample representation of “hick” culture in the United States. People living on farms, residing in simple homes, speaking grammatically incorrect English, struggling to make ends meet and eating fast food: this is what Americans love watching right now. There doesn’t seem to be one word to encompass this group of people or their lifestyle that isn’t incredibly offensive: white trash, hillbilly, redneck, yokel. But their presence in American pop culture has multiplied over the last few television seasons, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down.
Just as we watched a rise in the negative representation of Italian Americans in reality television, from MTV’s inescapably popular Jersey Shore to VH1’s bizarrely expository Mob Wives, we are now witnessing a fascinating yet disturbing rise in the portrayal of white, poor and generally uneducated Americans. We see them deal with teen pregnancy on Teen Mom, we witness their heartbreak and vulnerability in meeting internet-based lovers on Catfish, and we watch as they prepare for the end of world in the most creative of ways on Doomsday Preppers. And that is just a small sampling.
The mission or goal in most of these shows isn’t to display the culture of this uniquely American class of people. They do not claim to purposefully portray the “hick lifestyle,” as is the goal of other reality programs such as Bravo’s Real Housewives enterprise, where opulence and materialism is the word. Instead, this pervasive exposition of “hick” culture tends to be a byproduct of the types of activities involved. Child beauty pageants, outdoor-based jobs, and teen pregnancy tend to be more insidious in the culture of small, rural towns that are far removed from the hustle and bustle of America’s more liberally-inclined big cities. Of course, these things do exist and occur throughout the country, across socioeconomic barriers and races, and even the world. But these are the stereotypes — things that make us laugh at each other and ourselves — and the driving force behind this hick-reality (let’s call it hickality?) craze.
One of MTV’s new reality shows, Buckwild, does seem to be based purely and unashamedly on the premise of “hick culture,” depicting a group of teenagers growing up in rural West Virginia who pride themselves on their rural lifestyle. The “hickality” craze has caught on so effectively that this show is specifically designed to explore (or exploit ... however you choose to look at it) the “hick lifestyle” exclusively.
Viewers empathize with the trauma associated with these reality characters’ experience on a human level, from the heartbreak in dealing with relatives addicted to drugs or the vulnerability in meeting an internet lover. They watch for pure entertainment, with the best and most recent example being Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, an overconfident and overfed child pageant star. They are fascinated by the bizarre lives of America’s “hoarders” or those living in fear of the apocalypse, or even people with the most gritty professions imaginable. But we also mustn’t forget that these shows are also just as popular amongst “hicks” themselves, those who can relate most directly.
The concept of this sect of people is a difficult line to clearly define. There are those who refer to themselves as “hicks,” having taken on the offensive term internally as endearing (like other groups have done in the past). And then there are those who society might see as hicks, but who would be offended by the label as well. We live in such a big country that, for some people, watching these programs is like witnessing the lives of people in another country who just happen to speak the same language. Television and entertainment in general tends to exploit societal or racial groups for the sake of entertainment, ratings and ultimately money. I guess hick is the new fad.