Like Southerners everywhere, I’m amazed and perhaps a little apprehensive about the current popularity of reality shows portraying the Redneck South. Think Small Town Security, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Swamp People, Hillbilly Handfishin’. Not that I’m denying the “reality” of the folks profiled in such shows, but for an area of the country still forced to defend itself from the stereotypes portrayed in Deliverance and 30 Rock, it’s bound to cause some concern. (My daughter once attended a conference at a prestigious prep school in the Northeast where one of the participants asked her if we had shopping malls in Tennessee.)
As a writer, I’m constantly at war with my Southern heritage. I cringe every time I see a Red State Map (believe it or not, there are Democrats in the South), and I can appreciate Tina Fey’s satirical handling of Kenneth Parcell, the son of a “pig farmer” who hails from Stone Mountain, Georgia. When Kenneth talks about majoring in “Television Studies” and “Bible Sexuality” at Kentucky Mountain Bible College, I roll my eyes and chuckle. I get it. The South is an odd place, filled with odd people.
Perhaps it’s our embracing of these oddities that are part of our Southern charm. (My grandmother’s neighbor, who lived with ten cats and spoke to her dead husband, was considered “eccentric”, not “crazy.”) In small Southern towns we accept these eccentrics, we know their “people”, we remember that the “Masseys were always peculiar” and the “Carrs were prone to fits and red hair” and “the Doolins were good people but bad to drink.”
The truth, of course, is that just like anywhere else, the South is a multi-layered, diverse society. College professors live here, captains of industry, artists, writers, even Democrats. You don’t see well-educated Southerners on shows like Honey Boo Boo, because what would be the fun of that? It’s more entertaining to watch Crazy Tony play “deer hanger” in a local mud pool.
When I write about the South, the place where I’ve grown up, and moved away from, and eventually come back to, I try to portray the culture as I know it, with all the peculiarities, and contradictions, and class distinctions that make it unique. I try to give a well-rounded view of this place that has shaped Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee and William Styron.
Not that I’m knocking Honey Boo Boo and Sugar Bear and Crazy Tony. These are good people. A little odd, perhaps, but as everyone now knows, here in the South we embrace odd.
We’re proud of our peculiarities.
Which is probably the way of small towns everywhere.
by Cathy Holton, author of The Sisters Montclair, Summer in the South, Beach Trip, Revenge of the Kudzu Debutantes, and Secret Lives of the Kudzu Debutantes.