Saturday, August 25, 2012

White trash wonders . . .

NOBODY EVER WENT BROKE underestimating the taste of the American public — H. L. Mencken. Probably one of the most acerbic observations of the American Experience. And part of that attitude is a fascination with white trash "culture". Slate has a delightful article by  Michelle Dean, "Here Comes the Hillbilly, Again", which offers an overview of how this happens.

Alana “Honey Boo Boo Child” Thompson
and all the way down in McIntyre, Ga., there is a mother who feeds her child a Mountain-Dew-and-Red-Bull concoction before the 6-year-old gets onstage at beauty pageants. June Shannon, who stars with her daughter Alana “Honey Boo Boo Child” Thompson in TLC’s controversial hit Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, would have provoked a firestorm even if what she calls “go-go juice” were the only sin she was broadcasting all over Christendom. All that caffeine, pop-culture commentators everywhere clucked, and all that sugar.

Lost in the outrage is just how squarely “go-go juice” fits into America’s long tradition of “white trash” entertainment, which for decades has elevated characters like Honey Boo Boo into the nation’s objects of fun. The Pepsi Co. borrowed the Mountain Dew brand-name from slang for moonshine; in the 1960s, it was explicitly advertised as a “hillbilly” drink. The campaign’s entertaining TV ads, which you can watch on YouTube, were scored by twangy banjos and errant buckshot and plotted around a “stone-hearted gal” who will open her heart to you if you only take a swig.
Watching these old videos after an episode or two of Honey Boo Boo makes at least one thing clear: The hillbilly has regained the spotlight in American culture.

And that can be a sign of social stress:

As Anthony Harkins observes in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, one of the hillbilly’s signature moves is to peak, popularity-wise, just when Americans sense that things in general are headed south. Its first true zenith came in the depressed 1930s, a handmaiden to the birth of commercial country music. Another arrived in the turbulent 1960s, when The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and Hee Haw were in their prime. (Those are hardly the only examples, of course: It also popped up in the Ma and Pa Kettle films of the 1940s and 1950s and Paul Webb’s 1930s Esquire cartoons about “The Mountain Boys,” among other places.)

Mountain-Dew-and-Red-Bull? That'll get you motorin', even if you ain't Honey Boo Boo Child. One of the appeals of hillbilly shows is that it makes the middle-class feel secure:

And hillbilly stereotypes have always made it easier for middle-class whites to presume that racism is the exclusive province of “that kind” of person. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “It is comforting to think of racism as species of misanthropy, or akin to child molestation, thus exonerating all those who bear no real hatred in their heart. It’s much more troubling to think of it as it’s always been—a means of political organization and power distribution.”

As that distribution of power becomes more and more unequal, it’s no surprise to see the hillbilly here again—on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, on Jersey Shore, on MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom franchises. These shows reassure us that our struggle is worth it, all economic evidence to the contrary—if only because we would never belly-flop into the mud on cable television. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo casts this socio-economic divide in especially sharp relief, since the show is rooted partly in beauty pageant culture, which, in its own idiosyncratic way, indulges the American belief that you can work and spend your way to greatness.

And those pageants are serious, with false teeth for teething contestants, known as "Dental Flippers". And somehow, you just know that Stevie loves hillbilly TV.

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