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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

Georgia reality shows: stereotypes or just entertainment?

Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson took a photo of herself when my colleague Jennifer Brett visited a few weeks back.

Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson took a photo of herself when my colleague Jennifer Brett visited a few weeks back.

I wrote this story for the Sunday print edition:

For a time in the 1960s, Hollywood was fascinated by the South. Shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Green Acres” were peppered all over the TV schedule.

In recent years, it’s less the scripted folks and more the reality programmers who are mining Southern accents and “wacky” folksy hijinks for ratings gold. They are sifting through wetlands, (History’s “Swamp People”), hip-hop nightclubs (VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta”) and rural backwoods (CMT’s “My Big Redneck Wedding”) for material.

This summer, TLC’s summer “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” hit the pop-culture zeitgeist. A spin off of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the show focuses on 7-year-old Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson from McIntyre — a town of 650 residents just east of Macon — who spouts outrageous comments frequently construed as adorable. Samples: “You better redneckognize!” “A dolla makes me holla!”

Honey Boo Boo, has, in effect, become the “Snooki” of 2012: A polarizing, pint-sized package of blue-collar regionalism that viewers either adore or abhor. She’s been namedropped by both Pres. Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, and the U.K.’s Daily Mail reports on her every move.

Fans of the show tend to profess their affection not for its seeming obsession with bodily functions but for the way the family members interact.

“It’s one of the most authentic and loving representations of a real family on television,” said Travis Wright, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin and a Tennessee native. “As a Southerner, I get the inside joke and can separate what’s performance and what’s real. I’m not sure my Northern friends can take such a nuanced perspective.”

But not everyone has gotten on the Honey Boo Boo bandwagon. Many consider this kind of national attention more cringe-worthy than a reason to celebrate.

“I have spent years telling my Northern friends that we don’t eat road kill and [dispelling] other Southern stereotypes,” said Cheryl Harris, 43, a customer care representative from Woodstock. “They were starting to believe me. Then Honey Boo Boo came along and wiped away all of that hard work!”

Realtor Jimmy Baron, a former radio DJ on 99X and Dave FM, agrees.

“These shows are geared for people in the North and California to watch so they can make fun of the South,” he said.

The first reality show set in Atlanta was the 2005 Bravo series “Being Bobby Brown,” which highlighted the R&B singer’s dysfunctional relationship with Whitney Houston. Since then, it appears almost every local R&B singer has tried a reality show as a way to boost his or her brand while the traditional music business stumbles: Monica, Keyshia Cole, Kandi Burruss, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. TV One recently featured “R&B Divas,” a show based primarily in Atlanta with the likes of Faith Evans and Nicci Gilbert. And Atlanta rap star T.I. has his own VH1 show, “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle.”

Seven years after “Being Bobby Brown,” in the wake of Houston’s February death, several of her relatives, including 19-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina Houston, are now airing their own reality show on Lifetime.

Perhaps the most entrenched local show is Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” part of a franchise that thrives on catty women behaving badly. The Atlanta version is the most popular show in the franchise, and it’s the only one featuring a mostly black cast. Tonight it enters its fifth season with two new cast members: former Miss USA, actress and film producer Kenya Moore and Porsha Williams Stewart, grand-daughter of the late Atlanta civil rights icon Hosea Williams.

“He would trust my judgment,” said Stewart, when asked how her grandfather would react to her appearing on the show. “I’m just like him. He had a motto, ‘Unbought and unbossed.’ I have a lot of that in me!”

“Real Housewives” fan Jennifer Stewart said the series replaces the dying daytime soap opera in some ways. “I think the women on that show are actually a perfect cross-section of Atlanta life,” said Stewart, 25, who grew up in Roswell but recently moved to Los Angeles. “In some weird way, watching it makes me feel like home again.

Despite their popularity, neither “Housewives” nor “Honey Boo Boo” are the most popular reality shows out of Georgia. That crown goes to “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta,” which averaged nearly 3.5 million viewers per episode over the summer.

The show features low-level hip-hop artists and producers grappling with relationship issues in restaurants and clubs all over metro Atlanta in a highly stylized, heavily edited production. The primary story lines revolved around cheating men and the women who love them.

Not everyone is a fan, though. Many African-Americans were dismayed by how the shows portray life in Atlanta.

“Many see Atlanta as full of women and men who fight all the time,” said local stand-up comic Special K, who works with the nationally syndicated radio show, “The Rickey Smiley Show.” “It’s really negative. People who live in Baltimore and Dallas are glad it’s happening in Atlanta.”

Special K thinks the show’s popularity underscores a generational divide.

“Younger people don’t have the perspective of image and perception,” said Special K. “As you get older, those things start to matter.”

And as a writer for Smiley’s new sitcom on TV One, Special K said the over-the-top drama ladled out by these reality shows “makes it hard to script something that’s equally entertaining for people.”

But V-103 radio personality Egypt Sherrod, host of “Property Virgins” on HGTV,” thinks critics are overly sensitive. “I can understand the frustration of forward thinkers who feel that this type of programming sets us back and creates a dysfunctional landscape for our future,” she said. “But much of it is not truly reality. So I recommend that everyone just take it at face value. If it’s not your cup of tea, just turn the channel.”

Not all Georgia reality shows perpetuate stereotypes. TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta” (and its spinoff, “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids”) gives the world a taste of upper-crust society where women can afford to spend $10,000 on a wedding dress. The battles have a Southern twist, but they are universal: mom vs. daughter, tradition vs. modernity, economics vs. luxury.

“We may be a little more sassy, but we have traditions and core values,” said Lori Allen, who runs Bridals By Lori in Sandy Springs. “We show the good side of the South.”

On Discovery Channel, Paul Brown stars in “Auction Kings,” where his consignment shop, Gallery 63 in Buckhead, auctions off all sorts of goodies, many with fascinating back stories about the South, including letters from the Civil War and a Prohibition-era speakeasy piano that doubles as a bar.

Initially Brown said he was hesitant to participate in a reality show, fearing he would be mocked. But once he was assured that wouldn’t be the case, he has embraced his role on the show.

“I try to carry the torch for this town,” he said. “I want to dispel the myth of the ignorant, uneducated Southerner. We try to conduct ourselves in a responsible manner.”

Because of the cyclical nature of things, TV’s fascination with the South will likely wane again. Until then, Southerners will continue to debate the pros and cons of reality TV attention. But when it’s gone, they might discover that they miss the national spotlight.

As Barney Fife once said on “The Andy Griffith Show”: “If there’s anything that upsets me, it’s having people say I’m sensitive.”

A sampling of Georgia-based reality TV shows

“The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Bravo, fifth season debuts Nov. 4 at 9 p.m.

“T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle.” VH1, airs 9 p.m. Mondays

“Property Virgins.” HGTV, 9 p.m. Tuesdays

“The Houstons: On Our Own.” Lifetime, 9 p.m. Wednesdays

“Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids.” TLC, 9 p.m. Fridays

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” TLC, holiday specials and season two forthcoming

“Auction Kings.” Discovery, fourth season starts in January

“Love & Hip Hop Atlanta.” VH1, second season forthcoming

“Small Town Security.” AMC, season two forthcoming

“Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta.” TLC, fifth season in production

“R&B Divas.” TV One, no word on a second season

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35 comments Add your comment

Ivan Cohen

November 2nd, 2012
7:23 am

I sure hope none of these “reality” shows ever packaged as DVD’s or get syndicated overseas. Some will truly believe that Americans behave just the way they were depicted.

TGRAA

November 2nd, 2012
8:19 am

Please do not forget Cajun Pawn Stars and Texas Storage Wars

emz

November 2nd, 2012
8:42 am

I don’t watch any reality shows. Some of the Southern ones definitely reflect very, very badly on the South.

willie lynch

November 2nd, 2012
8:49 am

What’s their purpose? I have yet to see any redeeming qualities that I would tell my children to follow. But this is America and somebody’s making money so it’s all good. So sad.

NotYou

November 2nd, 2012
9:12 am

I agree that creators of such shows target those that really make the South look bad to the rest of the country. But, the rest of the country probably has its collective mind already made up about the south. Not much will change that. And, I’m not sure I really care.

Yes

November 2nd, 2012
9:16 am

Although not in Georgia, Duck Dynasty is the best one. Phil (the dad) has a Masters in Education but decided the duck business was for him. Most of the kids are college educated and Willie turned a good business into a great one. But hey, that might be too much for those up North. It could make their head explode with stereotype confusion.

Truth

November 2nd, 2012
9:19 am

If these shows reflect badly on the south, it’s only because things really are bad down here. Ignorance – demonstrated by racism, rampant obesity and an over-abundance of religion – is a great one-word definition of the south.

GaPeachy

November 2nd, 2012
9:22 am

Oh please folks, It’s tv! If anyone is dumb enough to judge an entire region off a television show they are pretty ignorant. I love the south and could give a rats behind what others think. These shows are for entertainment only, and 80% of most “reality tv” is scripted. People have got to take things for what they are and stop trying to make such a deep social connection to tv, internet etc… How about vist the south and see for yourself that not everyone is a redneck or stupid, loud and ghetto. I was born and raised here in Atlanta, a true southern belle, a hardworking accountant, and mother of two, but you aren’t going to get that on tv, thats not entertainment. Come on you know people like to watch a train wreck.

Lawless

November 2nd, 2012
9:31 am

HGTV’s Elbow Room is here in Atlanta as well.

Nick Black

November 2nd, 2012
9:35 am

“Truth,” I was born in Woodstock, attended Marist and Walton, and have lived in Atlanta for 31 of my 32 years. I’m running a supercomputing startup out of my condo on Peachtree, working on my PhD in computer science at Georgia Tech, have helped design nuclear reactors for the Southern Company, and wager I’d destroy you at pretty much any academic endeavor you can come up with. I’m not sure where you work out, but I know precious few obese or racist people at my gym. I’ve been an avowed atheist since the age of 13. Still sure about that great one-word definition?

BOO BOO GOT SHOT!

November 2nd, 2012
9:40 am

The Real Housewives of Atlanta = REALITY

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. = STEREOTYPE

mechi

November 2nd, 2012
9:52 am

GAPeachy, I agree completely. I’m originally from the North and have never thought of Southerners to be stupid, ghetto, rednecks, etc. This is because I’m an intelligent person that has traveled the world and would never judge or stereotype specific regions based off of what I see on TV. Bottom line it’s TV entertainment, and if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Now having said that, it is unfortunate (like Truth stated) that Ignorance is bad here, but for me not from what I see on TV, more so from a social, economic and political aspect, but that’s a whole other debate.

Chipper

November 2nd, 2012
9:52 am

BOO BOO GOT SHOT – If you think RHOA is reality then I would hate to be living your life. I live near where a couple of them live (or used to). That crap is totally scripted & a pathetic example of what people in Atlanta are like.

John Reed

November 2nd, 2012
9:54 am

As an African American man, I take offense to these shows, not because they show us acting foolish, and portraying a negative image. I take offense because they only show that side. If they were really “reality” shows, then the ups would be highlighted and not just the downs. I wish that it was as simple as just turning the channel. It is easy for someone who is in the media to suggest such a smple solution, however, I feel that the problem is that there is too much entertainment junk food for African Americans to choose from and not enough healthy choices. Yes, we have a choice as far as what we watch, but when it comes to African Americans on televison portraying anything but a clown or a rapper, or an athlete, what options do we have. I am not as much against what is on televison for African Americans, I am against what is not on televison for African Americans. When I hear the comment, “just change the channel”, my concern is that we do not take the lack of diversity serious, and we think that the problem is going to fix itself. If African Americans do not take the problem serious, or don’t even see it as a problem. I have never seen a problem fix itself, and this problem is no different. There should be outrage that we have an African American channel that does not believe that positive programming has an audience, so they don’t even try (paraphrased from Debra Lee, Chief Executive Officer of BET, when questioned about the content of her network). There should be outrage from our community that in 2012 we as African Americans are invisible in most television lineups. Tyler Perry has become the Barack Obama of entertainment, in that some African Americans are satisfied that we have one success story. Just like politically we should strive to see more Barack Obama’s, John Lewis’, and Maxine Waters, in entertainment we should be demanding that we have more mainstream representation other than Tyler, Oprah, and Spike Lee. There are many more success stories that we should be telling. There are thousands of African American screen writers, directors, and film makers who are turned down and overlooked. Many of them with the ability to show a different and more complete side of the African American experience. I can appreciate the fact that we have made strides in some areas of entertainment, but as African Americans,we are far from reaching our potential.

snottrocket

November 2nd, 2012
10:23 am

Reality shows capitalize on the extremes of specific cultures and settings….it doesn’t matter if it’s Real Housewives of Mars or Jersey Shore White Trash Edition…it’s all every extreme. They make the housewives seem more pretentious than they are, they make the good ‘ole boys in the south seem more rednecky. People focus on the extremes.

Reality TV isn’t 100% reality, either…it emulates how the fans of these shows process information. Think of it this way: viewers are watching for specific things, so the show’s producers, naturally, will give it to them. When the Real World came out (I define this as the first Reality TV show), it was an experiment and after the first season, they figured out that people liked confrontation so they focused on the confrontation aspect…then after a few years, when the confrontation got old, they focused on the physical and sexual tension…which is why it’s now more focused on who hooks up with who…and I believe it went from a cast of 7 to a cast of 8…easier for people to pair off.

Here’s another thing: the way they produce the shows. Multiple cameras make it easier for producers to create a mood based on cast members’ reactions which are then placed out of context.

Truth

November 2nd, 2012
10:33 am

Nick Black, compared the whole of Georgia, and the South as a whole, I guess you are unique.

And I imagine someone of your intelligence would also be aware of the obesity epidemic in the south. Here, let me Google that for you…

http://lmgtfy.com/?q=cdc+obesity+map+2012

Cheers for your obvious southern pride!

pebblebeach

November 2nd, 2012
11:00 am

Stopped watching this crap 2 years ago…

William

November 2nd, 2012
12:00 pm

These shows represent the reality of Georgia and the South even though we don’t like to admit it. A few reality shows about crazed evangelicals will round it out and fascinate people from outside our state and region.

Captain Midnight

November 2nd, 2012
12:58 pm

John Reed, you lost all credibility at Maxzine Waters.

Hillbilly D

November 2nd, 2012
1:07 pm

People always find some reason to look down on other people. Many of those same people view themselves as tolerant and enlightened. They never see the dichotomy.

Hollywould

November 2nd, 2012
2:10 pm

@Captain Midnight, you took the words out of my post

TV Watcher

November 2nd, 2012
2:50 pm

All you have to do is flash a couple of dollars and people will respond. But what keeps the money flowing is viewership. If you find these reality shows offensive, stop looking at them and sooner or later, the show will be canceled.

MM

November 2nd, 2012
4:02 pm

Many of us Southerners used to be rightly ashamed of this sort of brazenly ignorant behavior but then the Republican party began to defend and manipulate that segment of our population just to get votes. The Republicans have demeaned what it means to be Southern so we remain mired in what I had hoped in the 1960s would fade over time. This is exploitation of thick-headed, slow people of the worse kind. These poorly educated Southerners contribute to a national embarassment of climate change denial, anti-evoluton rhetoric, inability to parse verb tense correctly, and misunderstanding of many important national issues too numerous to mention here.

On the positive side when I watch Honey Boo-Boo I see a kind and loving family–at least to their own–that evades many more intelligent people in their families. Go figure.

SAWB

November 2nd, 2012
4:28 pm

Well since stereotypes tend to be based in reality I’m not sure what the problem is. While not all southerners are fat, drunk and stupid some are. The problem occurs when these stereotypes are applied to “all” and not “some”.

Kwanisha

November 2nd, 2012
6:29 pm

Anyone else notice the Christmas lights in Honey Boo Boo’s pic?

I started to make a snide comment, then I remembered several neighbors here in my ’sophisticated’ Atlanta subdivision still have their lights up from Xmas 2011, a few others never bothered to take down their door wreaths.

Are you kidding me?

November 2nd, 2012
8:46 pm

Nuanced? NUANCED??? Yeah…. Question: what do reality show participants have in common with prostitutes?

steve

November 2nd, 2012
11:08 pm

TLC = Freak exploitation network
MTV = College kids and guido exploitation network
Lifetime = White guys terrorizing women
History Channel = Aliens are real
CurrentTV = Republicans are the source of all evil plus rotten tomoatoes movie reviews
NBC = Obama re-election headquarters
FOX = All democrats are idiots

C’mon zombie apocalype, we don’t deserve to survive.

Don

November 2nd, 2012
11:49 pm

@Truth – to quote that late great Southerner Louis Grizzard – “Delta is ready when you are!” Free country – move.

This is Mrs. Norman Maine

November 3rd, 2012
12:37 am

FYI, it was Barney Fife that made the insensitive comment.

All reality shows are stupid, they are the worst thing to happen to American entertainment since…..ever.

Is Honey Boo Boo the nadir? Gawd I only wish but I fear not.

Lea

November 3rd, 2012
8:29 am

To Special K and all the younger fans – if you don’t car about image and perception when you are young, it will be too late when you are older. Don’t you get it?

DAJ

November 3rd, 2012
9:50 am

JOHN REED- I totally agree. GA reality shows are stereotypical entertainment. In other words junk food for the mind created to do nothing more than offer up a cheap thrill at the expense of the dysfunctional people on these shows. In my opinion, these shows make the South, especially Atlanta look like a cesspool of ignorance. When Eqypt and others say “turn the channel”, turn it to what? It seems like the majority of African American shows are modern day minstrel shows no matter where they are based.

But the real tragedy is that people are tuning in to this garbage or else, it wouldn’t be on the airwaves. There are only 2 reality shows that I liked and one didn’t get picked up for a second season and the other is in limbo. These shows weren’t stereotypical or too over-the-top enough for viewers taste of fighting, bad grammar, dysfunction, and ignorance.

Truth

November 3rd, 2012
10:51 am

@Don – Believe me, I will leave as soon as I can. I’m stuck here at the moment :-)

paputsza

November 3rd, 2012
7:28 pm

The family on this show are good people other than what you see initially. I would have probably been against the show if I hadn’t sat through an episode of Hart of Dixie, which got all of its research on the south in 2012 from Gone With the Wind, which is ironic, considering that movie is a period piece made fifty years ago. In my mind the south has changed, lynching is frowned upon here, we even ride cars now instead of a horse and buggy, and the women usually wear pants on amusement park rides. I don’t live in Georgia, so I wouldn’t really know, just assuming.

BlondAlto

November 3rd, 2012
11:13 pm

Though I’m sure that Honey is a sweet child, and her parents are fine people – as a resident of Central GA, I too cringe every time I hear the words “Honey Boo Boo!” As a college honors grad who shops at LL Bean instead of by dumpster diving, who reads the New York Times on my nook instead of reading gossip mags, and who has no relatives with food names – I am definitely offended! It’s not as simple as changing the channel, since the show follows us around everywhere, and too mamy do buy into the stereotypes. Ultimately this could affect the economic well-being of the South, since naive people believe whatever they see on TV. We recently visited NC, to see relatives, and found that Georgia’s “Honey” was the talk of the town there, as well. This is the worst stereotyping to hit the South, since “Deliverance!!” This show no more represents Central GA, than “Gone with the Wind” accurately portrays modern Atlanta. Why – we even have indoor plumbing here. ; ) I’ll be glad when their “15 minutes of fame” have expired.

T Dog

November 8th, 2012
12:43 pm

Funny when Egypt talked about “forward thinkers”. There doesn’t seem to be any of that in the kind of industry she works in, particularly in management.