The hysteria over Duck Dynasty reminds us that cable TV is currently inundated with working-class, white-guy reality shows. Top-drawing, relatively low-cost realities showcase gold miners, oil drillers, hunters, locomotive drivers, off-the-grid backwoods eccentrics, fishermen, crabmen, truck drivers, ax men, moonshiners, or the new generation of Beverly Hillbillies. The list of the particular subspecies of the muscular classes is endless.
These shows share a few common themes. They do not take place in an office, where most Americans work. They are not Kardashian psychodramas about plastic surgery gone bad, or a Gucci purse that underwhelmed the latte bunch in Brentwood. The men appear a bit beefier, perhaps stronger, but not necessarily more fit than your average American suburbanite. A big gut can add gravitas to the moonshiner’s biceps in a way impossible to achieve at the gym.
These men don’t quite shave each day, and close-up shots suggest that none use tooth whiteners. There are no Tony Robbinses on the chain-saw crew. Their speech usually is Southern-inflected, or at least rural-sounding. They are almost exclusively white, but do not seem to especially worry that they are. Whatever their actual income, the players clearly think of themselves as solidly middle to lower middle class. They work with the sorts of machines, many of them dangerous — huge trucks on ice, four-foot-long chain saws, earth-moving equipment, industrial arc welders — that most Americans do not even know how to start up.
Given that these reality shows are, like professional wrestling, largely scripted, one mini-catastrophe — a snapped cable, a tipped-over Cat, a fishing boat dead in the water — is obligatory per episode to remind the viewing audience that we are not watching office workers complaining about someone’s too-strong perfume or discussing a sex-discrimination suit filed against the boss.
The performers are also ostensibly politically incorrect, another characteristic preferably hinted at rather than in your face. While producers are usually careful not to allow their casts to spout off about their supposedly obnoxious political views, most viewers assume that a no-nonsense, screw-you attitude accompanies their brutal work. Usually, though, we have to make do with bleeped-out swear words and temper tantrums instead of an incorrect joke or musing. Anger at the gubmint bureaucrats who try to shut down the digging or who want to save a forest rat at the expense of a good tree suggests that the legions of Pajama Boys and Sandra Flukes are not welcome.
There are lots of theories why watching these good ol’ boys at work has caught on. The zoo hypothesis suggests that American suburbanites are amused by exotic creatures that they rarely see at the mall or biking about the trails in Spandex — in perhaps the same way as Petronius wrote for his literate audience about smelly soldiers and crafty innkeepers. The miners and cutters certainly don’t act like the Prius crowd in Menlo Park or the wine-tasters in Napa Valley.
Instead, just as grizzly bears and Bengal tigers are a big draw at the zoo, so too white-boy reality shows allow us to get close to these perhaps-endangered species. And as long as they do not stick their paws and snouts too far out between the bars to mouth off about gays, minorities, or feminists, there is a quaint appeal in — safely — watching these men cuss, and occasionally fight, while sawing and drilling in the wild. Why go on safari to their usual haunts in Alaska, Louisiana, or Wyoming, where bad things are said to happen to outsiders, when A&E can bring the perpetrator class, slightly sanitized, into your living room? A metrosexual can enjoy Duck Dynasty or Ax Men without necessarily being fond of the political wing inhabited by Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee.