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.
Aside from the idea of glimpsing rare species in their natural habitat, a second theory suggests that viewers are smugly satisfied that they are not like these uncouth white boys, who are certainly worse spoken, more emotional, less mature, and more intolerant than the viewership. For all the MSNBC talk of “white privilege,” these reality shows remind Americans of a non-minority underclass (fabricated though it is for TV) that is a bit worse off than the Latina newscaster who trills her Rs each evening on the news.
The producers perhaps sense that paradox of the so-called privileged being not too privileged. They usually script a clueless laborer forgetting to gas up the drilling rig and then wondering why it won’t start – the producers’ use of a sort of postmodern white version of Stepin Fetchit. Sometimes a foolish driver takes his tracked vehicle over a ridge — only to be surprised when it tips over. Things seem to smoke, blow up, and go kaboom a lot, as the good ol’ boys apply baling wire to broken, but once sophisticated, store-bought machines. These white boys also seem perennially broke — just one good gold vein, a bunch of crab legs, or a good batch of moonshine away from at last dealing with their joyless, bottom-line-watching creditors.
Despite the wide variety of the shows, the characters in all their manifestations are stock. One is the aged patriarch who has no business still hobbling around, poking this and banging that, as if he cannot survive without a few dollars in wages that day. The viewer assumes that such unsophisticated folk are not padding their 401(k)s in anticipation of the time when their arthritic joints, bad backs, or incipient diabetes makes sawing or driving too excruciating. No accountant seems to be around to remind them to depreciate the tractor or write off the doctor’s bill for the bad leg. They eat poorly, often smoke, and will not end up at 65 like the viewer who long ago got his cholesterol below 200 and avoids trans fats. Apparently, these strange shows offer viewers the reassurance not just that they are looking better, feeling healthier, and enjoying more security than those on screen, but also that the latter brought their problems on themselves. The ice truckers probably do not go in for their periodic colonoscopies.
But there is yet a third and perhaps more likely hypothesis (none of these are mutually exclusive), well beside the notions that viewers are either amused by the slapstick or satisfied they at least have not yet sunk so low. The national hysteria over Duck Dynasty’s successful war against GLAAD and the profit-minded A&E execs might suggest that the white working classes also are therapeutic for millions of Americans. Suburbanites and urban dwellers usually don’t know much about nature; their jobs are not predicated on muscular strength. A fir, a pine, a spruce — they are all just trees. Who cares where north is, or whether the wind blows westward? Today’s youth don’t know the difference between a rip and a cross-cut saw.
Yet Americanus suburbanus also has a vague sense that for all the talk about the Dow Jones, Apple, Twitter, and Facebook economy, someone somewhere else still must be doing something that accounts for lumber at Lowe’s, gas at the corner Stop-N-Go, granite counters in the kitchen, and arugula at Whole Foods.
Perhaps for the techie designer, the insurance adjuster, or the special assistant to the university president, all that something in some strange way is felt to be more real, or at least fascinating. In the heart of every suburban soccer mom there is a reason she navigates a huge four-wheel-drive, snow-tire monstrosity, or has treads on her hiking boots that could take her over Mount Whitney. The ability to go anywhere is not necessarily antithetical to the usual reality of going nowhere. Watching these shows is a sort of grubbier version of wandering around an REI store, soaking up all the ways in which to confront the wild.
So good-ol’-boy reality offers glimpses, premodern though they may be, of unrestrained freedom. In our upside-down world, the eighth-grade teacher understands that one wrong word, an ill-timed joke, a casual pat on the shoulder can end a career, pronto — while his punk student with the gang-banging parent who shouts profanity at him are mostly exempt from worry. The boss at the DMV accepts the fact that the whiff of a sexual-harassment suit, the rumor of an impending racial-discrimination allegation, the suggestion of inhospitality to the handicapped are more terrifying than the rowdy 16-year-old who pulls in to take his driving test in a monster truck. In our dreams it is better to be an ax man, where it’s Mother Nature, not the local diversity czar, who is after you.
The crabmen and lumberjacks don’t seem to worry about what they say or whom they offend — to the degree that such screw-it attitudes can be hinted about on politically correct camera. They are not fellow subjects who live among us in our kingdom of lies, in which you both dare not confess to profiling and dare not walk in a particular Philadelphia neighborhood. In contrast, these mythic men of the wild act as if they do not care about second-hand smoke or the right zip code. They apparently buy fast food, and their kids can watch bad TV — in a world where Mayor Bloomberg and Michelle Obama do not exist. There are no neurotic college-prep kindergartens with long waiting lists outside the trailer park in northern Alaska.
That freedom from our thought police and the Pajama Boy scolds and the social aspirations of the yuppie mesmerize the viewer — all the more so in that it usually entails giving up the good life as defined by the normal upper-middle-class cursus honorum. In our make-believe swamps, rugged forested Lala Lands, or fishing boats tossing at sea, the contemporary Walter Mittys of the world unite to do what they want, say what they please, fight nature rather than the government statistician, and let the clerks sort it out — every night from 5 p.m. onward.