Bradlee Elizabeth Hartmann

Rednecks, Hillbillies, and White Trash in the Living Room: A Rhetorical Analysis of Reality Television’s Construction of Appalachian Regional Identity

April 8, 2021   /  

Name: Bradlee Elizabeth Hartman
Major: Communication Studies
Minor: English
Advisors: Dr. Rohini S. Singh

Reality television is one of America’s guiltiest pleasures because it lets us peer into the lives of people who are both similar to and different from us. However, the narratives we see on the small screen are far from innocent; in fact, reality television plays a large role in directing how we make sense of the world and our place within it. To that end, this study examines how MTV’s reality television series, Buckwild, constructs a particular view of Appalachian regional identity. This study utilizes ideological criticism to uncover how MTV engages in continued stereotyping of Appalachian people. Specifically, my analysis argues that Buckwild paints Appalachian people as inferior Americans living lives governed by gender double standards, ridiculous redneck contraptions, and fetishization, even an embrace of, of poverty and insularity. I conclude that this study reveals an urgent need for more critical engagement with reality television as well as an increased effort to rethink the way we understand Appalachian places and people.

Bradlee will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST: 9-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

79 thoughts on “Rednecks, Hillbillies, and White Trash in the Living Room: A Rhetorical Analysis of Reality Television’s Construction of Appalachian Regional Identity”

  1. I found your project to be so fascinating, Bradlee! As a native West Virginian, what did you find most surprising over the course of your research? Also, do you think that the general perception of Appalachia has progressed at all over the past decade?

    1. Thanks for your question, Emily! It is so nice to hear from a fellow West Virginian! This project revealed so many interesting findings about the complexities of media representation and public perception; I thought that MTV’s fetishization of poverty and backwardness was a very interesting way to encourage the general public’s continued participation in ideology of the American Dream. Before starting this project, I never imagined that romanticizing Appalachia’s peculiarities and misfortunes on the small screen would further trap the region in a plethora of stereotypes. Additionally, I think the general public’s perception of the Appalachian region has remained incredibly stagnant over the years. We must remember that Buckwild originally aired in 2013 and I did not complete the current study until 2021. Over the course of the time, I am sad to report that not much has changed in how the region and its people are represented in the media. However, that does not mean that we, as media consumers, cannot take a stand and begin to rewrite the narrative for places like West Virginia and beyond! While changing the existing representations will undoubtedly take a lot of hard work and determination, it is vey possible. Moving forward, I am tremendously hopeful for the future of Appalachia in the media!

  2. Great presentation, Blee! Do you think you are going to avoid watching reality TV moving forward?

    1. Thanks, Eva! This is a really great question! As much as I would like to discontinue my fascination with reality television, I do not think I will give it up anytime soon! Even though the genre offers us a very distorted version of real life, it is almost too addicting to pass up.

      P.S. come visit West Virginia again soon! We miss you over here in the Mountain State!

  3. Congratulations Bradlee! You represent West Virginia and Appalachia at the highest level!

      1. Thanks Maddox! I cannot wait to see how you’ll represent West Virginia on and off the football field in the years to come!

    1. Thank you, Lesley! I hope to keep making the state of West Virginia and the wider Appalachian region proud today and every day after!

  4. What an interesting project and presentation, Bradlee. I’m so proud to have been your FYS teacher! I am particularly drawn to your use of the idea of “fetishization” of poverty and insularity, because it does seem to capture the weird way in which the broader culture is both fascinated by and repulsed by Appalachian-ness.

    1. Thank you so much , Dr. Mariola! Signing up for your FYS course was one of the best decisions I ever made while at the College of Wooster; the lessons I learned in your classroom extend far and beyond the realm of academics. I really appreciate all that you have taught me over the years!

      I agree completely! MTV’s continual glorification of West Virginia’s unconventionality was a weird paradox to observe as a native Appalachian. While I was disappointed in how the series showcased the region I call home, I cannot deny that it successfully illuminated the many ways that media consumers constantly connect to and differentiate themselves from the various people and places we see on the small screen.

  5. I feel as if Buckwild further solidified stereotypes of West Virginians and Appalachian culture. Thanks for advocating for our state and it’s people! Great Job B!

    1. Thanks, Maddy! Growing up, I was certainly no stranger to hearing the many stereotypes associated with West Virginia and its abundance of rednecks, hillbillies, and white trash; however, after watching the series in its entirety as a young academic, I am more aware of how integral those “knee jerk” assumptions are to the general public’s perception of our home and its people. Even though the continued perpetuation of these stereotypes are problematic, they can be overcome via seeking out genuine narratives and taking everything we see on the small screen with a grain of salt.

  6. Great presentation Brad! You could really tell in the presentation how passionate you are about the topic and bringing awareness to it! How do you think is the best way to combat this stereotyping of West Virginia? If the media is the one who created this unfair identity do you think they can also fix this issue? Also, what were the responses from your community like when this show was airing in real time?

    1. Thank you, Gab! These are awesome questions. There are several ways that we can combat the continued stereotyping of West Virginians and other Appalachians. For one, you can start by simply being more critical of the media you consume. I have found that taking the time to examine the more nitty gritty aspects of a media artifact reveals a lot about what the artifact is, why it was created, and the messages it is trying to convey to consumers. Additionally, you can combat the stereotypes by seeking out more genuine narratives about Appalachia from natives. Although these artifacts may be a little more difficult to find, they are well worth your time! Finally, you can combat the stereotypes by visiting the Mountain State for yourself! They don’t call West Virginia “almost heaven” for nothing!

      I think that the media can easily devote time, effort, and energy toward reversing some of the problematic representations that have created over the years. However, I do not foresee the media halting production on series like Buckwild any time soon. Part of the reason why shows like these are so popular is because they generate large amounts of money and attention. Generally speaking, the media sector is driven by profit. Therefore, as long as these stereotypical depictions captivate us, they will continue to be produced regardless of how unrealistic or derogatory they are.

      Although I cannot speak for every Appalachian, I can tell you that almost every West Virginian that I have ever talked to about Buckwild absolutely hates the show. In fact, upon its release, the series and its representation of Appalachia was so widely disliked by West Virginia natives that the state’s governor actually wrote a letter to MTV pleading for the immediate cancellation of the entire show. From a personal standpoint, I cannot watch the show without being filled with disappointment and disgust. Hopefully, a more positive depiction of West Virginia will be created in the future; the region and its people definitely deserve it!

  7. Great job as usual. We are very proud of you and think it shows that you have sure done your homework on this study. Congrats.

  8. Congratulations on your IS. Great presentation. Are you disappointed that with all of the available media outlets in today’s society we’re still presented with the usual stereotypes of Appalachia? What are the chances or likelihood of alternate views of this region appearing in mass media?

    1. Thank you, Bill! These are great questions! While I am disappointed that the same old stereotypes about Appalachia continue to be offered to the general public via mass media, I cannot say that I am surprised. In general, the media sector thrives on its ability to garner attention and profit. Therefore, as long as these derogatory representations can captivate our minds and wallets, they will remain an integral part of media production and circulation regardless of how many outlets consumers have to choose from.

      Furthermore, while I would love to see some more accurate views of the region within the mass media landscape moving forward, I fear that these alternative depictions will be overshadowed by shows like Buckwild. As media consumers, we often flock to content that we consider comfortable and mindless. Thus, because shows like Buckwild have remained so popular over time, they have become a sort of easily accessible commonsense way of conceptualizing our world. In other words, it is almost impossible to not conflate Appalachia with things like poverty and backwardness because it is all we, as media consumers, have known. In my opinion, the creation and circulation of more genuine narratives about the Appalachian region is desperately needed; however, I feel that these more realistic representations may be met with a higher degree of pushback and/or take some time to get used to because it is a depiction that many of us are unfamiliar with. Overall, I am hopeful but am by no means holding my breath!

  9. Yay, congratulations Bradlee!!

    What are your thoughts on reality tv now? Would there be anything to change your perceptions of it after having completed your IS?

    1. Thank you, Matt! Congratulations on all of your hard work as well! After completing this study, my relationship with reality television has definitely shifted quite a bit. While I do not think I will be giving it up any time soon, I am now more cognizant of how its distorted representations offer consumers a heavily manipulated way of understanding the world and our place within it. In general, one of the biggest things I have learned from this project is that we must take everything we see on the small screen with a grain of salt. Put differently, we have to be critical of what we consume! Even though it is tempting to believe that reality television is a mirror of the real world, we must do our best to realize that the reflection it gives us is not always crystal clear.

    1. Thank you so much, Natalia! I really appreciate it! Congratulations on all of your hard work as well!

  10. Wow! I loved your presentation and totally agree with your points. It’s really interesting to see how perceptions of different people are perpetuated through reality television. A guilty pleasure of mine is Big Brother and, as I’ve grown up, it’s become more obvious to me that they cast different personalities to fill those stereotypes the viewers at home will have. Whether it’s the California surfer dude, the Appalachian redneck, or the Massachusetts WASP, it’s always really interesting to see, especially how editors can add usually background noises like a fiddle or wave crashing to reinforce that this is what the viewer should be taking away from seeing this person on their screen.

    1. Thanks, Hannah! These are awesome observations; way to be a critical consumer! As a young academic, it is so refreshing to see other people making connections between my research and their own reality television favorites! I agree completely; I think that no matter the series, reality television is constantly perpetuating stereotypes about certain population groups. Although, these representations are frustrating, they prove rather difficult to break away from.

      If you are interested in learning more about reality television and its use of stereotypes as a means of representation, check out Dana Cloud’s study on stereotypical portrayals in ABC’s “The Bachelor” or Robert Westerfelhaus and Celeste Lacroix’s study on the impact of stereotypical depictions on non-heteronormative populations in Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Best of luck in all your future endeavors with reality television!

  11. Congratulations Bradlee!!!!! All your hard work has finally paid off! It has been fun to listen to you read sections of your IS and see how it developed into a remarkable paper and presentation. LOVE YOU SO MUCH!!!!!

    1. Thanks, TK! I cannot thank you enough for always being willing to listen to me rant and rave about Appalachia! Without you, editing drafts of my IS would not have been as memorable nor exciting!

      P.S. you have to come visit the Mountain State ASAP! We miss you over here in “almost heaven!”

  12. Congratulations!! I really enjoyed your presentation and hearing about your process

    1. Thank you so much, Lily! I really appreciate it! Best of luck on your IS next year; I’m sure it will be amazing!

  13. Bradlee, this is such an interesting IS topic, and your enthusiasm surrounding the research was very evident. What is the most important lesson you took away from IS?

    1. Thanks, Caitlyn! The entire IS process was such an amazing experience! I hope to continue advocating for West Virginia and the wider Appalachian region moving forward.

      Overall, the most most important lesson that I learned from my study is that media and its representation of the world around us is akin to a fun house mirror; although the reflection we see looks accurate upon first glance, the closer we get to the source, the more distorted the image becomes. In other words, it is crucial that we all become more critical of the media content we are engaging with on a daily basis. Even though it is difficult, we must continually remind ourselves that reality television is so much more than an innocent outlet for pastime entertainment. At the end of the day, the genre – along with many other forms of media – is a huge component to the current and future trajectory of mass society and culture.

  14. Great presentation! You’re a star!!

    Your major conclusions were quite interesting!

    Congrats!

    1. Thanks Meg & Mila! You are both such bright and shining stars! I really appreciate all of your support and encouragement!

  15. I really enjoyed your presentation about such an important topic. I have a strong affinity to the Appalachian region as I lived in Pendleton County for a year volunteering for the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Circleville, WV. From my limited experience, the Appalachian identity is a strong work ethic and love of the land. It’s a shame how inaccurate stereotypes of an entire region can exist. Thanks for shedding light on this topic. Congrats on your hard work and your upcoming graduation.

    1. Thank you so much, Mrs. Medema! I wish everyone had the chance to experience the unconventional beauty surrounding the people and places of West Virginia. It is so great to hear about your positive and genuine personal experiences in the region. I agree completely; the work ethic, determination, and love of community/environment are some of my favorite elements of the Appalachian regional identity. It is my hope that I can continue using my agency as a young academic to advocate for the Appalachian region moving forward.

  16. Congrats Bradlee! This is such an interesting project and I loved hearing about what you’ve been working on all year.

    1. Thank you so much, Rachel! I am confident that you will accomplish such amazing things with your IS next year! Best of luck, girl!

  17. We are so proud of all you have accomplished over your 4 years at Wooster! All your hard work is certainly on display with this project! You have represented West Virginia and the region well! Congratulations on a job very well done! Take me home country roads!!!!

    1. Thanks, Mom and Dad! I owe it all you! I cannot even begin to express how thankful I am for all of the love, encouragement, support, and guidance you so selflessly give to me each and every day. I love you both with all of my heart!

      Take me home, country roads! West Virginia forever!

  18. Amazing job, Bradlee! You are so well spoken and did an amazing job presenting a year’s worth of research in one quick presentation. If you were to create your own tv series/movie to better depict Appalachia, would you choose reality tv, a fictional story, or a documentary?

    Great job again, you make me proud sir :’) can’t wait to come visit West Virginia soon for some pepperoni rolls!

    1. Thank you, Anna! I cannot thank you enough for all of the support and encouragement you have given me throughout the IS process.

      In the future, one of my biggest career aspirations is to publish a collection of narrative stories from people all across the state of West Virginia. I am so thankful to have grown up in such an amazingly unique place. I hope that by drawing attention to more accurate representations of West Virginia via this IS – as well as other possible projects in the future – more people will begin to see the Appalachian region for what is really is instead of a mere collection of overused derogatory stereotypes.

      P.S. You’re always welcome in the Mountain State! I’ll be sure to have a fresh batch of pepperoni rolls waiting for you when you get here!

  19. Your I.S. turned out so well Bradlee!!! I miss you so so much and wish I could’ve seen your presentation in person!! Congrats on all your hard work and I can’t wait to see where life takes you!!! Love you so much!

    1. Thank you so much, Maley! I cannot wait to see all of the amazing things you accomplish at Wooster in the future! You are such a bright and shining star, girl! The sky is the limit!

  20. This is wonderful, Bradlee! After hearing about your project throughout the year, I have been greatly looking forward to seeing this presentation. Your insight and analysis was so thorough. Excellent job of putting the content in context and advocating for a more broad view of Appalachia!

    1. Thanks, Craig! I really appreciate it! I am glad you enjoyed the presentation! The entire IS process was such a rewarding experience. I am so grateful to have been able to complete a project of this scope and scale while at the College of Wooster; it truly made my undergraduate education second to none.

  21. Bradlee, it was so nice to how your project evolved from its early beginnings. Congrats!

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Bostdorff! I cannot thank you enough for all of the guidance and support you have given me throughout the entire IS process, especially in the project’s earliest stages. The lessons I learned in your courses extend far and beyond the academic classroom.

      P.S. if you ever encounter any other interesting articles about the Appalachian region and/or its people, feel free to send them my way! I am always on the lookout for more information to add to my repertoire of knowledge!

  22. Bradlee- Your research is fascinating! I loved your video. Safe to say I’ll be paying closer attention to what I see on TV and thinking more critically about it. So proud of you!!

    1. Thanks, Trinity! I’m so glad you liked my presentation and that the research has inspired you to be more mindful of the media content you consume! I cannot wait to see all of the amazing things you accomplish while at Wooster! You’re going to do such great things!

  23. Well done, Bradlee! Congratulations on your upcoming graduation, and we wish you all the best as you start your next chapter!

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Pasteur! I really appreciate it! The time I spent in your class truly made my experience at the College of Wooster one of a kind; without your teaching, I would have never discovered my newfound appreciation for mathematics!

  24. Bradlee! This is so interesting. I love the critique you chose and how you explained the TV show for a new viewer (myself) before you further explained your findings. I am so happy for you! Congratulations!!

    1. Thank you, Rebecca! I’m happy you enjoyed the presentation and really appreciate your kind words of encouragement! I may be a bit biased in my opinion, but I agree completely! MTV’s depiction of Appalachia and its people throughout Buckwild exemplifies one of the most alarming components of reality television: the stagnancy of representation that occurs on the small screen. In providing you with so much background information at the start of my presentation, I hoped to give you a better sense of not only what the show was about but also, how it attempted to perpetuate stereotypical characterizations Appalachian people. If by chance you are interested in watching the MTV series in the future, keep in mind that not everything presented on screen is an exact replication of truth and fact.

  25. This is such a fascinating topic Bradlee – congrats on all your research and hard work. I like what you said: Media is not a mirror to the real world!

    1. Thanks, Tessa! I really appreciate it! Yes; regardless of the media we choose to consume in the future, remembering that it is not a mirror to the real world is so vitally important. However, if you ever find yourself looking for a more accurate metaphor to describe media’s place within modern society and culture, try conceptualizing media as a fun house mirror instead. I like using this metaphor to describe the relationship between media and reality because it reminds us that even though popular media outlets like reality television appear to offer consumers genuine conceptualizations of the real world at first glance, upon closer examination we realize the reflection it actually provides us is quite distorted and problematic.

  26. Really enjoyed learning about your topic Brad! Loved seeing you so passionate about not only your IS topic but also the place you call home! You are AMAZING and I wish you the very best! Love you Brad!!

    1. Thanks, Syd! I’m glad you liked my presentation! I cannot wait to see all of the amazing things you are going to accomplish while at the College of Wooster! Your potential is limitless; keep being the bright and shining star that you are!

  27. Bradlee,
    What a wonderful presentation on a topic so close to your (and my) heart. The team and I are so proud of all your efforts to be Excellent in the Classroom and Excellent on the Court.

    Do you think the “Happy Hillbilly” narrative helps those of us from outside the region be at peace with our choices and decisions that have systemically hurt the people of the Appalachian region? It seems like the US has continued to make choices in so many areas of life that have hurt the region including environment, failing infrastructure, opioid crisis, moving jobs out of the region & lack of funding for education. These are unique only to the region but your statement that the show’s star said “If you are from WV that’s all you need” struck a chord with me.

    Also, speaking of Hillbilly, does it have a regional pride connotation or a negative connotation? I’ve heard both? Thoughts?

    You’ll always be #1 in our WooVb hearts!! Congratulations and I hope this is just the first step in advocating for a region you love.

    1. Thanks so much, Coach! I cannot even begin to thank you enough for all of the amazing opportunities you’ve helped me realize while at the College of Wooster. The dedication, support, and encouragement that you provide to your athletes in truly second to none; without you, my overall experience in college would have been completely different! I will forever cherish my time as a Wooster volleyball player and am definitely planning on coming back to cheer the team on for amen years to come.

      To answer your questions, I do think that the “Happy Hillbilly” narrative or the continued fetishization of Appalachian poverty and backwardness helps blind people who may not be familiar with the region to the problems that persist there. By constantly reinforcing the narrative that “Appalachians are poor, but hey…at least their happy,” any and all efforts to aid the area are squandered. In order to make positive and lasting change within the region, it is imperative that the media make efforts to alter the narrative. Additionally, we as consumers of media must be critical of the content we are ending with on a daily basis. The reality of the situation is, Appalachia is in desperate need of collective governmental and/or systemic assistance. However, that cry for help will never be heard if we, as a society, continue to passively accept the “Happy Hillbilly” narrative. In other words, change is entirely possible but we must be motivated to act on that change each and every day.

      Secondly, I think that there can be both positive and negative connotations to the term “Hillbilly.” As a West Virginia native, I have met people who warmly embrace the term and take great pride in living a more minimalistic and slow-paced lifestyle. However, when a non-native person refers to a native as a “Hillbilly” the term takes on a whole new (derogatory) meaning. Overall, I think that the term “Hillbilly” comes with a plethora of meanings and interpretations. In my experience, Appalachians are very unique people; they take pride in being different but dislike the stigma that often accompanies that difference. At the end of the day, I think a person’s response to the term”Hillbilly” is completely dependent on the context in which it is used. Therefore, even though I am a proud West Virginia native, I cannot accurately speak for everyone who may fall under the categorization of being a “Hillbilly.”

  28. Congratulations, Bradlee! This is such an interesting topic. Reality TV is one of my guilty pleasures so this has given me some tools to think critically about how Appalachia is portrayed in the genre.

    1. Thanks, Olivia! Congratulations to you as well! Getting to spend an entire year studying reality television was such an awesome experience. More than anything else, this study has helped me realize how problematic the genre really is, especially when depicting less dominant and/or marginalized population groups.

  29. Congratulations Brad! I really enjoyed watching your presentation, and I learned so much. Wishing you the best in all that you do!

    1. Thanks so much, Ty! Your positive words of encouragement are so appreciated! You have such a bright future ahead of you here at the College of Wooster! I cannot wait see all of the amazing things that you will accomplish here! Keep being the bright and shining star that you are, girl!

  30. Bradlee!

    As always, great work! Your research is so important! I liked your point about being active and critical consumers as that is so very vital.

    How would you recommend those from outside of Appalachia encourage and promote positive dialogue about the region? In addition, do you think you’d like to continue future work in this area?

  31. Bradlee, such a vital project and so glad to see that you worked on this–feels connected to the lovely essays you wrote about West Virginia! Good work & best wishes!

    1. Thank so so much, Dr. Beutner! To be honest, the essays I wrote in your creative writing class were some of the earliest inspirations for my senior IS!

  32. Bradlee, thank you for sharing your passion for Appalachia (a-puh-la-chee-ah, not a-puh-lay-shah, I know now!) with me through our time together. What connections did you find, if any, between your I.S. project and the skills and content you were exposed to in your COMM coursework these past few years?

    1. Dr. Singh,

      I cannot thank you enough for everything you’ve taught me through the entire IS process; without your advice and guidance, this project would not be the amazing finished project that it is today. The things I learned each week in our advising meetings extend far and beyond the academic classroom. Thank you for everything!!!!

      This IS was the trust form of cumulative knowledge. To create this project, I had to draw on the information that I acquired throughout my entire experience at the College of Wooster. I know it maybe cliché to say, but with each year that I spent here, I learned new skills that we absolutely integral to the thesis that you read today. I am forever thankful for my four years at the College of Wooster; it not only helped me become the best young academic I could be but also, helped mold me into the person I am today.

  33. Wow, Brad! What an amazing presentation and I loved learning more about this. You did an amazing job and were so well articulate on the topic. You’ve done West Virginia proud. Love you!

    1. Thank you so much, Cami! I am so glad that you enjoyed the presentation! My biggest hope moving forward is to make the place and people I call home proud!

      P.S. come visit the Mountain State soon! We miss you over here in “almost heaven!”

  34. Congratulations, my fiancé! You exemplify what it means to be a true West Virginian and an Appalachian! Hard working, dedicated, strong, humble, and loving to everyone you encounter! I’m proud of the endless time and effort you have put into your IS and bringing this subject to light! I’m so excited to see what you accomplish in this life! Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Garrett. Your support and encouragement throughout this entire process was second to none! I really appreciate it!

      West Virginia, forever!

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