My grandfather was born and raised in St Martinville, a small town in St Martin Parish, Louisiana. His family lines trace way back through early Acadian settlement times. He spoke both French and English in the Cajun fashion. He was a sweet man, and wise. He never went to college, spoke with a thick Cajun accent, and worked as a body mechanic. He passed away a couple years back. Every now and again I search for any traces of him in the television shows I watch. I love television, and I am fascinated with the shows portraying Louisiana. Though the Southerner I often see on the small screen isn’t particularly flattering. In the article “Prime Time Dixie: Television’s View of a “simple” South”, Marsha McGee writes that television is bias in its portrayal of people in the South (as well as women and minorities). She attributes this to television being dominated and controlled by “white liberal, West Coast and Northeastern urban males” (McGee, 1983:100). From where I’m sitting, American television programming has created a narrow and derogatory portrayal of Southerners as simple-minded, uncivilized, conservative folk, attributing any ethnic traits to under-education and lack of exposure rather than cultural heritage preservation.
When my grandfather was in his early 20s he moved out to New Orleans, where he met my grandmother, whose family recently emigrated from the Netherlands. After several years in New Orleans, they returned with their daughter to St Martin Parish, settling on a little town called Breau Bridge just outside of Lafayette, Louisiana. This is where I was born. Though I was raised going to school in Savannah, Georgia, I spent my summers and holidays in Breau Bridge with my grandfather. After my parents passed I went and lived with my grandfather year round. Now that I live on the West Coast, with my grandfather passing, I’m left with books, movies, and television programming as a reference to my beginnings. Since we don’t have a lot of time here, and I already finished the first paragraph, I’ll just focus on TV.
Vampires love Louisiana. They love it. I’m not sure why, they just do. Ann Rice’s vampires hail from New Orleans. This is also serves as the setting for the WB’s series The Originals, a spin off from the Vampire Diaries. And Northwestern Louisiana plays home to HBO’s hit series True Blood. Really Louisiana abounds with superstition and dark magic. The horror show Coven, about a group of witches, also takes place in New Orleans. True Blood is a supernatural drama about vampires attempting to gain acceptance in the human world. We follow the romantic relationship between an odd human, Sookie Stackhouse, and her vampire lover, Bill Compton. The show depicts a sexy, seedy Louisiana, in a small town. The townsfolk revel in drug use, fanatic religious practices, and sex. The only employment represented in the first episode is bartending, waiting tables, road construction, drug dealing, and retail sales in what looks like a Walmart. The Louisiana displayed is one of an uneducated, low income, drug and alcohol affected population that ends up on either end of the spectrum between religious fanaticism and hedonism.
Jason Stackhouse is Sookie’s brother. His Southern accent is thicker than most other characters on the first episode. He is also something of an idiot. We struggle uncomfortably watching him try and (unsuccessfully) lie his way through a conversation with the Sheriff. This scene ends with his arrest for suspicion of murder. Jason is both over sexualized and undereducated and serves as a bit of comic relief for the otherwise dark show. Several other supportive characters display not much more in the ways of intelligence or complex existence. The only Cajun featured in the first episode, Rene Lenier, does seem to have his wits about him. Though he turns out to be a serial killer later on. Par en sous.
Reality television has become the definitive source for all things Southern for the rest of the nation. Authors Allison Slade and Amber Narro explain that reality television producers go through a rigorous casting process in order to select extreme representations of ethnic personalities. This makes for more entertaining television (Slade and Narro, 2012:15). An example Slade and Narro provide us with is an episode of the series My Big Redneck Wedding in which the wedding party wears camouflage and the groom presents the bride with a pink shotgun. Then there is of course The Real Beverly Hillbillies. Considering that the original scripted series may have served as one of the earliest comedies focused around Southern idiocy as its source for humor, it is not without a hint of irony that this reinvention of the show may have been the catalyst that solidified the Southern stereotype in the world of reality television (Slade and Narro, 2012:15).
Writer Andre Cavalcante describes reality television stars as “fundamentally value loaded” (Cavalcante, 2014:41). Cavalcante explains that these cast members embody either good or bad positions in a field upon which we use to establish constitutions for behaviors which govern social life. He goes on to state that “As a result, the reality genre encourages a form of hyper-discriminating viewership, in which the audience engage in practices of comparison, criticism, and evaluation” (Cavalcante, 2014:41). These evaluations can be seen carried out in discourse on television show websites and Facebook pages.
The Clampets are an example of an extreme representation used to cast a television show. My Big Redneck Vacation follows the Louisiana family around the nation, filming their misadventures in cities such as Washington D.C., Las Vegas, and Miami. I recently watched an episode that took place in Beverly Hills, California (and here again at the start of it all!) The family members are forced into a variety of unfamiliar situations- the surf shop, gym, plastic surgery office, etc. In one scene the Clampets attend a Hollywood party. The family is then documented yelling and cursing and starting an upside down beer keg stand. The primary purpose of the show seems to be to catch the cast members in awkward social situations. The result is a depiction of Southerners as imbecilic.
Another example of extreme casting is Blimp. Timothy “Blimp” Cheramie is a shrimper on the show Ragin Cajuns. Blimp is extremely overweight, has poor dentition, long straggly hair, and performs the “Blimp dance” when he pulls in a load of shrimp. But to credit Discovery Channel’s Ragin Cajuns, they do present five other shrimpers who do not present in a comical fashion. Despite the title, which gives attaché to the old concept of Cajuns being extraordinarily exuberant (laissez les bon temps rouler!), the show does a fairly decent job of representing Cajuns in a more respectable light. The men are seen working hard on their boats in order to support their families. A few suspenseful scenes were shot featuring the men using their experienced nautical skills to navigate treacherous storms and saving their boats from capsizing.
A particularly endearing storyline in Ragin Cajuns is developed as the 50 year old, fourth-generation shrimper Acy Cooper. Acy is filmed with his family and his attempt to pass on the family tradition to his son, Trae Cooper. Trae inherits the Lacey Kay from his father, a boat which survived Hurricane Katrina. Much of the show centers on Hurricane Katrina and the devastation left behind, and the shrimpers’ struggles to regain their livelihoods. Acy is depicted as intelligent and experienced, and provides assistance and leadership to the other men.
All the men in Ragin Cajuns speak Cajun English, which is a dialect primarily found in Southern Louisiana, while folk in the Northern part of the state speak with a drawl more similar to much of the Southern states. Southern accents are often associated with the stereotypes presented in television. Slade and Narro use Chaotic, the reality series documenting the lives of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline as an example. In keeping with the appeal and purpose of the show, which is to portray Spears with what the authors call a “white trash inferiority,” Spears exchanges her slight “cutesy” accent for a heavy Southern drawl. The authors state that the Southern accent is not often “considered professional or proper” (Slade and Narro, 2012:8). This association between lack of professionalism or under education with Southern dialect is not necessarily accurate. Slade and Narro state that progressive Southerners may hold onto their accent as a way to hold onto their identity as Southerners. Connie Eble, Professor of English and linguist at University of North Carolina, writes at length about Louisiana dialect. She states that the people of Southern Louisiana hold tight to their culture, including their language. Their rich history of French, Spanish, Native American, and African decent meshed together to create a culture distinguished from the rest of the South, and the rest of the nation. The pride that comes from this uniqueness is evident in the preservation of the dialect (Eble, 2003:174). As immigrants moved into Southern Louisiana from Germany, Italy, and Ireland, American English took root. Cajun French was reduced to the swamplands. However, many people retained the Cajun French influence in their English pronunciation. As in French, the final consonant is often dropped from words, e.g. “stan” for stand and “tole” for told (Eble, 2003:178). This is known as Cajun English.
While it becomes clear that the use of Southern dialect, or any dialect for that matter, may be at times an act of cultural preservation and identity; television does not do the best job at conveying this thought. Slade and Narro provide us with an example from the Simpsons. In the episode Lisa Simpson worries that she will become a failure like the men in her family. She then has a nightmare in which she is overweight and living in a trailer with a husband sporting a wife-beater and lots of children. The significant part of this dream sequence, in which Lisa is a ‘failure’: she now speaks with a Southern accent (Slade and Narro, 2012:14).
My own Louisiana accent was diluted with my time spent in Savannah. When I moved out to California at age 14, I became very self-conscience of my accent, and did my best to suppress it and learn the West coast dialect. While I am now very comfortable with my identity and heritage, I’ll admit I get a rush of nerves whenever I have to speak in front of a class. It’s funny, but television has instilled in me a fear that others base their opinions of Southerners on what they see represented on television, and will therefore scrutinize me for any traces of bigotry, conservatism, religious fanaticism, and ignorance. People of color, women, gender and sexual minorities, elders, and people in all the non-homogenized majority classes typical of Caucasian North, seem subject to the portrayals provided us by television. Author Marsha G. McGee sums this up with the statement “television shapes the souls” (McGee 1983:100).
The true Louisiana, and the South in general, is a landscape of diversity and cultural heritage. Progressive schools of thought and education do exist, however a strong sense of cultural preservation holds us to traits, particularly language, that have become associated with negative depictions. Carl A. Brasseux, author, historian, and native Acadian writes “The ethnic diversity behind the façade of homogeneity created by promotional literature has led some modern ethnographers to identify the Acadiana region as the home of North America’s most complex rural society” (Brasseux 2011:1). I’ve never returned to the South since coming out to the west coast. My grandfather passed away a couple years ago, and he was the last of my kin. Despite all the ridiculousness that is television, I do have a tendency toward watching anything doing with Louisiana. I think a part of me is trying to find some small hint at my grandfather, a token of my own fractured reflection, mixed up in all the mess. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse. Joie de vivre!
McGee, Marsha G. ” Prime Time Dixie: Television’s View of a “simple” South ” Journal of American Culture: 6: 100-109.1983.
Slade, Allison, and Narro, Amber J. “An Acceptable Stereotype: The Southern Image in Television Programming.” Mediated Images of The South. A Portrayal of Dixie in Popular Culture. Lexington Books 2012
Eble, Connie C. “The English of Southern Louisiana”. English in the Southern United States. Cambridge University Press, New York. 2003.
Brasseux, Carl A. “Acadiana: Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country”. Louisiana State University Press. 2011.
“Strange Love.” True Blood. Home Box Office. New York. 7 September, 2008. Television.
“Taran & James.” My Big Redneck Wedding. Country Music Television. Nashville. 18 April, 2009. Television.
“Beverly Hills, CA.” My Big Redneck Vacation. Country Music Television. Nashville. 20 April, 2013. Television.
“Shrimping, Storming, and Stabbing.” Ragin’ Cajuns. Discovery Channel. Maryland. 24 January, 2012. Television.
“Lisa the Simpson.” The Simpsons. Fox Broadcasting Company. Los Angeles. 8 March, 1998. Television.