The reality TV show says more about teenagers than the Mountain State. West Virginians need to fill in the gaps with stories about their own struggles and heroes.
As a matter of principle, I haven’t seen MTV’s “Buckwild” yet. I imagine it will be only a matter of time before someone says “You’re from West Virginia and you’ve never seen Buckwild? You have to watch an episode.” But I’m going to hold out for a little bit longer.
“Buckwild” is and isn’t West Virginia. While aspects of my relatively typical middle class American upbringing might seem weird to other 20-something Americans, for the most part, West Virginia is like any other state. Teenagers go to malls, spend way too much time on Facebook, listen to Ke$ha and Kanye West, and don’t always get along with their parents. Then again, there were times in my adolescence when the evening’s entertainment involved a burn pile and camping by the creek. Once when I was in middle school, there was a wild pig hunt in our cornfield. On weekends in high school, I went to football games with my classmates, then went to square dances at the local community center with people who were mostly in their 50s and 60s.
But reality TV isn’t looking for the lovely community moments in West Virginia. You’d better believe that if someone had put a camera in front of me there would have been a lot more four-wheelers, Bud Lites, and BB guns. MTV put the spotlight on teens who probably don’t get a lot of attention or respect from adults, and those teens are going to deliver.
I’ve heard and read many criticisms of “Buckwild” since it came out earlier this month. Some have focused on the fact that the show makes light of systemic poverty in the Appalachian region. Others have emphasized that “Buckwild” isn’t an accurate representation of the vast majority of people in West Virginia. While I agree with both of these arguments, I can understand what MTV’s doing. The Mothman and Jesco White make for much more entertaining television than the story of a West Virginian spearheading a local foods movement or defending their community against threats of mountain-top removal coal mining. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the nation should be hearing the story of Shain and Shae and not Judy Bonds or the boy from my county high school who currently attends Columbia University.
“Buckwild” is a reality show about teenagers, not about West Virginians. If pop culture has taught us anything in the past decade, it’s that the often-scripted “reality” presented in reality tv doesn’t necessarily reflect what it’s like to be a teen mom, an ice road trucker or a person from a certain state.
We West Virginians are great entertainers. Whether it’s through music, writing, shooting the breeze on the front porch or creating powerful art, West Virginians have a long history of being able to tell a compelling story, sad or hilarious, true or imagined, without sacrificing their dignity. This is an art that most teenagers haven’t really mastered.
From John Brown in Harper’s Ferry, to the Battle of Blair Mountain, to the current battles for clean water, healthy land and sustainable economic development in our state, folks in West Virginia don’t like to back down without a fight. So before we let “Buckwild” fill the collective imaginations of the MTV watching world with a reality TV-coated view of West Virginia, the musicians, writers, artists and everyone else in the state need to be telling the stories of the state that MTV won’t.
I bet you anything we can make them just as entertaining as Buckwild, and a heckuva lot less exploitative.