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Romanticizing the land, denigrating its people

by A.V. Krebs
Agribusiness Examiner (http://www.ea1.com/CARP)

(Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --Recently Lisa de Moraes, a Washington Post staff writer reported that CBS is bringing back "The Beverly Hillbillies," but this time the family members that supposedly will supply the laughs won't be played by Hollywood actors; they'll be real live families from the South.

She notes: "After spending decades trying to shed the Bubba image it contracted in the 1960s when its prime-time lineup included a slew of backcountry characters, CBS has decided to embrace once again its biggest hick hit of all. The network already has a crew of casting agents combing `mountainous, rural areasí in Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of a `multi-generational family of five or more --- parents, children and grandparents --- who will be relocated for at least a year' to a mansion in Beverly Hills, said CBS spokesman Chris Ender.

"`That is not to say if we discover the perfect family from another area of the country we wouldn't consider them,' he added. `We're looking for a family from a very rural area that hasn't been exposed to big-city life or luxuries of life in any way.'"

The family will be given money with which to buy expensive cars and designer suits, hire maids and personal assistants, and dine at trendy West L.A. eateries.

The head of reality programming for CBS, Ghen Maynard, told the trade paper Variety, which broke word of the remake that the network is looking for a family that's very different but "relatable" and whose members love one another.

In the late 1960's other popular shows played off the same "Beverly Hillbillies" theme --- "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" --- and all three were still Top 20 programs when CBS dropped them in the early `70s. "That was about the time," de Moreas notes that, "the Nielsen company started providing the networks with information about viewer demographics. Turned out, people who watched these shows were mostly rural, mostly older and lacking much spending power. Advertisers became less interested in the shows."

Ender said CBS isn't worried that the new "Beverly Hillbillies" will suffer the same fate. "We believe this will hit a sweet spot of young adults with its reality base," he said, young viewers being the audience advertisers most want to reach.

Quoting Dub Cornett, who's among those developing CBS's "Beverly Hillbillies" reality remake, she continues "`We will accomplish the most if we cast it well with people who respect themselves but see the humor in themselves. We will end up with a piece that truly has, God forbid, social commentary, and maybe will enlighten, that it's not all barefoot hillbillies," he said. "Most of America can only imagine what it's like to live in Beverly Hills and live in a multimillion-dollar mansion. We can share this advantage with them, rather than laugh at them."

So once again we will see the people who populate rural America portrayed as not just being backward when it comes to being "exposed to big-city life or luxuries of life in any way," but are also deemed suitable objects of humor by the haves of the have nots. The fact that rural America and the people who live in our rural communities from family farmers in the heartland to those working in the hills and valleys of Appalachia are suffering at the hands of these very same haves plays little or no part in the minds of our media moguls.

As long as those other "sweet spot[s] of young adults with its reality base" are satisfied, namely with abundant amounts of food and energy, the plight of the men, women and children who toil to provide those necessities of life will be but a passing blur on the nightly news.

Even when the news media decide to venture into America's hinterlands we usually get the standard postcard shots of pastoral-beauty and the faux romanticism of living out in the countryside, while at the same time --- behind their backs --- we make sport of the people who live in such surroundings while paying little or no heed to their basic human everyday needs.

There is something uniquely obscene about people growing and harvesting abundant crops for our dining room tables and fast food restaurants who themselves have to purchase food stamps so they and their families can survive while at the same time nearly one-third of the food their crops generates is wasted.

When goodly numbers of Americans were mucking around with Bill Clinton and Ken Starr in TV land in the late summer of 1998 PBS viewers were given the opportunity to eavesdrop for six and one-half hours on the lives of Nebraska family farmers Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter's marriage in "The Farmer's Wife," a documentary produced for the network's "Frontline" series. (See Issue #4)

Here was a story, stark in its reality, focusing not on inane humor, but on the grim reality of being a farm family today faced on a daily basis with losing their farm and their future.

The questions raised in "The Farmer's Wife," just as the questions raised in Edward R. Murrow's famous TV documentary "Harvest of Shame" are issues that those who provide us with the news and events that help shape our nation and the world steadfastly refuse to confront for fear of antagonizing the increasing small number of corporations that seek to control our lives.

A Scott Chronister from Eitting, Germany got it exactly right, in a letter-to-the-editor to the Washington Post after the de Moraes article, when he wrote:

"Does CBS think we believe that the show is intended to provide `social commentary' and to `enlighten' viewers? P.T. Barnum already answered that one. If CBS is really looking for a fish-out-of-water story, it should take a family of former Enron or WorldCom executives, strip them of their cash and other worldly goods, and plop them in the middle of Appalachia. Now that has the makings of good humor and good social commentary."


Why it matters: "American Gothic," along with the "Mona Lisa" and "Whistler's Mother," is, according to critic Robert Hughes, "one of the three paintings that every American knows. . . . ."

It's also an image that gets frequently vandalized by cartoonists and advertisers, to spoof contemporary politicians or sell products (who hasn't seen Paul Newman and his daughter Nell posed in American Gothic-getup on the labels of their food products?)

Oddly, however, the most recognized couple in American art is really no couple at all: It likely represents a country lass and her angry father --- a take-off on the old farmer's daughter jokes. Wood dressed his sister and a local dentist in 1890s-style costume for the picture, saying, "I imagined American Gothic people with their faces stretched out long to go with this American Gothic house."

During the Depression, when Works Progress Administration (WPA) photographers were capturing on film the tragic faces of impoverished farmers, Wood's slightly campy painting raised a controversy --- some thought Wood was taking a potshot at rural life. He probably was. Now the painting is a textbook example of how an artwork that at first creates a tumult of disapproval can go on to be revered as an icon.

Where to find it: "American Gothic" is owned by The Art Institute of Chicago.