'Buckwild' Star Dead: Shain Gandee's Death a Reminder Reality TV Has a Dark Side
Buckwild star Shain Gandee's untimely death is just another story in a slew of bad news, and bad press, for reality TV in the past few weeks. The Real Housewives of Atlanta couple Porsha and Kordell Stewart announced their split (adding Porsha to the long list of divorced Bravo housewives), the French Survivor cancelled an upcoming season after a contestant died from cardiac arrest on the first day of filming, and 21-year-old Shain was found dead on Monday from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Though its negative effects have been discussed since its advent, reality TV has been under particular scrutiny this year since former country star Mindy Cready's suicide; many blamed reality TV, and even Dr. Drew, who mentored Cready on Celebrity Rehab, for the singer's death. But reality TV is not only detrimental to the people who participate in it and the people who watch it. It also negatively impacts those whom it represents by promoting harmful stereotypes.
MTV's replacement for the uber-successful, and now no longer running, Jersey Shore, Buckwild follows the lives of nine West Virginia millenials having fun and raising hell in the country. Though a recording of a cast member warns at the beginning of each show that the activities portrayed can be dangerous, Buckwild glorifies the reckless behavior of the stars and often depicts them in scenes of stereotypical "country bumpkin-ness." Cast members have casual sex, partake in extremely dangerous recreational activities (such as "mudding," which many blame for Gandee's death), and fighting — often all of which is post excessive drinking.
Even before the show's premiere in January, West Virginia residents voiced concerns about the stereotypical representations the cast members portrayed. Locals felt viewers would assume all residents are "white trash," and the state's film office refused tax breaks for the show due to its portrayal of West Virginians. State Senator Joe Manchin went so far as to demand that the network not air the show in a letter to MTV. He wrote, "Instead of showcasing the beauty of our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into shameful behavior … This show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia."
A few months ago, Gandee joined castmate Shae to defend the show, stating that they represented only themselves and they act in a certain reckless way because "you only live once." Yet, seemingly, the message the show sends is that West Virginians are highly entertaining, largely for their often incomprehensible speech and idiotic behavior, in a "laughing at them" or "watching a trainwreck" kind of way. The show undoubtedly reinforces the negative stereotypes that have plagued West Virginians for generations.
Buckwild isn't the first MTV show to come under fire for promoting harmful stereotypes. It's predecessor Jersey Shore received similar backlash, and similarly, producers ignored demands to reverse their decision to air the show. Also encouraging cast members to act in a manner that would bring in high ratings (namely promiscuous sex, dangerous stunts, excessive drinking, and fighting — several of which led to arrests), "Jersey Shore" depicted Italian-Americans doing what they (producers and cast members) decided Italian-Americans do. Real-life Italian-Americans, and New Jersey residents, were not impressed. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the cast "losers" who were "parachuted" into the area, and denied the show tax cuts. The president of UNICO, a New Jersey-based Italian-American organization, slammed the show for it's continuous use of the terms "guido" and "guidette," which many consider racial slurs, and New York Post critic Linda Stasi called it "the most hateful, anti-Italian-American show ever allowed on legitimate TV."
Unfortunately, the backlash has largely failed to erase these stereotypes from reality TV. Just a few weeks ago, VH1 (which is owned by MTV) premiered Wicked Single, a show once again depicting residents reinforcing negative stereotypes — this time, of Bostonians. Many viewers, particularly Bostonians, voiced their disapproval via tweets, followed by hashtags #embarassing and #ashamed.
MTV has cancelled production of Buckwild until further notice out of respect for Gandee and his family. An honorable, and seemingly obvious, thing to do (although a new season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills premiered just weeks after a cast member's husband, whom she was separated from, commited suicide), it is hopefully a step in the right direction. Maybe MTV will see that it's actions need to not only respect cast members and their families, but the people and cultures it's shows represent.