When Living Buckwild Gets Real

By now, the news of Buckwild star Shain Gandee 's recent death has spread far and wide, and the sadness that's expected and appropriate for the death of such a young person has followed. Since i didn't know him, I can't speak to what he was like off-camera, but the persona he put forth on the show seemed affable, friendly, charismatic, and kind. His down-to-earth, old-school "country" lifestyle made him the focal center of the show, lent it its "authenticity."


Authenticity, of course, is a term that can only be used facetiously about MTV's newest batch of reality shows. Like Jersey Shore and The Heights (i.e., Washington Heights) before it, Buckwild was a caricature of all of the most stereotypical  sensationalized parts of the culture being represented. Usually, (as in The Heights and shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo), the culture being caricatured is already under-represented or massively stereotyped in the public imagination, which the shows only serve to perpetuate. And there's a very good reason for MTV to keep those stereotypes alive: they're incredibly lucrative   As West Virginian senator Joe Mancin III wrote in an open letter to MTV in protest of Buckwild,  

“Instead of showcasing the beauty of our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into shameful behavior — and now you are profiting from it. That is just wrong ... This show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia,

But let's be straight. Viewers decide what they want to see, and ratings have shown that many viewers are more interested in seeing rednecks going wild than taking a real look another often-misunderstood culture. Viewers want the stereotype  and the show is edited accordingly.  

But what happens when the stereotype gets real? What happens when the sort of behavior the show is endorsing and actively financially motivating leads to the death of a 21 year old kid? Because his death, unlike the show, was 100 percent physically real, and had an 100 percent real emotional impact on the lives of the people in his actual community.

This is the heartbreaking 9-1-1 call made by the family friend who discovered Gandee's body, along with the bodies of his uncle and his close friend, two days after they'd gone missing:

To be clear: I'm not saying that MTV put Shain Gandee in his truck and forced the carbon monoxide to leak into his bloodstream. I'm not saying that he wouldn't have done the things he did in his life and the thing that led to his death without evil MTV behind him. I'm especially not saying that the actors on this show are helpless pawns or that I know what's best for them better than they do. Shain, like all the other actors on Buckwild, (because, let's be real, they're actors), was an adult with agency and the capacity to make his own decisions.

However, I am saying that his death should raise some questions about media culture, about what actually goes in to the decision to encourage the most stereotypical (read: often negative, degrading, and/or harmful) behaviors in the name of painting an entertaining "authentic" cultural picture, and about which parties are making crap tons of money off of those decisions. I'm sincerely curious about how his death will be handled and where the show is headed. 

In the end, it's just sad that he's dead. He seemed like a really nice kid.