Hick Baiting on Top Gear
First a disclaimer: I absolutely adore BBC motoring show Top Gear. I’m not a petrol head, but the repartee between the three presenters is classic, and Jeremy Clarkson’s staunchly non-PC delivery is one of life’s guilty pleasures. Even the actual reviews—always of cars that cost more than I will earn in my lifetime (“Now we get quite a few complaints that we don’t feature enough affordable cars on the show, so we’re kicking off tonight with the cheapest Ferrari of them all”)—are beautifully, cinematically filmed: car-porn, even for the terminally disinterested.
And when the boys are not reviewing European supercars, they are competing against each other in a series of increasingly preposterous—and frequently hilarious—“challenges”. Like building a kit car in less time than it takes their tame racing driver to get from London to Scotland, or converting perfectly good production cars into amphibians, and racing them across—or as it turned out, to the bottom of—a lake.
Which brings me to Monday night’s episode (series 9, ep 3). In a special American challenge, the presenters each had to buy a car for less than it would cost to hire one, and drive it from Miami to New Orleans. The Miami segment afforded lots of opportunities for jokes about serial killers and organised crime, while Jeremy spent most of his time explaining why the other presenters cars were rubbish. But it was during the drive across Alabama that things got hairy. The boys were told to paint slogans on each others cars that would make them a target for the locals, so the cars were decorated with “Hillary for President”, “Man Love Rules OK”, and my personal favourite, “Country & Western is Rubbish”.
Needless to say, the cars attracted some pretty unimpressed looks, but things got out of hand when they pulled into a petrol station and the proprietor took exception. Threats were made, stones were thrown (mainly at the camera crew), and a pickup full of thugs made an appearance. A hasty retreat was organised.
The thing is, the little you could hear of the complaints of the petrol station owner suggested that what she objected to was less the slogans, as the fact that her reactions to the slogans were being filmed. It really was a case of calling the locals a bunch of half-witted, racist, homophobic hicks, and filming the result. The fact that the reaction suggested that they were a bunch of half-witted, racist, homophobic hicks doesn’t alter the fact that the original premise was a pretty mean attempt to ridicule people whose beliefs and values differed from the smug cosmopolitanism of the show producers and presenters. I felt pretty uncomfortable watching.
Now I’ll confess, I’ve been known to make the odd disparaging remark about bogans, but this was getting into Kath & Kim territory: smug North-Shore lawyers putting shit on the working class (I know K&K is more complicated than this, but I’ve never really gotten it). The values that the good ol’ boys in Alabama stereotypically hold are certainly not ones I support, and I can’t help but feel that higher levels of education mightn’t be a bad idea. But is ridiculing someone’s genuinely held, if seriously outdated beliefs the way to foster more broad-minded attitudes?
Of course, that wasn’t the intention of the show, and insulting whatever group of people is handy is de rigeour: check out Jeremy’s opinion of Subaru drivers in his column reprinted in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian.
I don’t know: we tolerate—even enjoy—ridiculing wealthy Americans. Is it so different if the target is the working poor? Maybe I’m being over-sensitive. Anyway, I hope next week Jeremy, the hampster, and Captain Slow are back doing what they do best: insulting the French.