Everyone has that show. The one show on Bravo that you know you shouldn’t be watching, that you know is a waste of your time and an exterminator of precious brain cells, but you just can’t look away. In recent years this type of show has been a gold mine for television. Rich housewives’ drama, rich celebrities’ drama, successful food companies’ drama. It’s everywhere and it can’t be avoided. So I won’t try to.
Recently, Bravo aired the pilot of a brand new reality show called Jersey Belle, which attempts to exploit the entertainment value in the lives of rich Southerners. The show follows the life of Jaime Primak Sullivan, a woman from New Jersey who relocated to her husband’s hometown of Mountain Brook. By throwing this decidedly stereotypical northerner into the epitome of Southern gentility and amusingly scandalizing those who live there, Bravo is clearly attempting to make bank on the rest of the country’s fascination with the South’s “backwards” lifestyle.
Now, I need to be up front about something. I was born and raised in Mountain Brook. I’ve lived there my whole life until I left last year to attend an out-of-state college. That being said, I’m not the “typical” Mountain Brook resident. My mom is from rural Alabama, though she lived in many different places across the country because of her dad’s commission in the Navy. My dad was born in Atlanta, and similarly lived all over the place due to his dad’s job. My parents met in their late 30s in Birmingham and lived in Mountain Brook ever since. I am not ‘old money,’ I am not elitist or classist or — surprise — racist. For most of my life I wasn’t even aware of those stereotypes; everyone I knew seemed normal enough. But as I grew up I began to be disillusioned.
For those of you who don’t know, Mountain Brook is famous for being horrible. The perception of the town is so bad that traveling anywhere outside of it and admitting you are from Mountain Brook is basically social suicide. To most people, Mountain Brook is rich, white and snobbish, and, honestly, that stereotype is a little true. People call it the “Tiny Kingdom” and make fun of “Brookies” who don’t know anything about life outside their small Mountain Brook bubble.
I’m a part of this — I experienced the constraints and the facades, the social exteriors that are as meticulously maintained as most residents’ immaculate front lawns. When I graduated I couldn’t wait to get out, and neither could most of my friends from school. Because the thing about Mountain Brook’s obsession with perfection is that it puts enormous amounts of pressure on everyone who lives there. One recent article by Kristine Lloyd amusingly likened the experience to living in Spanx. I can appreciate the accuracy of such a claim. I experienced something similar myself. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I don’t care about the curiously arcane and suffocating social customs of my hometown — it’s an old Southern suburb like any other in the South. What I care about is the widely accepted idea that such a life is viewed as normal, expected, and even mandatory simply due to geographical location. From watching Jersey Belle and witnessing people’s response to it, I see how ingrained it is in American society that Southern equals racist, classist, elitist and backwards.
People perpetuate these stereotypes about Southerners without a second thought. That’s just how it is, they say. What can you do? they ask. As if the South will be woefully behind the rest of the world forever, and there’s nothing anyone can do. However, after growing up in this place that’s always considered to be stuck in time, I can honestly say that, as a whole, we aren’t — but the rest of the world might be.
It might come as a shock, but the people I grew up with in Mountain Brook were good people. For some reason there’s this generalization that everyone in the South is racist and, specifically, that everyone in Mountain Brook is rich and snobbish. That article by Lloyd — the one that so accurately portrayed Brookie life as life in Spanx — inaccurately portrayed the reality behind such a Spanx life. Lloyd, who moved to Mountain Brook in 1974 and admitted in her article that her understanding of Mountain Brook is dated, completely overlooks the fact that things have changed since then.
In fact, everything has changed since then. Nobody would ever try to sell a vintage Dell computer from the ’80s as a representative of modern technology as a whole, because no one would ever buy into that. So why would anyone buy into the idea that a life experience from 30 years ago is representative of people’s lives today? The simple answer is that no one should buy into that; the more complicated answer is that people shouldn’t buy into it, because denying the existence of progress is incredibly dangerous to the progress that does exist.
Mountain Brook today is not the same as Mountain Brook 30 years ago. That much seems completely obvious. I distinctly remember one of my English teachers at MBHS talking about how when she went to our high school there was a deep rift between ‘old money’ and ‘new money’ and everyone in my class looked around as if to say, “What is she even talking about?”
In our community, people grow up and leave town just like people leave any other small town after high school. After leaving, their ideas change and they bring those ideas back and they spread, thus inspiring social change. It’s exactly the same in any other community anywhere — the South is not some rare exception. Mountain Brook, and even the South as a whole, is different now. When people on the outside assume otherwise they perpetuate stereotypes that are no longer true. People believe those stereotypes and avoid the area, preventing the assimilation of new cultures and new ideas that would allow that area to diversify and grow. It’s really quite simple; change requires willing recipients, both to inspire it and to acknowledge it.
Yes, there are people in the South who are stuck in the past. But what people seem to overlook is that those people are vastly outnumbered. In general, the people in Mountain Brook are not the problem, just as the people of any similar community are not the problem. The problem is the warped and outdated understandings of these areas that stubbornly refuse to allow change. You’re always going to see what you want to see, and if you want to see a rich, white and racist picture of the south, you’ll see it. Just turn on Bravo — it’ll be right there for you. Just remember that these “reality” shows are far from aptly named.