“Ready to do battle with the mountain”: Masculinity and Nature in Spike TV’s Coal

This paper examines portrayals of masculinity and nature in the reality television program Coal (Spike TV 2011). Like other reality TV shows featuring “extreme” working conditions, such as Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, Coal is about men working in dangerous conditions and sacrificing their bodies in what is often portrayed as a battle against nature. Coal tells the story of workers at the Cobalt Mine in Westchester, WV, a struggling operation that is backdropped by intense concerns about profit on the part of the ownership and anxieties about safety and mechanization by the workers. Set in “the heart of Appalachia,” the show connects ideas about masculinity with nature, noting that the miners have to “carve a hard living out of stone,” that “coal mining is in their blood,” and that the task of the workers in the mine is to “tame” both the rugged mountain and the continuous miner, the deadly, finicky, and massive piece of machinery that drags the coal out of the ground. Central to this narrative of a masculine fight against nature is the idea of tradition and the continuity of family: the show highlights the miners moving their nametags to indicate that they are underground, just as their grandfathers did, and focuses on a father teaching his son complicated mining techniques. This paper examines both the content of the program and its form, paying attention to the way in which reality television portrays ideas about masculinity and nature as well as cultural stereotypes about Appalachia.