The South always gets such a bad wrap in entertainment. It specifically gets a bad wrap on television and reality television is the worst offender. I knew this when I sat down to watch TLC’s latest disaster of a television show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. I’m a proud Southern girl, but even I didn’t expect this mess.cURL failed
In case you haven’t heard of Alana “Honey Boo Boo Child” Thompson here is a quick overview: she appeared on one of TLC’s other disaster shows (Toddlers and Tiaras) and quickly became a viral favorite because of her flamboyant personality and low class/redneck family. As the Washington Post noted in a recent article, Alana speaks and gesticulates in a fashion comparable to stereotypically attributed to African American women. The Post considers that it could be an interesting form of latent racism, but her whole family has some of those qualities. Her mother in particular demonstrates some of the same patterns of behavior. Her mother is also an “extreme couponer” which also cross-categories with TLC’s programing base, but is also telling of the family’s socioeconomic status. We only get a brief look at the Thompsons in Toddlers and Tiaras. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo brings it all into sharp focus.
TLC graced us with a whole night of Honey Boo Boo Child, first with two episodes of her show and then with an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras focusing on a Georgia-specific pageant in which Alana is featured prominently. It was cringe-worthy, horrified awe-inspiring and while watching it I couldn’t help but feel like I am what’s wrong with America because I was completely transfixed. In the first episode we are reacquainted with Alana and introduced to the rest of her family. In glorious Southern tradition everyone has a nickname. Dad Mike is known as “Sugar Bear.” Then we have “Mama June” and Alana’s three older sisters: Pumpkin, Chickadee and Chubbs. I swear I don’t even think we found out their real names, just that Chickadee is seventeen, in her third trimester, and everyone’s so darn proud of her for staying in school (despite the fact that, during the ultrasound, Chickadee had no idea what an abdomen was.) We are also, over the course of the evening, introduced to the Thompson’s life. Rural Georgia is no joke, but the Thompson’s situation is sobering even from an insider-outsider’s perspective. The family lives in a small house that is quite literally right by the railroad tracks (they run through the backyard mere feet from the house.) The home appears sparsely furnished and doesn’t have a working shower. Mama June explains that they’ve always washed their hair in the kitchen sink because bathtub water is dirty and she emphasizes that taking care of oneself is important. They shop at a local retail auction each week to save money, buying a mix of what appears to be discarded retail items and a strange conglomeration of low-quality junk food. The local sheriff calls the family at one point to collect the carcass of a deer that was hit by a car so they can utilize the meat. Sugar Bear is the lone breadwinner working seven days a week mining chalk. Everyone else seems devoted to Alana’s pageants, even the “gay uncle” Alana calls Poodle.
The family goes through various daily adventures in the shows. They go to a redneck festival in one, they hire an etiquette coach, they take Alana to a pageant, and they get a pig as a pet. Each adventure is highlighted with the family’s absolute lack of social appropriateness (there is a lot of farting and more than a passing reference to scratching fleas) but more importantly Alana’s antics. The child is out of control (in a funny way) with her snappy comments, witty comebacks and boundless energy. She’s the star, both in her own mind and in the focus of the show. Yet for all her exuberance there is something very sad about her. She’s a little girl screaming for attention and acceptance. For as much as the family showcases just being themselves they are also struggling to make Alana like all the other pageant girls. They are trying get her accepted in that warped version of what society considers beautiful and acceptable. When, after failing to take a supreme title in yet another pageant, Alana bursts into tears. We see the weight on her tiny, chubby shoulders. The money a supreme title brings would have helped her family, a situation not lost on Alana. We also see her struggle to validate herself as she reminds the viewer that, win or lose, “you’re still good.”
Toddlers and Tiaras toes the line of child abuse and exploitation, but Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is devastating in its own way. It exploits Alana and her family in a way that is vastly different. The clips and interviews in the show are framed in such a way that the producers are deliberately making fun of the family’s cultural backwardness. Any other show would have footage of the family matriarch farting, loudly, on camera edited out, but TLC instead glorifies the moment by using it in the show’s opening credits. Alana, too, is framed in a fashion that presents her as being there only for our entertainment: a loveable mockery with no hope of ever being anything but “white trash” like the rest of her family despite their best efforts. We see her set up for the same track as her family: overweight, undereducated, unrefined, and resplendent in ignorance. This framing sets us up as viewers to laugh at them, to mock them, and in fact makes it culturally acceptable to do so. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of people who have come up to me since the show premiered last night to say something to the effect of “oh my god did you see that Honey Boo Boo mess?” People want to talk about the show, but nothing they have to say is positive. The Thompsons and their life is becoming a laughing stock. It further reinforces the idea that there are only two kinds of people in the South, the endangered Old Guard and the stupid, redneck White Trash. It makes us further marginalize people and that is wrong.cURL failed
I have no doubt that this show will ultimately benefit the family. TLC is likely paying them a decent bit of money to participate and any financial gain will no doubt improve the family’s quality of life (especially as they add in Chickadee’s new daughter.) In fact, good on them for putting themselves out there just as they are with no shame. It takes a special kind of pride. What worries me, though, is the cultural impact. When we glorify this sort of thing without some sort of commentary and without some sort of dialogue of understanding all we are doing is promoting irresponsibility. We’re also lowering our own standards and ultimately keeping a subsection of the population “in its place”. This does none of us any favors.
Once upon a time TLC was The Learning Channel. NASA was involved in getting it up and running. It was designed to provide actual education through television, making higher level information more accessible to the masses. It was meant to benefit society. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is still educational, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of education we want or need. I’d like to think we’re smarter than this.