What’s Wrong with ‘Honey Boo Boo’?

Some folks may be made uncomfortable by “Honey Boo Boo” because it challenges their association of thin, shining, educated middle-classness with whiteness and Southern accents, fatness and poverty with blackness.
Publish date:
September 5, 2012
race, Clutch Magazine, class, honey boo boo

The reality television apocalypse is upon us, allegedly, with the success of TLC’s new show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The show, which follows the exploits of six-year-old Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, first seen as a kiddie beauty pageant contestant on “Toddlers and Tiaras,” and her family.

The Thompson/Shannon family resides in a tiny home by railroad tracks in rural McIntyre, Ga. They shop at the Piggly Wiggly, drink Mountain Dew, proudly attend something called The Redneck Games and, for a few episodes, have a baby pig named Glitzy residing in the house. Mama June is less likely to call her brood by their given names than alternate ones -- Chickadee, Chubbs, Pumpkin and, for Daddy, Sugar Bear.

They are big people with even bigger personalities.

Make no mistake, there is no altruism in TLC’s decision to bring Honey Boo Boo and her kin into our homes. Show runners are not charmed by this family’s Southern witticisms or Mama June’s pride in her 300 lb.+ figure. They aren’t concerned about Honey Boo Boo’s 17-year-old pregnant sister. They don’t think it’s admirable how the unmarried Sugar Bear and June have built a strong and loving blended family. And they don’t constantly pan to shots of freight trains roaring past the Thompson/Shannon home because they find it quaint.

They undoubtedly find the Thompson/Shannon family laughable–better, exploitable -- just like every other real housewife, bachelor and bachelorette, or dancer/cocktail waitress willing to let the likes of Bret Michaels or Flavor Flav rename them “Rodeo” or “Boots.” They know there is little America likes more than judging fat folks -- especially fat women who don’t have the decency to hate themselves for being fat; poor people and poor parents; Southerners and young women who have sex outside of marriage. “Honey Boo Boo” represents a gold mine. Indeed, Thursday’s airing beat the Republican National Convention in ratings.

Jennifer Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, says, “You can almost hear TLC saying, ‘Step right up to the poverty voyeurism comedy tour!’.”

Reaction to “Honey Boo Boo” would seem to prove that TLC has successfully pinged a host of American biases about class and size and gender and race. An AV Club review of the program is fairly dripping with condescension:

In actuality, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo really doesn’t have a lot to do with the titular figure herself in the two episodes that premiered tonight. At the center of this horror story posing as a reality television program is “Mama,” the matriarch of the family and center around which the entire program revolves. Not having seen Toddlers and Tiaras, it’s hard to know if she’s naturally an attention-seeking woman or if TLC realized she was a 300-pound malapropism waiting to happen. Motivations matter little in cases like this. What’s important to note is that more than half the time in each episode is dedicated to her worldview, which involves preparing Alana for pageants, going to auctions to buy junk food for her family, and generally doing the minimum amount of parenting to prevent the state from taking her children away.

Okay, that’s a little unfair: It’s not so much that Mama actively abuses her children so much as provides perhaps the worst example possible of how to live a life with a bit of respect, or at least decorum. Not since Wuthering Heights has there been a better battle of nature versus nurture in a popular art form. I exaggerate, of course, but the actually interesting parts of Honey Boo Boo come in the moments in which the vaudeville act performed by the Thompsons drops away and accidentally reveals some kernels of truth and humanity underneath. It’s not that the Thompsons have to be this way. They either don’t know how to change or don’t understand that change is even an option.

It’s easy to look at Alana and just chalk up her attitude to a combination of age and precociousness. It’s easy to look at 15-year old Jessica (called “Chubbette” by Mama and “Chubbs” in the onscreen TLC graphic) eating cheese balls off the floor and recoil in horror. It’s easy to watch Mama talk positively about her looks and wonder what she sees in the mirror. But then the caricatures disappear, even fleetingly, and it’s much more difficult to pass this off as Car Crash TV. At first, Mama publicly defends her choice not to lose weight with her daughter, stating she’s happy with the way she is. Later, when Mama admits to the camera that she’d like to lose 100 pounds in order to support Jessica, it’s a completely human moment, devoid of all bravado. But it’s also the saddest moment of tonight’s two episodes, because you recognize the bravado not as an on-screen persona but a disguise meant to mask her pain.

'Cause fat women must be hiding some secret shame; women who don’t fit the beauty standard should know they are ugly; and no one but 15-year-old Jessica Shannon ever observed the 10-sec rule to eat a snack off the floor.

A tour through TelevisionWithoutPity, a premier online source of TV forums, recaps and discussion, reveals commentary worse than anything happening on Alana Thompson’s eponymous TV show:

aliyameadow writes:

So I looked at some YouTube clips and my jaw dropped open. WTF is this stuff? Who lets their child behave like that? You just know she got most of what she says from her mother. Most 6 year olds are talking about their dolls – she’s talking about “A dollar make me holla.” Huh? She sounds like a ghetto slut.

oldbabe writes:

Thank you! These people taught a 6 year old girl to talk and behave like she’s a street kid because they think it’s funny. The level of ignorance that believes it’s okay to do that to a child is bad enough, but putting themselves on display like a carnival freak show for a TV audience to gawk at sinks to the single-digit IQ level. Alana will never get the help she needs because her family thinks there’s nothing wrong with their behavior. That poor kid was doomed from conception.

The whole family looks like they’re related to Jabba the Hut.

suz at large writes:

This afternoon, after a week of thinking it over, I took both my HD/DVR boxes back to the cable company (I have 2 TVs here). Now, for the first time in 20 years, I do not have cable (or any kind of dish-based) TV service in my home. I did it to save a ton of money per month, and I didn’t make the decision easily or lightly. I finally realized that there are very few shows that I’d like to watch, that are only available on cable/dish TV. Now I have a bunch of sharp over the air channels available via antenna, and high speed internet service plus streaming devices for watching shows on my TVs, and the computer too for some shows that can be streamed to a ‘puter but no other devices.

And in the last analysis? It was the idea of this show – and the commercials for it – that pushed me over the tipping point into cutting the cable cord

The Thompson/Shannon family may be uneducated and fat and “redneck,” but calling a six-year-old a “ghetto slut” is far more morally objectionable, IMHO.

There is no denying that the word “ghetto” and “street” are all kinds of racially charged, evoking images of urban, black dysfunction. The comments above are revealing of one interesting thing: Some folks may be made uncomfortable by “Honey Boo Boo” because it challenges their association of thin, shining, educated middle-classness with whiteness and Southern accents, fatness and poverty with blackness. They are ignorant of the similarities between white and black Southerners and white and black poverty, and so, when Honey Boo Boo drawls one of her famous phrases, she is acting like a “ghetto slut” or a “street kid.”

And then there is “slut.” Women and girls who are not compliant and quiet must be promiscuous -- and promiscuous women are bad (i.e., sluts). The phrase that provoked this name calling was Alana’s “A dolla make me holla.” The kid claims to like money. Fine. But it is the adults analyzing the show who have equated a six-year-old’s love of money with prostitution. I am certain that Alana’s involvement in pageants plays a role in this analysis. Child pageants are highly sexualized and disturbing affairs. But I also believe that a little boy saying the same phrase would likely be praised as a future business tycoon, not accused of selling sex.

But Suz-at-large’s comment, though less offensive, is also revealing. There is a chorus of folks claiming that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is a bridge too far, the bottom of the barrell, the worst of the worst and the last thing we’ll see before the Four Horsemen arrive. And I believe this notion is also driven by who the Thompson/Shannon family is and how people like them activate American disgust in a way far greater problems do not.

We could have turned off the TV when VH1 was trading on stereotypes of black men with “Flavor of Love.” We could have pushed back when show runners on countless programs hunted for and showcased angry black women. The cable cord could have been cut during any of the shows from “Real Housewives of Orange County” to “Basketball Wives” designed to display women as catty, back-biting gold diggers. “Toddlers and Tiaras,” the show that spawned “Honey Boo Boo” has lasted five seasons.

Pozner says, “I usually tell people you can keep watching your reality TV; just do it critically. ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is the one show I believe people should turn off.

“The children on that show cannot possibly consent to the multiple layers of exploitation and sexualization. By watching the show, the audience is complicit.”

Why haven’t these other instances of rank exploitation by TV executives caused viewers to run to return their cable boxes en masse?

I suspect it’s because people find the dirtiness of the reality TV business, which Pozner unveils so capably in Reality Bites Back, less abhorrent than a defiantly poor, white, fat, Southern family.

There is something wrong with “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” But it is not the Thompson/Shannon family who, love of Cheetos and penchant for child pageants, gas passing and murdering of the Queen’s English aside, seem like a loving, happy and mostly decent tribe. The problem is that, this show -- like many, many before it - looks to capitalize on America’s basest instincts. And in doing so, it encourages the ugliest of our biases. When we criticize this show, we should reserve our ire for the mercenary show runners who plan, stage and edit what we see. And we should remember, as Pozner points out, that “actors” on reality shows are not unionized. When folks have exhausted their revulsion and TLC has taken millions in ad revenues to the bank, Honey Boo Boo and her family might still be clipping coupons in a tiny house by the railroad tracks, having received little in return for becoming national laughingstocks for a season. And that’s not right.

Reprinted with permission from Clutch Magazine.