If you’ve yet to watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on TLC (which officially has as much to do with “learning” as MTV has to do with “music”), the reality show follows the South Georgia family of Alana “Honey Boo Boo Child” Thompson in all their mud-flopping, pig-glitzing, teenage-impregnating glory. It’s the latest in a tried-and-true American pastime of urban television executives laughing at those poor rural folk, slowly stirring their martinis and demanding hand sanitizer at contract meetings. Or as Michelle Dean at Slate points out, “The hillbilly figure allows middle-class white people to offload the venality and sin of the nation onto some other constituency, people who live somewhere — anywhere — else.” Dean’s point centers on a basic premise shared with most reality TV: Aren’t these people crazy? Nothing like completely-sane-and-normal you. The last reality show to achieve a high-level of success with this formula was Jersey Shore, which focused not on family and home life like Honey Boo Boo but on youth and parties. Both focus on a small sample size of a larger demographic for PT Barnum-style purposes, both feature “characters” with nicknames, and both rely quite heavily on a perceived lack of “class,” a word with more baggage than “redneck” or “guido.”
The Real World first aired 20 years ago on the premise of people being “real”, which quickly became a joke when featured post-adolescents began to play to stereotypes (as Stephen Colbert once put it, “the camera lobotomizes whatever you point it at”). But on both Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo, what we see is not a purposefully diverse group having contention with one another. While personalities clash, they both are fairly homogenous shows. What makes them interesting to watch for most people is the complete lack of subtlety and the celebration of the things we in our precious modern society must eschew, be it drunken hot tub stripteases or applauding the volume of your mother’s farts. That is what I mean when I say both shows lack “class,” as the actual real world requires much more self-control and following of the rules but features far less followers of those rules.
That said, the Thompson family is not without self-respect. In the pilot episode, there’s a small debate within the family over whether they reach the definition for “redneck.” Alana and “Sugar Bear” Mike (Alana’s father, but more on that later) agree they are rednecks, presumably with a Foxworthian pride. The other daughters (“Pumpkin” Lauryn at age 12, “Chubbs” Jessica at age 15, and “Chickadee” Anna who at 17 gave birth to a little girl last July) and “Mama” June herself angrily disagree. “We all have our teeth, don’t we?” Chubbs retorts, while her father mentions they also go mud-skipping in four-wheelers. In the same episode, the family attends “The Redneck Games,” an annual event started in 1996 in response to media criticism the Atlanta Olympics that same year would have a certain Southern attitude. “There’s a lot of broken down people here,” says June morosely as shots of beer-bellied men in midriffs and obese women in bikinis go by. When the family is walking through the parking lot in 100 degree heat, the girls want to take a dip in a swimming hole that features a warning sign against flesh-eating bacteria. June stops them while other attendees can be seen diving into the sickly waters (Alana shouts out “I hope y’all get that flesh-eating disease!”). In the same way most of their viewership is watching them with pearl-clutching awe, the Thompson family is fully aware they are not as unlucky or unwashed as some in their own community.
Indeed, the family must be doing fairly well financially. With four children, they still manage to have massive stockpiles of food and toiletries lining the walls of their house — thanks to June’s extreme couponing — and Mike drives what appears to be a brand new Dodge Ram (to an unnamed job where he works 7 days a week), not to mention the costs of Alana’s pageant training and entries. This is not to say the family is without dysfunction. While Mike is Alana’s father, the other three daughters are from three different fathers. Anna’s father stole a handgun and several cartons of cigarettes in 1998 and was arrested, Jessica’s father was arrested for sexual exploitation of a minor over the internet, and Lauryn’s dad is actually lost to history. Even Mike himself was arrested in 1998 for arson of campsites. I don’t list these histories for shock value (and there is zero reference to these incidents on the show), but it does make the happiness and familial contentment we see on the show all the more meaningful.
As disastrous as most Americans probably view the Thompsons (show me a family without its own issues and I’ll show you a delusion), it is impossible to miss how absolutely happy they are. There are hints of sadness, particularly as June discusses her fears around Anna and her baby or the family’s collective weight-loss challenge. But watching June wrestle with Alana on her bed or the whole family cool off on a homemade slip-and-slide shows a genuine love within the clan. The show ditches overly-emotional or staged fights — a staple of reality TV — in favor of the daughters lovingly picking on their mom or cheering for Alana at pageants. It is a show about family, and the context of the family’s paternal troubles against the backdrop of their contentedness should be a hopeful message about unity and pride.
Do I applaud feeding a 7-year-old a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew (the much-ballyhooed GoGo Juice) or telling your children they can lose weight by passing gas 12-15 times a day? Chopping up a road-killed deer for dinner? Having Alana dance at college bar for money? Absolutely not. But I do applaud them for not turning their troubles into anger at outside groups or even each other. While an argument for questionable parenting methods could certainly be made, these children don’t appear abused or neglected and in fact seem fairly happy with their life. Is there more we’re probably not seeing? Absolutely. But that’s true of every family with or without a camera crew behind them. Think of every crisis or mistake your family has been through: are those common knowledge to even your friends?
Reality shows such as this are made for a rubbernecking instinct that marinades American television and the culture at large. The difference with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is this is not the family of an aging rock star or aging rapper or aging whatever-it-is-we-call Kim Kardashian. It’s just a family. The show is absolutely exploitative and lowbrow, and I mourned my own dignity with every laugh it got out of me (which was admittedly quite a few). But far from the fame-seeking vainglory of Snooki and JWOWW, this is a family built on mutual respect and love. Watching June, a 33-year old grandmother, express her fears about her children is often heart-wrenching in ways celebrities and drunken orange folk fail to reach. So while I cannot endorse the unhealthier aspects of their child-rearing (or even TLC’s judgment in airing the show), I know that every critic giving them pity or judgmental platitudes can hold their nose up elsewhere because if there’s one thing the Thompsons seem to have, it is self-awareness and pride in who they are.