Honey Boo Boo vs. The Bullies: “Redneckognizing” Accountability in Cultural Critique

Let’s be honest: reality television dominates American screens, and almost everyone says it’s the end of Western civilization. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have nineteen children (“19 Kids and Counting,” courtesy of the Duggar family and TLC), be a redneck millionaire from duck-call sales (“Duck Dynasty” on A&E), revamp your failing restaurant, bar, or tattoo parlor (on Spike TV), or live in a beach house with a crew of self-styled guidos (you guessed it), reality television can provide a glimpse into another life. Reality television is an exercise in rubbernecking, reassuring viewers that somebody else’s life is more laughable than his or her own. Most of the time, critics dismiss reality television with a huffy eye-roll. But once in a while, a show bypasses the ennui to have a gasket-blowing effect on the nation’s culture police. This time, the outrage is aimed almost entirely at a seven-year old girl.

Enter “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” TLC’s latest hit on the reality circuit. This show takes one of the most energetic cast members from TLC’s highly controversial show, “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which documents the often-sordid world of child pageants. Alana Thompson, nicknamed (by herself) Honey Boo Boo Child, quickly gained notoriety in “Toddlers and Tiaras” for imbibing (courtesy of her mother) ‘Go-Go Juice’ before pageants, which is basically a mix of soda and energy drink. Not that Alana really needs it—her hyperactive, self-styled diva character, along with her family’s country bumpkin lifestyle, made a show about her life off the pageant stage too good for TLC to pass up.

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” explores the lives of Honey Boo Boo, Mama June, Sugar Bear, Chubbs, Pumpkin, and Chickadee (Alana, her mother, father, and three older sisters) in their rural Georgia home near the train tracks. As with any family, there are questionable dynamics; Chickadee is pregnant at age seventeen, all the daughters are from different fathers, and Alana is wearing makeup and bikinis for pageants at age seven. The show has become infamous, among other things, for June’s weight and poor hygiene (such as the infamous forklift foot), the family’s “Sketti” recipe of margarine and ketchup, and the family’s propensity to fart, sneeze, play in mud, and other offensive acts that posh Americans have deemed “redneck.”

One of the most outspoken and oft-cited critics of the show, Tim Goodman from The Hollywood Reporter, sternly declares: “You can say no to TLC. And you can say no to Honey Boo Boo Child. Somebody has to.” Looks like nobody took his advice, with “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” outdoing (on the same night) the Republican National Convention with 2.9 million viewers: 1.7 million more viewers than the Convention. We’re not listening to Tim Goodman’s admonishments because, for better or worse, this type of down-home redneck stuff is dominating the channels and honestly, can be ridiculously funny. I love to tune in and watch Alana play dress up with her pet pig, Glitzy, and to spout aphorisms about her life and circumstances (see below). What seems more compelling than just whether or not people like the show is the critical reaction. Why has “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” inspired such vitriol?

Some people genuinely love Honey Boo Boo, comparing her to a modern-day Shirley Temple. Others–admittedly from the netherworld that is the YouTube comments section–call her a poster girl for forced sterilization. Disagreements are fine, yet the mean-spirited tone that characterizes not only the internet babble over Honey Boo Boo,  but also the allegedly sophisticated criticism. This illustrates a disturbing trend in the way that we feel licensed to comment on modern culture.

So, what’s so bad about Honey Boo Boo? Pageants, they say. Her mother makes her do pageants! Oversexualization of young women! As Ryan McGee points out in his review, “The pageant life seems slightly creepy, but turn the channel over to The Olympic Games and think about all the craziness involved there. We’re somehow okay with it when it involves young girls robbed of their childhood for gymnastics instead of pageants.” Culturally and socially, we are conditioned to believe that the oversexualization of young girls is worthy and laudable in some activities, and deplorable in others. Take, for instance, the insertion of body image and weight into every little activity Alana does: on her official Facebook page, Mama June posts a picture of Alana holding up donated toys for the family’s annual Christmas toy drive. A commenter (Itay Hadar) rains on the parade of positive comments and offers for toy contributions with “you need to have a diet.” Why? Because it’s useful to be slender in charity work?

Comment sections for videos of Honey Boo Boo are infested with offensive comments that need no repeating, but serve to reiterate the common cultural conception that females, regardless of age, are just there to be objectified. Of course, the internet is an ugly place where anonymous trolls will say the worst things without a second thought to others—and often experience no consequences. We all know that internet comments tend to be scraped from the bottom of the cultural sludge barrel, but everyone telling Alana what to do with her body—whether that’s shutting her mouth, losing weight, or some of the more disturbing things non-fans have suggested—is participating in the sexualization of a young girl.  Forget the pageants: living in America today as a woman means that you are subject to rape culture at large.

If you think that only immature YouTube commenters are making fun of Alana’s weight, you’re sorely mistaken. Being overweight in America is often attributed to personal failures and weaknesses, while it is more likely a product of government policies that the incentives to buy cheap, crappy food high.[1]  Respected critics, like Goodman, for all their high-minded desires to save us from Honey Boo Boo, use this fallacy to insist that Mama and Honey Boo Boo know “deep down in their rotund bodies” that their family is a “car crash.” Why, because they’re fat? The aggressive tone in which grown men insist that this standard should be held, that we should say no to TLC, is problematic when most of their dialogue trends towards Alana’s weight. It is hypocrisy to criticize a show for portraying oversexualized child pageant culture by calling the show’s star fat and unlovable. Clearly most critics today aren’t much better than their YouTube counterparts.

So, why the endless drivel about Honey Boo Boo’s weight? Is it really her doing, her dogged love of chicken nuggets, or is it her family’s income bracket and the difficulty of affording healthy food or even learning how to prepare it? It’s fair to say that Honey Boo Boo represents some of the negative facets of lower middle class America. To then make the leap to hold her accountable for these failings, as most criticism of the show has, buys into the myth that because she is the “star” of the show she is responsible for its message. At a certain age, we don’t hold kids responsible, because they just don’t know. For instance, Honey Boo Boo’s Jerry Springer-style “snap a Q” patois has often been cited as latent racism, a parody of the stereotypical angry/sassy black woman. Or maybe it’s just that she was raised watching daytime TV. Why hold a child accountable for the quirks of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” that are not her fault, not her design, and probably completely lost on her?

This paradigm of accountability speaks to the issue of exploitation within the show. Non-farting, non-sneezing critics of the show seem apoplectic that TLC is giving the audience “the green light to laugh at rednecks and fat people.” To do so, which millions of Americans have, is mildly abusive. In fact, most criticism of the show (when it’s not about weight) has been that the Thompsons aren’t in on the joke and they don’t know they’re being laughed at. And even if the Thompsons get it, critics aren’t happy: suddenly the family is “…annoying because now they’ve taken the power we had over them — laughing at their pathetic lives — and are turning it into cash.” This comment is particularly insidious for its judgment that the Thompson family would be just fine if they kept their fat, uncultivated lives to themselves instead of having fun and making money when they’re not thin, wealthy, or highly educated (the basic requirements of human happiness).

So, it’s about class, too. Dan Chambers, in his article, “Analysis: Honey Boo Boo show is a sign of our times” notes the pop culture trends that surround instances of declining middle class incomes. He says, “There is a tendency for many to want to believe while they may not enjoy the middle class income that they used to earn…they want to believe that they do hold on to middle class values.” He declares that viewers watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” can watch a bunch of rednecks on ATVs throwing grass in their front yard and feel validated in their moral and cultural superiority. Annual income might not separate you and the Thompsons, but your elite middle class values can. At least you don’t eat roadkill.

So, what are these middle class values that indicate we should scorn “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo?” Values always seem to change in election years, and America is bitterly torn on issues of middle class taxes, abortion, gay marriage, and what to do about unemployment. Honey Boo Boo’s family has some surprisingly progressive perspectives:

On gay rights: About her gay uncle, Alana says: “Ain’t nothing wrong with being a little gay. Everyone’s a little gay.” About her cross-dressing pig, Glitzy, she says, “You can’t tell that pig what to do.”

On teenage pregnancy: While laying in a hospital bed, still suffering childbirth pains, Chickadee is asked by a condescending off-camera voice if she would recommend that another seventeen year old girl get pregnant and go through this. She responds, “Do whatever you want,” and rolls over. Not a bad response to being baited with the teen pregnancy morality debate while you’re in the worst pain a human can experience.

On tax reform: Alana’s catchphrase: “a dolla makes me holla!”

On body image: “Mama says pretty comes in all sizes, and my size is cute!”

I don’t really see the point of outrage. The family is tolerant, loves each other, and isn’t running around telling other people how to live their lives. However, I will grant that there is exploitation inherent in the show: financially, at least. Most critics use the term “exploitation” in the non-monetary sense, as a pitying remark to insist that the family is just too stupid to understand they are being made fun of for profit. Yet there is a level of abuse, and it’s mostly TLC’s fault: The Thompsons are absolutely being underpaid for the success they have brought TLC. For the next season, they have negotiated $10,000 an episode, up from the previous estimate of $4,000 a show. For context, Jersey Shore cast members can make upwards of $150,000 per episode. The Thompsons are, of course, being ripped off and should be paid more, though that doesn’t seem to bother them. Both TLC and Rosie O’Donnell (a huge fan) have offered to buy the family a new house, but Mama June has declined—she wants the family to stay true to their roots.

Fans of the show are outspoken in their love for Honey Boo Boo, and often respond to criticism with two main arguments: back off, she’s a child, and if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. This is common sense advice, and is therefore practically useless in the age of internet culture. The fact is, criticism of this show is blinded, in part, by the very mechanism it uses to critique “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” She is a product of her culture, but she is a child. Critics are also a product of their culture, which is perhaps why they think that overweight people are fat because of their own personal failings, and that if women just dressed differently or didn’t go out at night it would all be different. These critics are adults, though, and should be held responsible for the implications of their statements. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is lowbrow, no doubt, but highbrow bullying centered on Alana’s body and upbringing only serves to reinforce the gender and cultural stereotypes that the show puts forth. So tune in, love the show, get your name Honey Boo Boo-fied. Or not—but don’t bully in the name of cultural concern.

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