More than Rednexploitation: In Which Honey Boo Boo Asserts Her Subjectivity

Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson.

Like 2.8 million other Americans, I tuned into Wednesday night’s season finale of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ever since I discovered the show in August, I’ve enjoyed being party to the couponing, farting, pig-chasing good times of Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and the rest of her family, headed by the quick-witted and good-natured matriarch June Shannon. I’ve also read a lot of the press about the show, much of which has been, well, less-than-kind. No. It’s been mean. It’s been condescending. It’s been bigoted. Entertainment Weekly called the show a “rural reality cringefest.” The Hollywood Reporter goes absolutely hysterical, trying to pin the show with responsibility for “the dehumanization and incremental tearing down of the social fabric.”

The truly mean critics are easy to counter. Joe Lyons, writer of what he dubiously calls “funny things,” gleefully bashes the family for MamaPop, a site that desperately pretends to be the home of “opinionated, brainy writers” but can more accurately be described as an armory of cruel, easy jokes aimed in the direction of low-hanging fruit. Lyons apparently had some reservations about his meanness, but justifies it thusly:

I understand that some of the descriptions and generalizations that I make below can be construed as “mean.” I only feel free making them because the people involved agreed to do this type of show and are more than aware of how they knowingly carry themselves.

Yes. Little bitty Honey Boo Boo has thought deeply about how she knowingly carries herself. And as for the others, why don’t they just be good overweight Southerners and stay out of our sight? Hell, they should feel bad for forcing Joe to insult them by daring to show themselves on television. Anyone who isn’t conventionally attractive and prefers driving ATVs on mud trails over good middle-class hobbies like pilates ought to do us a favor and stay the hell invisible, because if they step out of their hovels then poor Joe HAS NO CHOICE but to behave like a smug, condescending, deeply unfunny asshole. Screw you, June, for bearing your face in public and making him call you “the result of when Divine from Pink Flamingos and a catcher’s mitt had an unwanted pregnancy and then left the infant at the doorstop of a Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s.” (And after that awkward abomination of phrasing, Joe has the nerve to mock the verbal acuity of the June and her brood.)

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that the jerks who mock Honey Boo Boo and her family for being fat or poor or for not speaking like news anchors at the BBC are, indeed, jerks. Did June and her partner Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson know that they’d receive snide cracks from pricks like Joe Lyons by allowing their lives to be taped and televised? I’d imagine so. I’d also imagine that they’re used to these cracks, seeing as how they’re alive and heavy in a culture that sees a few extra pounds as a crime worse than cruelty. They’ve just chosen to not allow the haters to shame them into the shadows.

June Shannon, not giving a shit about what Joe Lyons has to say.

In contrast to the genuine assholes, there’s another vein of criticism directed at Here Comes Honey Boo Boo that comes, I think, from a well-meaning place. In this category falls the previously-alluded to Tim “Incremental Tearing Down of the Social Fabric” Goodman from the Hollywood Reporter. He calls the show “transparently heinous” and “visual exploitation” since it gives the “green light to laugh at rednecks and fat people.” To some measure, of course, Goodman is right. TLC worked a fart into the opening credits and likes playing up the Southern-fried otherness of the Shannon/Thompson clan. That said, Goodman and critics view the family as objects as surely as the assholes do, but instead of objects begging for our ridicule, he sees them as the helpless objects of TLC’s exploitation.

For good-hearted liberals like Goodman, we need to “draw a line” against the “never-ending onslaught of reality television.” If you feel this way, let me encourage you to watch the show, again or for the first time, before you draw that line. (TLC’s showing a HCHBB marathon on Sunday starting at 2pm.) Try to suppress your personal distaste splashing in mudpits and cuddling with pet pigs, and take care to notice how this family interacts. They have fun with each other and support one another. Sugar Bear–bad teeth and all (I bet Lyons finds it hilarious when people don’t have access to proper dental care)–works seven days a week to support June and the four girls, three of whom aren’t even his by birth. The whole family–much, I’m guessing, to the shock of Northern audiences–adores and accepts Sugar Bear’s gay brother, Lee. As other writers have pointed out, these chubby girls appear wonderfully un-preoccupied with hating their bodies. And even the child pageants that Alana competes in seem more a product of her own interest than any motherly malfunction. In the season finale, June explicitly says that Alana will keep competing as long as she wants to and no longer, and her involved-but-not-obsessed behavior over the course of the series gives us no reason to doubt her.

Basically, I’m encouraging you to get beyond the aesthetics. Maybe you can’t imagine owning a pet pig named Glitzy or participating in anything called the Redneck Games (BTW, if you can’t see the joyous self-parody in these Games, you’re either inattentive or have hopelessly convinced yourself that playful irony is the exclusive property of the bourgeoisie). But people like different things, and hewing closely to an arbitrary definition of “normal” isn’t what makes for a healthy family. Love and mutual support is, and Honey Boo Boo & Co. have that in spades. Just because they’re from a specific socioeconomic milieu doesn’t mean that they need us well-meaning liberals to swoop in and whisk them back to the safe invisibility of the McIntyre, Georgia. They’re not ashamed to be seen; it’s the well-meaning liberals who have marked them as something shameful.

In his brilliant book Freaks Talk Back, sociologist Joshua Gamson convincingly argues that tabloid talk shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s were, on the aggregate, good for the LGBT community. Though the shows’ producers did lure audiences by playing up the “freak factor” of gay guests, the programs inadvertently provided a public platform by which these guests could speak for themselves. And being real, live humans–not objects in need of scorn or rescue–they often appealed to the humanity of the audiences. They were no longer displayed as only political objects to be hated by conservatives or pitied by liberals. They were shown to be subjects capable of joy, sadness, wit, and self-invention. Exploitation was certainly part of the talk shows’ game plan, but perhaps to their own surprise, they wound up serving as a vehicle for the humanization of an objectified class.

I think that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo functions in much the same way for the members of the much maligned Southern working poor. TLC might be aiming to exploit the Shannon/Thompson family–the sequences dedicated to June’s eccentric sneezes and the wholly unnecessary subtitles serve as cues for mocking laughter–but as Julia Bricklin of Forbes points out, “there’s no true dysfunction here.” I’ve heard a number of none-too-clever cracks about how TLC should be ashamed to call itself The Learning Channel, implying that the mating rituals of leopards or (endless) documentaries about Hitler are the only things that need to be taught. But watching HCHBB can remind us that nobody, regardless of class, should be treated as an object or as part of an undifferentiated, helpless mass. And that, I believe, is a lesson worth learning.

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