Is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo an exploitative freak show? Or a glimpse into a little-known demographic, namely the white working poor of the American South? (Or, as Mama June likes to say, rednecks.) Are little Honey Boo Boo and her down-home family Southern Gothic signs of American decline or vulnerable rubes who need to be protected from the amoral, all-devouring cameras of TLC?
There's an unprecedented amount of uneasiness about this reality-TV family, a chubby, cheerful bunch from small-town Georgia who debuted on the child-pageant circus of Toddlers and Tiaras and now have their own spinoff show. Whether these reactions involve unhappy hand-wringing or an all-out hate-on, they are fundamentally esthetic. What's expressed as moral outrage often tracks back to disgust -- a sense that we need to be ashamed for these folks because they don't have the good sense to be ashamed of themselves.
First off, I would say that this clan is better behaved than a lot of "classier" reality TV stars. There may be a lot of public farting on Honey Boo Boo, but there's none of the back-stabbing, table-flipping hysteria you see on the Real Housewives franchise. These folks are also blessedly free from the naked status anxiety and claws-out competition that animate shows like The Bachelor. In one sense, Honey Boo Boo's family is a lot less vulgar than the Kardashians.
"We are who we are," proclaims Mama June proudly. In its own funny way, the family works, as a close, supportive and affectionate matriarchy led by the 32-year-old June (soon to be a grandmother when 17-year-old Chickadee has her own baby). Honey Boo Boo is a homely little thing who often seems incoherently hepped up on Mountain Dew and too much attention, but her sturdy self-confidence is fascinating.
By the admittedly low standards of reality TV, the family is surprisingly functional. What really gets most viewers, then, is the way these people look and sound. Mama tips the scales at 309 pounds and has crusty deposits in the folds of her chins. The teen girls have conversations about boogers. Sugar Bear, Honey Boo Boo's stringy and nearly silent daddy, chews tobaccos and spits into a jar.
Esthetically, they're a hot mess, and they seem to provoke an unspoken longing for a time when poverty resembled Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans. Back then, the poor looked lean and austere, the planes of their faces sculpted by hard times. Their sharecropper cabins were spare, not packed with ticky-tacky stuff and fatty processed food and shelves of budget toilet paper. They kept body and soul together with a bit of migrant pea picking, not through "extreme couponing" binges at the Piggly Wiggly.
Of course, nobody wants to admit to experiencing this kind of reactionary nostalgia -- it's repugnant! -- so feelings about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo get turned into vague liberal guilt or conservative outrage.
It doesn't help that the stage is set so shoddily by TLC, which not only starts every episode with hillbilly establishing shots (roadkill, train tracks, cars on blocks) but has also made the dubious decision to subtitle a lot of the family's drawlin' Georgia dialogue, as if America's poor lived in a foreign country. At one point, a pet pig, Glitzy, is brought into the house, probably by some TLC producer who has fond memories of Arnold Ziffel from the 1960s TV show Green Acres. Unfortunately, Glitzy lacks Arnold's porcine poise and craps on the kitchen table.
The tendency to turn "hicks" into exotic entertainment -- which runs from The Beverly Hillbillies back through Hee Haw to Ma and Pa Kettle -- makes it easy to view the family as victims. But like anyone who makes it to "the big show" in reality TV, Mama seems highly aware of how her clan presents to the world.
Far from being the unknowing butts of a huge middle-class joke, they're shrewdly in on the laughs. Mama June is a born performer who knows they need to keep the country-trash clichés coming (even while they're banking big TLC cheques that mean Sugar Bear won't have to be semi-toothless for much longer).
Meanwhile, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is seen to be dragging around tons of symbolic weight, with a lot of media punditry predicated on the idea that Mama and her kids are representing the redneck demographic. But imagine the outcry if you told wealthy married women in large urban centres that they were being "represented" by The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Or if you informed mothers of ballerinas that Dance Moms was a peek into their strange little subculture. Or suggested to parents of multiples that Jon & Kate Plus 8 really illuminated their daily lives. I think even huffers and junkies might claim they're being misrepresented by those over-the-top, attention-seeking addicts on Intervention.
At this point, reality TV is incapable of describing anything other than its own tired tropes. The only group that can be properly represented on its ritualized, remarkably similar shows is the People-Who-Really-Want-To-Be-On-Reality-TV demographic.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo doesn't tell us much about rednecks, but it says a lot about our increasingly jaded viewing habits.