Let’s dispense with one myth, straight off: The TLC series “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” did not, in fact, draw more ratings than the political conventions. Reality TV isn’t that powerful yet.
Still, the surprise-hit show draws 3 million viewers every week, just got spoofed on “Saturday Night Live,” and is the latest in a series of much-heralded examples of what’s wrong with America.
And if you’re worried about its influence, you might be worried for precisely the wrong reasons.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” centers on a 6-year-old named Alana Thompson — who gave herself the memorable nickname — and her overweight mother, June Shannon. They first appeared on the TLC reality show “Toddlers and Tiaras,” and were so blazingly telegenic that a spinoff seemed inevitable.
June and Alana live in a small house in McIntyre, Ga., with Thompson’s father, nicknamed “Sugar Bear,” and her older sisters, one of whom is a teen mom. Their walls are lined with packages of toilet paper, which June, an obsessive couponer, bought shockingly cheap; she’s saving money so Alana can compete in pint-sized beauty pageants. They go on four-wheeler excursions to the “local department store,” otherwise known as the town dump. Alana likes to shout things like, “Redneckognize!”
In short, they unapologetically represent a certain vision of rural America, and for that, the extremes of love and hate they elicit is fascinating. Reading the Internet chatter about “Honey Boo Boo” is like staring at one of those shells that curls in on itself: Is it insulting and coast-centric to watch a show that makes fun of poor Southerners? Or is it insulting and coast-centric to assume that that a show about poor Southerners is making fun of them?
Yes, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” has a mocking tone. It also has subtitles that are widely seen as a sign of condescension — though executive producer Tom Rogan told me that producers truly couldn’t understand the family’s thick Southern accents. But “Honey Boo Boo” pokes fun at working-class Southerners the way “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” pokes fun of overprivileged Angelenos: gently, and with their full consent.
Indeed, if there’s coast-centric judgmentalism at work here, it’s in the assumption that June — by virtue of her looks and her location — is a rube who’s being duped by slick Hollywood types, as opposed to a woman who understands how to milk an opportunity. And it’s in the assumption that, with enough Kardashian money, she’d do a lot of things differently.
“Some people have an idealized version of what America is, or maybe it should be. And some of that’s probably informed by, ironically, television to begin with,” Rogan told me by phone last week.
“Honey Boo Boo” is hardly the first reality show set in semi-rural America; for every new installment of “Real Housewives,” there’s a show like A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” about a family of decoy builders in backwoods Louisiana.
But since most TV production originates in Los Angeles, New York, and thereabouts, we get fed a certain image of what’s “normal” and what’s “unusual.” This is evidenced by the number of sitcoms about hip urbanites, the fictional TV homes that are out of whack with real-life salary constraints, the material consumption that’s presented as aspiration.
And then there are the Shannon-Thompsons, awash in issues that are central to many American lives: blended families, weight struggles, belt-tightening. They don’t look like the “Modern Family” crowd, they don’t live half as luxuriously, they fart on camera and don’t care, but they’re at least as representative of America.
We live in a weirdly and sadly divided country. Some people get worked up about other people’s guns and religion, and some people get worked up about other people’s arugula. At its best, “Honey Boo Boo” — viewed without the implicit classism — manages to bridge that gap.
Already, Rogan notes, some once-skeptical critics have turned into converts. They realize that the show is, at its heart, a portrait of a happy family, free from Kardashian-style catfights — a group of people who reject any assumption, from the coasts, that they ought to be anything but themselves.