TLC’s latest reality offering -- “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” a spin-off from the network’s “Toddlers & Tiaras” centered on one of that show’s more memorable pageant princesses -- has, since it appeared out of the heat and humidity two weeks ago, become one of the most talked-about series on television. No surprise there; it’s a perfect train-wreck diversion at the end of a punishing summer of record-breaking heat, roaring wildfires and increasingly nasty political confrontations. What’s more, even with its pig-pooping, mud-flopping and armpit-farting, it may be one of the most culturally significant entertainment programs of our tumultuous times, if only because it’s about how certain people get by without mounds of money.
I may be exaggerating a bit, but there are things about “Boo Boo” that are worth calling attention to. It’s just too easy to dismiss this series because it showcases a lifestyle that makes millions of people uneasy or to accuse it of advancing certain regional stereotypes. Unless one happens to live that lifestyle, which many people might locate under the general heading of “redneck,” the everyday antics of six-year-old Southern beauty pageant fixture Alana Thompson and her family and friends in McIntyre, Ga. (population approximately 700) can appear utterly foreign.
But there is something of value beyond that first blush: Alana’s mother, June Shannon, and her father, Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, an unmarried couple, are clearly devoted to Alana and her three half-sisters (from other fathers) and are doing the best they are equipped to do (within the limited parameters of their own life experiences) to provide them with a loving home life and to teach them right from wrong. They may eat too much junk food and use atrocious grammar, but the four girls are not spoiled, they are made to take responsibility for their actions, and they are constantly engaged in family activities, whether it’s a day at the local spa for mom and the girls or an afternoon at the local Redneck Games, happily described by June as “similar to the Olympics, but with a lot of missing teeth and a lot of butt cracks showin’.”
“Boo Boo” ostensibly revolves around the perilously precocious Alana, but whether by design or default, Mama June steals the show, and while many viewers will likely recoil at her outlandish quirks, it’s worth noting that she seems to sincerely like herself exactly as she is. Yes, she ought to drop some weight for health reasons, but it is nevertheless somewhat refreshing to watch someone so perfectly at peace with herself go about her business.
June is plainly a plus-sized woman, topping the scale in one episode at 309 pounds, but whenever the subject is raised she very pleasantly explains that she has “embraced” her “fatness.” That said, she’s happy to help one of her daughters lose a few pounds and to shed a few of her own in support. And she’s not afraid to comment on other large women who appear at public events in attire she deems inappropriate. “Please, women of a voluptuous size, put some clothes on!” June says to the camera after witnessing several big women parade around in very little at the Redneck Games. “All that vajiggle jaggle is not beautimous!”
If this were a scripted show, fashioned as a modern-day “Beverly Hillbillies” or “Green Acres,” high-falutin’ critics and other noisy groups would likely raise a ferocious fuss about it. But “Boo Boo” is reality, at least as it is processed and packaged for contemporary media consumption, and it feels very authentic, so the outraged and off-put are instead directing their disgust toward TLC for putting it on and toward June and her family for being the people they are.
This situation calls for some perspective: Is the involvement of children here any worse than on “Wife Swap” or “Supernanny”? Indeed, the latter is a show that spotlights adults who have ceded all control to their children and are suffering as a result. June and Mike may be colorful and come off as “unedumacated,” but they aren’t afraid to parent and they don’t need outside help to discipline their children, probably because they make spending time with the kids a priority, even above making money. They also seem to sincerely love each other. I’m not saying they’re role models, but I have seen worse parents on television.
In a perfect world, children would not appear in reality programs until they were old enough to give legal consent. But if such a world ever existed it has been forever demolished by the media. Indeed, some of the most popular viral videos, like “David After Dentist” and “Funny Reaction to Drugs for a Broken Arm,” are the happy result of parents exploiting their own kids at a time when those kids have no self-control. So let’s put the children aside, which is something June and Mike never do. In every other way and as a look into a sometimes-discomfiting world that many of us never see, is “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” really any more offensive than the “The Real Housewives” franchise or “Jersey Shore”?