While critics have been severely judgemental of the Thompson family’s poverty and “trashiness", this concern actually ignores that the Boo Boo Clan embodies core American values.
I first discovered Honey Boo Boo through politics. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked the question: “Who do you like more: Snooki or Honey Boo Boo?” Romney answered that Snooki was the admirable one, because she had “lost so much weight.” This prompted a quick Google search of the pleasantly plump Honey Boo Boo child, in which I became familiar with sayings such as “You’d better redneckognize!” and “It’s been a while since I done had roadkill in my belly.” I shuddered in thinking that our reality television could stoop any lower than Jersey Shore, and, like many people, I believed that this show finally scraped the bottom of the barrel, scooping out the sludge and muck of our human nature in a way that might signal the end of civilization as we know it. However, while critics are bemoaning the exploitation, gagging in disgust, toting anthems of being “horrified", and mocking Honey Boo Boo’s antics in a barrage of parodies, the truth is not what we would expect. Honey Boo Boo -- the pugnacious pink princess that packs a whole lot of attitude -- does not represent the evils of America or the degeneration of our culture. In fact, American audiences can learn a lot from watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Many people may recoil at this claim, thinking themselves above “redneck games” in which participants belly flop into mud and go bobbing for raw pig’s feet; however, despite the unusual antics, this family represents something that is largely absent from American culture and popular television: healthy family values. Ignore, for a moment, that TLC forces the entire family to do their interviews outside in the sweltering heat of a Georgia summer, so that they are constantly swiping and cursing at gnats, and what you have left is a family that genuinely loves each other, spends significant amounts of time together, laughs together, and accepts each other unconditionally. In the span of the first season of Honey Boo Boo, the family engages in recreational activities to bond and create memories that range from four-wheeling to water slides, breath sniffing contests to birthday parties.
But it doesn’t stop there: this family is also incredibly emotionally supportive. When Honey Boo Boo’s sister has to get her first ultrasound, the entire family is present; Honey Boo Boo even smears the jelly on her sister’s pregnant belly. And when it’s time for Honey Boo Boo’s spotlight in the pageant circuit, the entire family (and extended family) packs up the car and cheers her on for support, even bringing her a special gift after she wins “People’s Choice”: a visit from her old pet pig that she was heartbroken to give up. It’s undeniable that there is no family dysfunction here. While Americans are constantly citing the 50% divorce rate, and our media and television is riddled with stories of abuse, neglect, absent fathers, and overworked parents, Honey Boo Boo effectively portrays the opposite. They may be grinding up roadkill for their family dinners, but they are, first and foremost, a family.
These healthy bonding rituals promote another positive side effect that is absent from our popular media, and, for many individuals, absent from our daily lives -- a strong sense of self esteem and self love. It’s readily apparent that six-year-old Alana has no insecurities despite her obvious flaws. Honey Boo Boo states: “Beauty comes in all sizes, and my size is CUTE.” She holds a mirror up to herself in interviews and tells herself “I’m pretty,” turns it back on the audience and then says “You’re pretty.” She proudly competes alongside stick thin children in barely-there bikinis while wearing a shiny blue bathing suit that covers belly rolls, and struts in saying that she looks “like a giant blueberry,” and she loves it. Our culture routinely blames the media for the severe eating disorders that plague our women, but we are so incredibly bound to the skinny archetype of femininity that we don’t even notice when we’ve met a foil to that media evil, and we mock her for her chubbiness instead. In fact, all the children in this family love themselves despite their flaws and are not hung up on stereotypical notions of beauty.
In the season finale, the birth of Alana’s sister’s baby uncovers a surprising birth defect: baby Kaitlyn has six fingers on one hand. If this were to occur in a reality show with an upper class family, such as Real Housewives or The Kardashians, you could expect tears and dismay, visits to plastic surgeons and heartbreak over their child’s inability to be normal. Yet, Honey Boo Boo’s family spends only six minutes of camera time discussing this occurrence, brushing it off and saying that “This just makes her more special,” and “It gives us more of her to love,” with Honey Boo Boo enthusiastically proclaiming that she wishes she had six fingers too, “because then I could grab more cheese balls!” The unconditional acceptance of each other leads each family member to love themselves in such a healthy manner that they remain largely unfazed by the insecurities that afflict many women.
Despite these positives, most people are severely critical of the family’s poverty and “trashiness"” but this concern actually ignores that the Boo Boo Clan embodies a value that American culture totes incessantly: a strong work ethic and independence. Recently, Mitt Romney incited a major backlash when he was secretly recorded describing 47% of the American electorate as “dependent on government", elaborating that “My job is not to worry about those people.” Despite the outcries at this statement, this is actually a very common public notion about poverty in America. Many people consider the poor to be something akin to raccoons (as one senator described them), pilfering food and possessions from the wealthier classes in the form of tax handouts.
A major political debate has been waged the last four years about making tax percentages on the incomes of the wealthy equal to that of the lower and middle classes. (The wealthy currently pay around 11%-15% while the rest pay an average of 20%). While fairness may seem logical, this has not been put into action due to a common American philosophy that hard work should be rewarded, and if you are successful enough to make a lot of money, you should be rewarded by being able to keep more money. Currently, 15.1% of our country lives at the poverty level (under $26,000 a year for a family of five, under $22,000 a year for a family of four.) Undoubtedly, Honey Boo Boo’s family, which is comprised of six people supported only on the income of a chalk miner with both parents lacking even a high school diploma, fell into this large statistic as they began filming their show. And yet, all six people are adequately provided for due to June’s savvy couponing, bingo games, and stale food auctions. These things may be easy to laugh at and easy to judge, but if we are honest about our true American values -- that our culture wants the poor to take care of themselves, by themselves, and essentially create miracles out of nothing -- then the Boo Boo’s should be applauded rather than degraded.
Surprisingly, this family is not only self-sufficient, they are also not selfish. June gives expired coupons to a program that allows soldiers to use them as they serve overseas, and the family puts on a yearly “Christmas in July” charity event in which they decorate their house in holiday cheer, make Sugar Bear dress up as Santa, and have local children stop by with canned good donations for the poor. This family is fully invested in giving back to their community, and June says that this is an important value that she teaches her children. When was the last time you saw the Kardashians or the castmates of The Jersey Shore involved in charity on their TV show? While the rich do participate in charity events, it’s not a common value we see embraced in our “reality” television, and even when it is, it’s so mired by fights and drama that audiences forget about the charity involved. Yet, Honey Boo Boo’s family serves as a heartfelt reminder that this is a value we should cherish, that giving back is a gift to ourselves and to others, even if you are not an affluent individual.
Many people may counter my claims with the sheer physical size of this family: June tips the scale at over 300 lbs, and her children, while not yet in obese range, are unhealthily overweight. TLC portrays them as subsisting on a diet of cheese puffs, chips, and hot dogs in enormous portions. In one episode, June makes her old family recipe of “sketti”: pasta, a tub of butter, and ketchup. Critics of the family’s weight and diet are correct in being alarmed: a diet such as this is exceedingly dangerous for young children, and statistics show that this sort of diet will lead to poor cardiovascular health and shorter life spans. However, while these reality stars’ diets may seem over the top, their diets and corresponding health concerns aren’t that unique.
According to Children’s Health Care, nearly 40 percent of Georgia families have an increased risk of health effects stemming from childhood obesity, regardless of socio-economic status. Therefore, Honey Boo Boo and her family are not as different as everyone would like to believe. June shows us that we can’t keep assuming that health is an individual issue that people take responsibility for, and, in fact, much of the public is grossly uneducated about what good health is comprised of. (Case in point: June thinks that farting 10-15 times a day makes you lose weight and means that you’re healthy.) If anything, this family should teach us that obesity is a serious epidemic in America that can’t keep getting swept under the rug: we must start implementing programs in our public schools and working on public health initiatives to educate the general public.
The final and most simple reason that Honey Boo Boo deserves our respect is because she is simply a good person. Most of our reality shows center on fighting, backstabbing and greed, and even our Hollywood heroes embrace and reflect the darkest and saddest forms of human nature: our headlines are constantly filled with tales of lies, cheating, betrayal, feuds, and even domestic violence. (Chris Brown, I’m looking at you.) We pander to the kids of the Jersey Shore as they do nothing more than drink, curse, have sex, and land in rehab. We celebrate them and reward them with millions of dollars and millions of fans. Meanwhile, Honey Boo Boo sits on her steps for her birthday party and says to guests, “Before I open my presents, I want to thank you all for being here. You have all made my birthday party the best day ever.” When her sisters give her a giant tub of hot sauce from her mother’s cupboard for her birthday, she says that she likes her sister’s presents because they “came from their heart.” She exhibits gratitude and kinship, as does her entire family.
For that characteristic alone, Honey Boo Boo is not worthy of the continual bashing, horror, and disgust. When Mitt Romney was asked who he respected, the answer should have been resoundingly clear, and it says a lot about our culture’s lack of perception that it wasn’t: Snooki’s weight loss does not warrant our respect, because Snooki’s television personality is, and always has been, an incredibly terrible person. Despite the stenches that Honey Boo Boo’s family emits through continual belches and farts, they are a breath of fresh air.
Anne Champion, MFA, is an Adjunct Professor of Writing at Emerson College, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Wheelock College.