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Honey Boo Boo, Reconsidered

Despite many of the network’s and producer’s best—or worst—efforts, some critics and scads of viewers can't help admit how winning and emotionally functional this particularly notorious reality TV family actually comes across.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm
Cast: Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, June "Mama" Shannon
Network: TLC

Now that the initial shock of TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo has largely subsided, we can take the time and reflect on this particular portion of popular culture and its surprisingly deeper ramifications.

To put it mildly, since its debut, the reviews and assessments of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo have not been kind. Some have labeled the show the end of civilization (yes, you, Philadelphia Inquirer) while some have said something even worse—it’s the end of television!

Along with having to endure a pot shot from Jodie Foster during her Golden Globe speech earlier this year, the following are just some of the things that have been said about the Thompson-Johnson Family and their prime time show:

Variety: “TLC can derive some comfort from knowing its programming continues a long tradition of carnival barkers and sideshow attractions, albeit calibrated to a YouTube-friendly digital age.”

Television Without Pity: “I stand by my theory that there's three ways to watch this show: with horror and disgust, with socio-economic curiosity and amazement or just as a dumb reality show where people do crazy things.”

And, to be fair, there is much to this program that is, well, gross. From their butter- and Cheese Puff-heavy diet, to the vile “Guess The Breath” game they play when they are bored, to their near constant and crass celebrations of bodily functions, no one would confuse the Honey Boo Boo brood with the residents of Downton Abbey.

But, to be fair, the producers of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo do go out of their way to portray the family in the most unpleasant and stereotypical light possible. Though in almost all “reality TV” participants are usually given just enough rope to embarrass themselves (with their selfishness, narcissism or even straight out stupidity), Honey seems to go to the extreme. A case in point: if an Amazing Race contestant stutters or sneezes during one of their on-camera interviews, it would be done over again. If one of the talkers on Real World snots all over themselves during one of their to-the-cameras talks, the tape is stopped and the whole thing reshot. But not on Honey Boo Boo, where in the name of “humor” or “realism”, this family’s outtakes become intakes for all the world to see.

Almost as carefully as pointed is the constant subtitles that are employed by the show’s producers whenever any of the show’s “characters” talk, as if Southern accents and pronunciations are as difficult to decipher as ancient Latin.

Still, despite many of the network’s and producer’s best—or worst—efforts, many critics and viewers have still noted how winning and emotionally functional this particular TV family actually comes across. Despite her penchant for pageants, Honey herself (also known as Alana) shows a proud acceptance of her physical state and any of her family’s concern about weight seems to be more related to health than an outmoded beauty ideal. And the family shows a touching tolerance (for example towards gay uncle Uncle Poodle) that has probably only been arrived at after their own experience with intolerance.

In fact, most (if not all) of the criticism lodged at this family seems to come from a place of uppity judgmentalism, whether we are calling them “redneck”, “white trash” or worse, or just looking down our noses at their habit of recycling roadkill into dinner or playing around in the mud.

But, in the end, such value judgments say far more about us than it does about them.

Even those critics and viewers who pronounce the family likable and even winning, often lament the fact that the family seems so disturbingly content with their lot in life. The word “aspirational” has been employed more than once to describe the quality that this TLC clan is lacking. Why, they wonder, doesn’t this family want to “improve”? Why don’t they want to live in a bigger house, live somewhere else, find a new career or at least put on some shoes? But even this sort of lament comes with an undercurrent of ego...our ego. Asking them to “aspire” is to suggest, or assume, that this family is not happy (or shouldn’t be happy) the way they are. Or that they are somehow doing something “wrong” if they don’t want the bigger house and the nicer footwear. But maybe, just maybe, Honey and her relations like their house and like where and how they live. Who are we, after all, to judge? In the end, the Honey Boo Boo family is no more “wrong” than the families of the Real Housewives or the Kardashians are “right.”

Sometimes even the best of intentions and good wishes can come tinged with self-righteousness.

* * *

The second season of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo begins 17 July 2013 at 9pm on TLC.

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