Here Comes Honey Boo Boo: Exploitive or empowering?
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Boo Hoo. You hate Honey Boo Boo.
But Honey Boo Boo doesn’t care. Because you’re watching.
The irascible 6-year-old Alana Thompson, also known as Honey Boo Boo, has her own hit show Wednesdays on TLC as a spin-off from the popular Toddlers & Tiaras series.
Critics are calling this a new all-time low for reality TV — but it’s a train wreck people can’t stop watching.
Boo Boo, a kind of foul-mouthed Shirley Temple, hopped up on sugary “Go Go Juice” caffeinated drinks, first appeared as a contestant on Toddlers and became a star — prompting the network to create the spin-off.
The camera follows her family as they adopt a pig, go extreme couponing, and basically belch and fart for most of the show.
Since its debut in August the show is pulling in more than two million viewers weekly. Toddlers & Tiaras, which airs before Boo Boo, gets 1.2 million viewers.
The family, who calls themselves “crazy rednecks,” lives in McIntyre, Ga., population 700.
The cast includes Boo Boo’s mom, June, dad “Sugar Bear” Mike, and sisters Lauryn (Pumpkin), Jessica (Chubbs) and Anna (Chickadee), who is 17 and pregnant — a year too old to qualify for her own spin-off show on MTV’s 16 And Pregnant.
The show has been criticized for either mocking or glamorizing the poor — Mike is a chalk miner. June had her first child when she was 15 and spends her days buying groceries with coupons.
Case in point, some scenes from the most recent episode:
Glitzy the pig poops on the dining room table.
“It looks like chocolate éclairs — Mama might wanna eat them!” yells Chubbs.
June and Sugar Bear go on a date for the first time in eight years and he buys her a statue of a deer. That’s because they like to eat road kill.
While they’re on the date the kids toilet paper the house.
“I could have wiped my butt for six months with the amount of toilet paper you used,” says June.
“This is the modern-day circus freak show, and some of us watch it because they want to feel superior, others watch it for purely entertainment purposes, it attracts a wide audience,” says Charlie Keil, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto.
Still, the town of McIntyre seems to be in on the joke. The sign on the country store says “Cuntry Stoe.” And some residents say that the family is making a performance out of it.
“They’re going to think we’re all crazy down here,” one resident told a local TV station.
Love or hate the chubby little beauty pageant contestant and her family, not too many 6 year olds can claim to have their own reality show. But what does this say about us, the viewers?
The argument of whether networks, such as TLC, exploit some family for profit or empower them is not new. TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, which goes behind the scenes of the child beauty pageant circuit, where kids as young as 2 are made to look like grown women, does monster ratings despite the criticism.
“Yes, the show is filled with stereotypes. Yes, we are laughing at them,” Robert Thompson, a professor of television at Syracuse University in New York, told Today, “but does their (socioeconomic status) mean we need to protect them? That’s kind of a condescending attitude.”
The question of exploitation is a difficult one, says Keil.
“They’ve already paraded their daughter in a beauty pageant and done an earlier show. But when it comes to children, the issues become murkier because they aren’t making the decisions.”
Keil says passing judgment on the lives of others isn’t a new development in television. He cites the 1940s precursor to reality TV, Queen for a Day, where contestants vie to see “who has the most miserable life” to win prizes as one example.
“Good reality TV adheres to the formula of fictionalized entertainment, and it must also have good characters,” says Keil. “You might criticize this kind of reality TV but the conundrum is that at some level they have to be good actors to pull it off. After all, a good actor is someone who is good at being themselves.”
That certainly seems to apply to Honey Boo Boo.
The show seems to be a cross between the beauty pageant back story of Toddlers and Tiaras and the down-home earthiness of Swamp People.
History Channel’s hit Swamp People follows the lives of Cajuns in America’s southern heartland.
The show is so popular you can buy a “Choot ’Em Clint” T-shirt on the History Channel website for $26.95. This is far less catchy than Honey Boo Boo’s “A Dollah Makes Me Hollah,” which is a slogan ripe for merchandising.
On Swamp People, catching gators and eating gumbo are some of the past-times that allow viewers to vicariously peek into a life that seems like a parallel universe. That is, until you see TLC’s other hit, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
And having a murky past doesn’t seem to hurt either. Duane “Dog” Chapman, also known as Dog the Bounty Hunter, served 18 months in a Texas penitentiary for murder, and his fan base is legion. Familiarity breeds fans, not contempt, as TLC has learned.
HONEY BOO BOOISMS
“I want to win Mo-nay!”
“A dollah makes me hollah Honey Boo Boo!”
“I rocked my Daisy Duke.”
“I showed my belly to the judges. They don’t know a good thing when they see it.”
“Those girls must be crazy if they think they’re going to beat Honey Boo Boo child.”
In Focus: Richard Crouse