I have to confess: Although critics have universally lambasted the TLC reality TV series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I love the show.
I have no idea why I love it so much. Maybe it was because I already fell in love with the family when that Toddlers and Tiaras segment featuring six-year-old Alana Thompson first appeared on YouTube. Toddlers and Tiaras is itself horrific, showing the inner world of child beauty pageants and how parents would do absolutely anything (like plastic surgery) to have their daughters win. In that ultra-competitive environment, Alana shone. “Those other girls must be crazy if they think they’re gonna beat ME HONEY BOO BOO CHILD!” And although she didn’t win against those mini-plastics, her eccentricity won my heart. She seemed really sincere about beating the other girls, but it didn’t sound malicious or dramatized in the way reality TV normally is. She was just being a normal six-year-old pepped for a competition, and if she didn’t win, then it was okay (supposedly because she didn’t show her belly to the judges).
It wasn’t until Here Comes Honey Boo Boo came out that we knew more about Honey Boo Boo and her mother, June (“Mama”). Mama has three other daughters, all with different men, though HBB’s father (“Sugar Bear”) has been with the family for eight years now. They live in rural McIntyre, Georgia, next to a busy railroad. Mama Bear dropped out of high school after she was pregnant with her first child and obsesses with couponing (“It’s even better than sex”). She believes that farting at least 10 times a day helps lose weight.
People have responded to the show in two ways. The first reaction is to the family itself as trashy rednecks and “everything that is wrong with America.” The title card loudly features Mama’s flatulence. They eat cheese puffs for breakfast. In the pilot, they go to the Redneck Games to bob for pig snouts and play in mud pits. In the entire show, their dialogue is supplemented with subtitles because their speech is so unintelligible. For these haters, the show is such a trainwreck that it’s impossible to look away.
These criticisms say more about the critics than the family themselves. Here are spectators, typically 18-30-year-olds from upper-middle class families, putting others down to make themselves feel better. “Their shotgun shack lies virtually on the railroad tracks,” one critic writes. “Southern Pacific brakemen could grab a bottle of go-go juice as they pass through without leaning out of the train.” The star of the Lifetime reality TV show Dance Moms, Abby Lee Miller, told TMZ about how she herself needs to lose weight before saying that at least she wasn’t as bad as HBB. Cheap.
The second criticizes TLC for exploiting the family for malicious amusement. This is much more warranted: TLC was paying the family $4,000 per episode, compared to $25,000 for the Duggars in 18 Kids and Counting (another TLC reality show). TLC’s condescending editing is also extremely uncomfortable: At one point they visit a dumpster to salvage things, before cutting to HBB innocently whispering that all of her sister’s clothes were from the dumpster. She says that sweetly just like every other six-year-old would do when telling a secret they shouldn’t — yet TLC clearly wants you to giggle at her because of the family’s poverty.
That’s a real shame, because, despite their faults, they are the best thing to happen to kitschy reality TV — they dump the scripted crap for some genuinely human positive interaction. Mama might have had two kids by 17, but she has a sharp wit and an amazingly positive and pragmatic outlook on life (one that we cynics fantasize for). Casually mentioning her chins, Mama says that she doesn’t care because “beauty comes from the inside,” before saying that she would like to lose a hundred pounds in support of her second daughter’s diet. They even weigh themselves on camera, which takes a lot of confidence and self-esteem given society’s images of body weight.
TLC, hit with those well-deserved accusations of exploitation, recently offered them a bigger house, to which they refused (“Keeping it real,” as CNN described). And although Mama refuses to marry Sugar Bear (even though he’s asked many times), all her daughters try to push her into marriage, saying that he’s like the father they never had. Sugar Bear himself dresses up as Santa Claus in July to solicit canned donations for the less fortunate and claims that family always comes first.
Perhaps the moment that really solidified this show’s value was when Sugar Bear gave HBB a pet pig to cheer her up after losing a pageant. HBB immediately took to the pet pig with painted toenails, changing “Glitzy” from a boy pig to a girl pig so “he could be a little gay.” When her older sister (“Chubbs”) pointed out that the pig was probably not gay, she pointedly retorts “He can if he wants to. You can’t tell that pig what to do.”
As hard as TLC may try to slap that redneck trash stereotype that we Northerners enjoy, the family always worms their way out of it to prove them and its critics wrong. So I only have one response to the haters who need a little self-esteem boost: Get over yourselves, because they definitely have. Yes, the go-go juice is really, really bad, but at least unlike other pageant moms, Mama wants HBB to be the first in their family to go to college. Besides, the family doesn’t care about your criticism. Absent TLC, absent reality TV and absent us as an audience, the Thompsons will just keep doing what they do. If schadenfreude is unavoidable and people demand reality TV, I want to see more things that bond than divide (Real Housewives of NJ, anyone?). Seriously, more power to them.