TLC hit a goldmine with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo: A 7 year old pageant queen who knocks back a Red Bull/Mountain Dew concoction of “go-go juice” before making fart jokes and saying words like “redneckonize” in an accent so tragic it requires subtitles.
The critics, of course, are all over it. Some want the show yanked off the air, bashing it for mocking small-town people and perpetuating offensive stereotypes. South Park creators dedicated an episode to Honey Boo Boo in a satirical critique of how we’ve “lowered the bar” on what we find entertaining. And the rest see it as proof that Western civilization as we know it has fallen.
But here’s the thing: reality TV has always been lowbrow shittiness that’s caricaturized people, mocked cultural diversity, and exploited human emotion for entertainment value. This is not news.
So why such harsh critique of this show? Where was this anger during airings of Bad Girls Club, Basketball Wives, and Flavor of Love? Why was this niggatry so accepted as “harmless entertainment” but Honey Boo Boo is the catalyst for a cultural meltdown?
Because this is a show about a white, working class family with a blonde haired, blued-eyed daughter. So surely, something must be done.
In retrospect, mainstream pop culture has been pretty good to white folks. Even reality TV has churned out wholesome, rosy-cheeked family shows like 19 Kids and Counting, John and Kate Plus 8, and Sister Wives.
And even among the more trite variety of shows (Real Housewives of, Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the Hills) the premise often highlighted the attractiveness, affluence, status, or lifestyle of the stars.
But a hugely popular White Trash-a-thon? This is some new shit.
The backlash against this show consists mostly of embarrassed white people trying very hard to point out how “unrealistic” Honey Boo Boo is, thus engaging in a rare social practice: explaining the behavior of other people in their racial group to save face.
That’s the amazing and ironic thing Honey Boo Boo has done: unintentionally exposing white people to the experience of collective racial shaming. The kind that assumes the negative behavior of one member of a marginalized group represents the behavior of that group in its entirety.
The identity of whiteness has always been fluid. We’ve judged its members on an individual, case-by-case basis and not as a cohesive whole. And within that privilege came the freedom of living organically; without fear of reinforcing stereotypes or generating shame for the people who look like them. The assurance that, unlike minorities, they could never single handedly be a detriment or credit to their race.
Most of this has to do with the terms in which whiteness has been defined by white people themselves: a hard-working middle class Leave-it-to-Beaver utopia. An image that has managed to be protected and perpetuated, in part, because of the limited aspects of white reality we actually see in the media.
That’s what makes Honey Boo Boo so embarrassing. She and her family penetrate the image of whiteness we’re so conditioned to seeing with extreme contradictions. Instead of the clean-cut “all-American” pedigree, they are overweight, disheveled, unapologetic rednecks. Instead of middle-class suburbia, they live in a rural town where nearly half of its residents are below poverty level. Instead of Judeo-Christian morality, the are four children with four different fathers, teenage mothers, and parents with criminal pasts.
And even as stupid as this show is, it’s ironic that we can more easily internalize the negative images of blackness within reality TV. That we can somehow see a negro in a viking hat and a giant clock around his neck as a reflection of black life, but refuse to accept any aspect of Honey Boo Boo as “realistic. “
So criticize Honey Boo Boo for it’s lack of nuance and authenticity. Push back, protest. Hell, get the show cancelled. But if Flavor Flav ever shows back up, you’d better be just as mad.