Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is both the title of the latest TLC reality program and a dire warning to the world at large. A spin-off of Toddlers & Tiaras, Honey Boo Boo centers on young pageant contestant Alana Thompson and her family in Georgia. I have never seen an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras, because I’ve lived a successful life dedicated to avoiding it at all costs. But no prior knowledge of that show is necessary to watch Honey Boo Boo, because as Gertrude Stein once eloquently said: A train wreck is a train wreck is a train wreck.
In actuality, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo really doesn’t have a lot to do with the titular figure herself in the two episodes that premiered tonight. At the center of this horror story posing as a reality television program is “Mama,” the matriarch of the family and center around which the entire program revolves. Not having seen Toddlers and Tiaras, it’s hard to know if she’s naturally an attention-seeking woman or if TLC realized she was a 300-pound malapropism waiting to happen. Motivations matter little in cases like this. What’s important to note is that more than half the time in each episode is dedicated to her worldview, which involves preparing Alana for pageants, going to auctions to buy junk food for her family, and generally doing the minimum amount of parenting to prevent the state from taking her children away.
Okay, that’s a little unfair: It’s not so much that Mama actively abuses her children so much as provides perhaps the worst example possible of how to live a life with a bit of respect, or at least decorum. Not since Wuthering Heights has there been a better battle of nature versus nurture in a popular art form. I exaggerate, of course, but the actually interesting parts of Honey Boo Boo come in the moments in which the vaudeville act performed by the Thompsons drops away and accidentally reveals some kernels of truth and humanity underneath. It’s not that the Thompsons have to be this way. They either don’t know how to change or don’t understand that change is even an option.
It’s easy to look at Alana and just chalk up her attitude to a combination of age and precociousness. It’s easy to look at 15-year old Jessica (called “Chubbette” by Mama and “Chubbs” in the onscreen TLC graphic) eating cheese balls off the floor and recoil in horror. It’s easy to watch Mama talk positively about her looks and wonder what she sees in the mirror. But then the caricatures disappear, even fleetingly, and it’s much more difficult to pass this off as Car Crash TV. At first, Mama publicly defends her choice not to lose weight with her daughter, stating she’s happy with the way she is. Later, when Mama admits to the camera that she’d like to lose 100 pounds in order to support Jessica, it’s a completely human moment, devoid of all bravado. But it’s also the saddest moment of tonight’s two episodes, because you recognize the bravado not as an on-screen persona but a disguise meant to mask her pain.
That’s not to say that Thompson family is actively participating in an active ruse meant to mock the worst stereotypes of Southern culture. This isn’t collaborative role-playing on the level of Daniel Whitney’s “Larry The Cable Guy” character. These are just people who by and large don’t understand how poorly they come across on television. If they were completely oblivious, perhaps Honey Boo Boo might not seem like such a sour enterprise. We’re meant to laugh at the poor manners that Alana and her sister Pumpkin exhibit when an etiquette teacher comes to help make them more ladylike. It’s not the pair failing to transform into princesses after one session that is depressing. It’s that the show presents even the very idea of them being able to reach a point at which not farting at the table is even possible as a totally improbable idea. In a year in which aspirational reality programs such as Motor City Rising and Push Girls have emerged, it’s cynical (and outdated) to air something so negative.
But Honey Boo Boo’s editing lives by and large in that negative space. As such, most of the two episodes tonight focus on inappropriate, unintelligent, and uncultured behavior. The very first thing that the Thompsons do in their own reality show? Go to The Redneck Games, of course. There, the family both participates in the festival and looks down on those who are not them. They are happy to jump into mud pits and bob for raw pig snouts, but Mama (herself no prize) decides to mock the overweight denizens of The Redneck Games for their skimpy sartorial decisions. Mama’s summation of the excessive skin on display? “All that vajiggle jaggle is not beautimous.” That’s a direct fucking quote. How do I know it’s a direct quote? Because the entire show featured subtitles. Yes, subtitles—previously the province of foreign films and Noel Gallagher interviews—were working overtime to translate the words of the Thompson family into something intelligible. The fact that Mama invented roughly 40 words tonight didn’t help matters for the poor transcribers.
And yet, out of the mouths of babes and Honey Boo Boos come some oddly sweet and smart things every once in a while. The second episode features the family adopting a teacup pig for Alana after her pageant defeat in the premiere. Alana names the pig (which they got from a place called “Posh Pigs”, because of course they did) Glitzy, because she wants to use it in future competitions as a sidekick/prop. Here’s the kicker: Even though Glitzy is male, Alana wants to dress it up as a female, which she thinks will inevitably turn it gay. That’s fucking incredible on a variety of levels, but most incredible of all? Alana voraciously defends the lifestyle choices of an animal that mostly wants to forage for food and/or escape and hightail it back to Posh Pigs. Alana’s logic is completely crazy, but her defense of the bizarre rules she’s imposed upon the animal is oddly adorable. Glitzy will be gay, but that’s okay! “We’re gonna make you a pageant gay pig!” should be intensely offensive. Somehow it comes off as endearing. It’s a remarkable moment.
But for every moment like that, there are a dozen that make you wonder if Honey Boo Boo’s laid-back attitude towards Glitzy has been instilled in her or is a happy little accident. At one point, we see Mama at a weekly auction to buy food on the cheap for her family. The idea of food auctions isn’t something to mock. In fact, having little knowledge of such things, I watched with interest to see how low-income families bypass supermarkets in favor of auctions in order to make ends meet. But the reality of the auctions—during which Mama loads up on cookies, chips, and cake for the family—produces anger, not insight. Many viewers can relate to the idea of cutting back on everyday necessities, especially in these hard economic times. The idea that Mama and father (“Sugar Bear”) have put all their eggs into the Alana basket doesn’t make them inherently awful people. But when those sacrifices lead to a family whose members will probably all have diabetes by 2015, then Alana’s progressive attitudes about porcine sexuality somehow seem less important.
These young girls don’t respect themselves because the parents don’t respect themselves either. It’s easy to focus on the odd, David Lynchian pageants because it’s more fun to do that then take a look at the cheeseball-strewn carpet in the Thompsons’ living room or watch Mama wash her hair in the kitchen sink rather than in the shower. Instead of taking a hard look at that, TLC would rather you buy Honey Boo Boo ringtones (including the probably-should-be-illegal “a dollah makes me holla”) and pretend like this is a grand old time. It’s not. It’s a pageant of the worst kind, in which the Thompsons are unknowingly onstage for all at home to mock. Giving this an ironic “A” or the probably expected “D-“ or “F” would be letting this show off the hook, and would be letting us off the hook for even talking about it in the first place. There’s some really interesting material here about the intersection between far-flung dreams and stubborn realities, how cultural entrenchment affects social mobility, and the ways in which the delusions of parents impact children before they even have a chance to know any other way to live. Instead, Here Comes Honey Boo wants it all to be about the vajiggle jaggle. And that’s a shame.
- The pageant life seems slightly creepy, but turn the channel over to The Olympic Games and think about all the craziness involved there. We’re somehow okay with it when it involves young girls robbed of their childhood for gymnastics instead of pageants.
- When teenager Chickadee goes for her ultrasound in the third trimester of her pregnancy, Alana asks, “Where’s the biscuit?” upon learning the child will be a girl. Yes, Mama’s term for a vagina is a “biscuit,” because as she explains it, “If it’s cooked right, like at a Hardee’s or something…” before trailing off into laughter. That’s either the best or the worst in-show product integration in the history of the medium. I leave it up to you, fair readers, to decide.
- “Farting 12 to 15 times a day” has never been an approach deployed on The Biggest Loser, so far as I can tell.
- Mama’s inability to use the Pack N Play pretty much sums up her maternal skills.
- “Y’all smell like hairspray and desperation over there.” That’s Mama, reading my mind throughout most of tonight’s episodes.
- The inevitable .gif of Mama sneezing mid-interview will indeed be the scariest of all possible .gifs.
- Just think about this, guys: “Aunt Honey Boo Boo.” Those are four terrifying words.
- I have to think Bill Cosby will sue over the use of “vajiggle jaggle,” which has to be something he said at some point during his stand-up career.