Honey Boo Boo, Part 2
Note: This is a follow-up to my first Honey Boo Boo post.
As Carol pointed out in her comment, I need to note and address the curious, gendered dimensions of the show. The act of--essentially--writing and sharing thank you notes for every donation or piece of fan mail received is unquestionably gendered: feminized. My experience with thank-you notes is that it is a feminized act. If the note is signed, or even written, by a male, you can bet that it was likely at the prompting of (if not all but written by) his mother/wife/partner/aunt/sister/any other female figure reared with an understanding of gendered societal expectations. Note-writing duties usually fall within the realm of feminine responsibility in the household--even if the thank-you is for a gift that was intended for the entire family. In this case of Alana's Facebook page, it is reasonable that the notes should be presented in a way as being from Alana since it is her persona and star vehicle that mobilized the charity to begin with, but that doesn't remove the action from a larger cultural context in which such acts are traditionally feminine, in a show that prizes femininity that refuses to adhere to cultural expectations.
Another culturally non-conformist feature of the show is the overt and celebrated matriarchal nature of the household. The only recurring masculine character is Alana's father and June's longtime love, Sugar Bear. Even the (nick)name he is constantly referred to by is diminutive. He has a criminal past, a chewing tobacco habit, questionable gift-buying ability, and a seemingly never-ending well of patience for the crowd of women he lives with. Remarkably, the show isn't about him. Sugar Bear is frequently a part of the show's story lines, but he rarely serves as more than ornamentation or occasional comic relief. June runs the house, and June runs the show. June is the budding Kris Jenner/momager of the South. She is a hustler--brokering her family's contracts with TLC--and keeping a close eye on her household. June is also on the national stage as a parent. Her parenting abilities are questioned (lol, Kris Jenner): some claim that the show exploits her children, her children frequently consume food and beverages of questionable nutritional content, and her teenaged daughter continues June's own pattern of teenage pregnancy. The show serves as a timely flashpoint for national anxieties about parenting: think of the children!
I believe that the root of the national outrage and anxiety over Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, expressed via June-as-mother, Alana-as-victim, or Southerners-as-caricatures, is actually rooted unease surrounding issues of race and class. The Thompsons are a working class household and, importantly, the trajectory of their show is not a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative. They receive government assistance, Sugar Bear works an unglamorous, physically demanding blue collar job chalk-mining. Mama June deems herself "the coupon queen," which she invests a lot of time in so the family can afford to keep up Alana's pricey pageant hobby, rather than following a culturally admired middle-class path of couponing (or practicing other frugalities) to start a college savings fund, send kids to summer "enrichment camps," or save for a down payment on a new home. Alana's pageants are equivalent to the reviled and ridiculed habit of spending meager paychecks on lottery tickets.
As working class, rural Southerners, the Thompsons don't fit within our nation's longstanding paradigm (thank you, Moynihan Report) of what a matriarchal, poor household looks like, which is: not white. In other words, the Thompsons make white folks, especially Southern white folks, uncomfortable. Unlike other shows that feature working class white people living in the (rural!) South (Big Shrimpin', 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom 2, Swamp People, Lizard Lick Towing, Hillbilly Handfishin'), the central narrative of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is not one of establishing a successful small business, nor seeking and achieving neoliberal self-sufficiency. In direct contrast to the goals of neoliberalism (touted across the broad landscape of reality television), the Thompsons seem entirely uninterested in self-governance or discipline. For a maddening and lengthy take on class, "values," and marriage (or lack thereof) in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, please see Rod Dreher's "Honey Boo Boo Nation." Here's a gem of an excerpt that reads like it could have come from the Moynihan Report itself:
...I don’t actually think that government can do much to deal effectively with poverty caused in large part by the collapse of a traditional sexual ethic and the resulting collapse of family structure. (Dreher, "Honey Boo Boo Nation." The American Conservative. 21 September 2012.)
But back to race. It's important to point out the distinction on U.S. television between white and black (or brown) characters. Though the Thompsons, especially Alana and June, are inarguably fulfilling racialized stereotypes, they do not bear the burden of such representations. Helena Andrews writes:
Alana's occasional bursts of "ghetto" are a weird appropriation of stale, decades-old stereotypes and Southern redneck colloquialisms, like when she drops her squeaky girl's voice a few octaves down to happily announce, "I like to get in the mud because I like to get dirty like a pig" -- a childlike proclamation that's nonsensically wrapped in racial subterfuge too utterly ridiculous to be authentic. ("Honey Boo Boo? Honey, Please." The Root. 15 August 2012.)
Andrews concludes that the Thompson family's appropriation of such language is probably for the best since associating colloquialisms born alongside the sassy black woman trope with a bunch of rural white rednecks removes the potency of the language. In other words, if "honey boo boo" now officially belongs to Alana, it leaves the previous owner empty-handed. And emptying and voiding harmful stereotypes is a good thing. Alana's use of "ghetto" slang effectively divorces the signifier from the signified. I am not sure that Alana can replace the signified, but she does throw a wrench into an otherwise smoothly running meaning-making machine.
The Thompsons play into stereotypes of white trash, backwoods rednecks, but these stereotypes lack the threat implicit in those applied to black bodies. The sassy black woman, and other tropes of African American womanhood, called upon by their speech is subject to very real restrictions (at best) and violence (at worst). June's and Alana's white bodies are not subject to pathology in the same way as these African-American bodies. June's body is frequently judged--specifically, her obesity and the markers of being working class visible in her appearance--but that judgment doesn't cost her much. I'm not saying that it isn't personally hurtful to read the mean-spirited things that people say about her, but their opinions and shaming of her come at little to no physical cost. Public judgment of June does not put her at risk of losing her children, her home, or her control over her body and its safety. There are not historical precedents that suggest she is unclean, unworthy, or unloveable (sexually, romantically, or otherwise) because she is overweight and white. June is in a heteronormative, long-term romantic relationship whose partner openly expresses affection, desire, and commitment to her on the show.
The excesses of June, in particular, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, more specifically, are through their loud and boisterous behaviors, their consumption of cheap junk food, and their large bodies. There is nothing dainty about the Thompson women. They would scoff at the notion that they should behave in a proper or mannered way (which makes Alana's pageant costumes and simpering on stage during competition read as extremely campy).
This demonstrated lack of interest in self-governance complicate the gesture of presenting thank-you notes on Alana's Facebook fan page. The notes could represent the Thompsons' current liminal status: starring in a show that is heavily reliant upon their working class background, but being well-compensated for doing so. Granted, a one or two-year raise in annual income does not automatically shift a lifetime of contributing socioeconomic factors, but sudden and sweeping fame, access to media platforms, and paid appearances (and likely, endorsement offers) can definitely unsettle what had previously seemed to be a set way of living.
The thread connecting and holding everything together is June. Like Carol says, "June is engaged in the kind of entrepreneurial labor that – despite the show’s representations – is clearly lifting her family out of the working-class." I agree. Kris Jenner's business sense and tenacity translated a well-known court case and a sex tape into a multi-million dollar franchise with a central show (Keeping Up with the Kardashians), spin-offs of spin-offs, beauty lines, clothing lines, countless magazine and other public appearances, all of which she is still managing and executive-producing. June doesn't perform sophistication or refined, high-end taste in the same way as Jenner, but she is well on her way to utilizing her resources--grounded in Alana--to generate her very own little empire of trash. But when that trash is reportedly worth thousands of dollars an episode and attracts more viewers than national, political television events, the definition of trash as being worthless has to be reevaluated. The trash of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo includes affective potential for pleasure and recognition or identification that holds mass appeal.