The cable show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo opens with a shot of the Shannon-Thompson clan—the mom, June, stands in front of her small south Georgia house with her four daughters, Anna, Jessica, Lauryn, and Alana, and her boyfriend of eight years, Mike—interrupted by June farting. “Mama!” the girls scream. It serves as a good illustration of June’s philosophy as a mom. “I raise my girls to be who they are,” she says later on in the show. She repeats, often: “You like us or you don’t like us. We just don’t care.”
Much of the chatter about the show has revolved around the challenge June throws down in the show's premiere: Like us or don’t. Plenty of critics are horrified; more can’t look away. It’s clear what the producers want viewers to think about the show: They assume that we’re going to sneer at it, at least a little bit. The tenth episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo ended the first half of its season last week, but the seven-year-old Alana was already a star before the show’s debut in August. She first appeared on another show on TLC—which once upon a time stood for The Learning Channel—Toddlers & Tiaras, in January 2012. Toddlers & Tiaras follows mothers and daughters on the child pageant circuit. In Alana’s interview with producers, she used the phrase “Honey Boo Boo Chile”—her family’s nickname for her—to emphasize a sassy point she was making about her pageant prowess, and that’s how she came to be known. The video compilation of her appearance got more than five million hits on YouTube. Alana was already a hyper, hammy kid, given to mimicking a stereotype of a diva character, before her mom gave her a now-famous “Go-Go” juice concoction—Mountain Dew mixed with an energy drink. It’s never been entirely clear how much of Alana’s affected speech is Southern slang versus aural blackface, but it’s hard to blame such a young kid for repeating a pantomime that gets so many audible laughs from the producers. (Her appearance on the show spawned a home visit from child services.)
The producers still love Alana, but this show concentrates as much on the family’s adventures as they do on Alana’s pageantry. June is a couponer, and has appeared on another reality show, Hoarders. The oldest daughter, Anna, is pregnant at 17. June had Anna at the age of 15 and admitted, after The National Enquirer dug it up, that she thought about giving Anna up for adoption and that her own mother primarily raised Anna. (Anna just moved in with June for the sake of the show.)
Jessica, who is 15 and nicknamed Chubbs, opens the show self-conscious about her 175-pound weight, and asks her mom to go on a diet with her: June, who is 32, proclaims that her goal is to lose 100 pounds and get back down to 200. (Thirteen-year-old Lauryn, whom everyone calls Pumpkin, wants none of the diet.) Alana’s father, Mike, is known as Sugar Bear, and much is made of the fact that he’s proposed to June several times but she keeps denying him. “My kids, to me, are my main priority,” June says. “Relationships come and go, but my kids will always be forever. Family’s always first. Period.” That she sees marriage to Sugar Bear as something that would detract from, rather than enhance, her ability to parent should tell viewers as much about George W. Bush’s misguided marriage-promotion programs as it does about the relationship between Sugar Bear and June. The show earned an average of 2.3 million viewers, and TLC announced last week it had ordered more episodes, including holiday specials that will air on Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
The show repeats shots of freight trains rattling past the family’s modest house. In June’s interviews with producers on Toddlers & Tiaras, the camera liked to stay on her when she burped or coughed, a tactic that’s repeated in this show: All of the family members are shown sneezing and coughing in close-ups; the daughters like to proclaim that they’ve farted; and producers regularly tape them outdoors in the 100-degree, muggy Georgia heat, swatting at gnats. They do this even after June will say something like, “Hold on, I’ve gotta blow my nose.” Most insulting, perhaps, is that they subtitle their interviews, as if the Southern accent is impossible to understand. When Jimmy Kimmel, host of the eponymous ABC late-night show, spoofed it as a nature documentary, it was a little too on-point.
It’s unclear how much money the family has. The median income for the rural county they live in, Wilkinson County, is about $24,000, and in the first episode, June says Sugar Bear works seven days a week in the chalk mines. June once worked in a warehouse, where a forklift ran over her toe. She doesn’t take off her socks, until, after much prodding from her children, she shows a mushy, misshapen big toe with gnats swarming around the flesh.
TLC’s been criticized for exploiting the family. That point was enhanced when it came out that the stars were only making about $4,000 per episode, well below the $22,000 that Jon and Kate Gosselin reportedly earned when their reality show, Jon and Kate Plus 8, first aired in 2007. (June hasn’t disputed or denied that figure.) A TLC spokeswoman told the Huffington Post that the channel doesn’t comment on salaries, but that the Thompson family was now making more than double what they started out earning. “They don’t have lawyers or greedy agents fighting to get them more, the network offered them a very generous amount and they were happy to accept.” Put another way, there’s no one to help them negotiate. June bought a new car and a new four-wheeler, but she has said that much of the money from the show is going into individual trust funds for her kids. (Word came out this week that TLC gave them a huge raise, and the family may be earning as much as $20,000 for future episodes.)
Another, more complicated perspective on the show is that the family clearly knows what it’s doing. June is hamming it up as much as Alana is, and she knows what the producers want: The more redneck, the better the ratings. Maybe the family genuinely doesn't care what people think of them. They probably think that all the viewers who would roll their eyes at their pork-rind snacking are uptight, and they’re not wrong. In the season’s second episode, June hires an etiquette coach to help Alana after a group of judges say she needs to be more refined. The coach is visibly horrified at the clan's lack of manners, and Pumpkin takes extra delight in torturing her with her rudeness. “She’s a little bit more of a tight ass than we are,” June says.
Refreshingly, the family seems to love each other, at least from what we see (and despite reports of tumult in June’s earlier years). Their interactions are not fueled by the internal animosity that seems to drive so much reality television. Everyone goes to Alana’s pageants and cheers her on, and Alana spends some time in an early episode designing a nameplate for her niece, Kaitlyn, who was born in the season’s first-half finale. June wants Alana to do well in pageants, but we don’t see her doing the crazy stage-mom-pushing that other mothers from Toddlers & Tiaras engage in. Sugar Bear, whose only real daughter is Alana, says he thinks of all the girls as his daughters, and, when Alana passes the season without a top pageant title, she says she doesn’t care. “I’m the ultimate grand supreme of my family,” she says.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo isn't the work of a network that has bamboozled a group of people who are too dumb to know it; it's a collaborative expression, a family-approved presentation of its own portrait,” wrote Rich Juzwiak in Gawker. But to embrace them as a happy-go-lucky, if struggling, family is a little romantic, too. Viewers of the show miss out on a lot of context if they’ve never watched Toddlers & Tiaras. Alana’s family stuck out like a smushed toe. Class differences take on special shades in the South, especially in small towns, where one’s family matters as much to town opinion as one’s character does. Being a beauty queen means being a certain kind of girl, and those girls usually aren’t the daughters of what many would see only as morbidly obese forklift operators who like to ride four-wheelers and roll around in the mud; they’re daughters of women who were once beauty queens themselves. (As one Toddlers & Tiaras eight-year-old astutely says of her mom, “She’s trying to live her teenage days again.”) Many of the moms are blond, primped, and prissy—the etiquette coach isn’t the only woman of the pageant world who sneers at June and her kids.
Those are the people the Thompsons interact with in their real lives. We aren’t just seeing the visible markers of class; we’re watching a seven-year-old learn them. When Alana meets Miss Georgia 2011, she rhapsodizes on her beauty and says, “I don’t think she farts.” Alana’s sister Jessica puts it a little more finely: “Alana is not the average pageant person.”
Pageants are so expensive that they usually screen out all but the most dedicated from the working class. If June made $4,000 for ten episodes on the show, she topped out at $40,000 for the year, which is less than many of the Toddlers & Tiaras moms spend on pageants alone. The $8,000 June spends on pageants for Alana is clearly a stretch. She saves as much as $100 a shopping trip by maxing out on coupons, plays Bingo games with top prizes of $1,000, and encourages Alana to chip in by selling lemonade. All that effort hints at something that’s a little more important than Alana’s typical-seven-year-old dream of being Miss America someday. Being a beauty queen, being refined, will shift the way the local world perceives Alana, as much as June proclaims not to care.
June may be performing class for the cameras, but she’s trying to buy her daughter a slot in a higher class—all this work will earn her a higher title, in pageant parlance. It may be disappointing, but it’s true that beauty can elevate a woman as surely in the American South today as it did in Jane Austen’s time. That pageants are part of a circuit that June feels it is important to tap into, and the fact that a reality show seems to be June’s best option for employment says more about us than it does about the family from Honey Boo Boo.