What Not to Do on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
Depictions of white working-class people are steadily on the rise in reality television. To understand this phenomenon and what it communicates about how white working-class people are perceived in U.S. culture, I analyzed three seasons of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a popular reality series on TLC that features a self-described “redneck” family from rural Georgia. I focused on how surveillance (the continuous observation of people via cameras) is used to transform the family into “real” spectacles for viewers to gaze upon, laugh at, and learn what not to do in the United States today.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo aired from August 8, 2012, to August 14, 2014, and was one of TLC's top 10 most successful shows of all time. Alana (a.k.a.“Honey Boo Boo”), the main character, is a self-proclaimed chubby and hyperactive seven-year-old with sass who dreams of being the future Miss America. June (a.k.a. “Mama June”) is Alana’s 33-year-old, 300-plus-pound mother who wears the pants in the family. For the past nine years, June has been dating Alana’s biological father, Mike (a.k.a. “Sugar Bear”), a short 43-year-old chalk miner. Before meeting Mike, June had three other daughters: 13-year-old Lauryn (a.k.a. “Pumpkin”), 15-year-old Jessica (a.k.a. “Chubbs”), and 18-year-old Anna (a.k.a. “Chickadee”) who recently had a baby named Kaitlyn.
Central to my study is the notion of whiteness, a privileged state of being in the United States. To be just white is to possess no racial identity because whiteness is the norm; all other races are considered deviant. When combined with poverty, however, whiteness becomes racialized (i.e., marked), as evidenced by the term “white trash.” This term is commonly applied to white people who are poor or part of the working-class because they defy the middle- to upper-class etiquette required of white people to preserve their power and privilege. As such, they are considered traitors to their race. What emerges in this situation are two types of white people, which we see in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—those who conform to what I call “ideal whiteness” and those who, because of additional oppressive variables like lower socioeconomic status, do not and are therefore linked to “inappropriate whiteness.”
Within the series, surveillance is used to highlight Alana and her family’s failure—because of their working-class status—to conform to ideal whiteness, a whiteness privileged for displaying dominant U.S. cultural standards such as wealth, rationality, personal responsibility, and self-control.Alana and her family are considered “white Others” because of this failure, which is made evident when a series of clips from surveillance footage are combined by producers to highlight their “shortcomings.”
Whether the clips feature Mama June mispronouncing words or Alana grabbing the fat of her stomach and using it as a puppet, we are invited to see the family as exemplars of inappropriate whiteness because they are working-class, uneducated, and seemingly out of control. In other words, the family’s projected inability to conform to the dominant cultural standards affiliated with ideal whiteness is what makes them inappropriately white—a premise that drives the show and, more important, reinforces working-class limits to propriety.We know this family will never be ideally white; it is portrayed as just too deviant.
The distinction between ideal and inappropriate whiteness becomes clear when producers use footage from surveillance cameras to feature the working-class family members next to middle or upper-class white people, thereby illuminating stark differences between the two. Many of these differences are presented in sensational ways through production choices such as amplifying the sounds of bodily functions expressed by the working-class family members, which makes them appear grotesque. We see this in "Gonna Be a Glitz Pig" when Mama June hires Barbara Hickey, a middle-aged, refined white woman who owns the Etiquette School of Atlanta, to teach Alana and her sister Pumpkin some lessons.
Ms. Hickey asks the girls to join her in the dining room to learn proper dining etiquette. While she sets the table, a camera zooms in on Pumpkin who picks up a clean white cloth and uses it to blow her nose, making a sound that is amplified by producers to ensure this action is the focal point of the scene. The next scene features Alana who, wearing a different outfit (indicating this was filmed at a different time), says to the camera, “Picking your nose is not ladylike because it’s not pretty and it’s nasty.” Immediately following this declaration, the camera zooms in on Alana as she picks her nose—an ironic moment viewers are invited to laugh at, especially considering its strategic placement in the midst of a lesson on proper etiquette. Scenes such as this, which feature Alana and her family’s overt and seemingly natural inability to blend in with those who embody ideal whiteness (e.g., Ms. Hickey) frequently occur and are used to evoke humor; white Othering, in essence, becomes laughable.
Despite the white Othering that occurs, Alana and her family are constructed as content with who they are, particularly when they make therapeutic statements such as “we are who we are” and "it is what it is," which indicate self-knowledge, acceptance, and affirmation. What’s interesting is that these statements, which occur in every episode, are often positioned against a backdrop of compiled images from surveillance footage highlighting the family’s deviation from ideal whiteness. This deviation is made to seem consistent, as if the family is always inappropriately white. As such, when Alana and her family are shown making therapeutic statements, they both confirm and appear content with their “white Other” status, as if it is natural and okay. This contentment trivializes the material struggles they face, such as living in a cramped three-bedroom, one-bathroom home, eating unhealthy bulk foods to save money, and experiencing health-related health problems such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The family’s therapeutic statements, combined with frequent shots of laughter and joy, reinforce the idea that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” which functions to limit social mobility and preserve the status quo.
Throughout Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, producers use Alana and her family to demonstrate and reinforce working-class limits to propriety. Their classed bodies are put on display, like a spectacle, to warn viewers what can happen when people refuse to conform to the standards affiliated with ideal whiteness. The consequence is that they are pushed to the margins and not taken seriously. In other words, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo functions as a cautionary tale to reinforce dominant U.S. cultural standards; that is, be wealthy, rational, personally responsible, and in control, or else.
While it is true that shows like this offer white working-class people a chance to be in the spotlight and have their voices heard, their sole function in this spotlight is to show what not to do as U.S. citizens. We as viewers are invited to become complacent by accepting that the marginality of white working-class people is deserved and—as verified through surveillance—natural. White working-class people can never succeed even if they try, so we need not worry—a moral that ultimately reinforces class stratification, encouraging us to laugh at rather than sympathize with those who struggle to make ends meet.