It might sound insane to say, but TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is without a doubt one of the most honest pieces of television that’s ever been filmed. And it’s that honesty that has polarized and revolted its audience. There are four important “plot points” that happen on the last episode of Honey Boo Boo that very neatly and succinctly sum up that jarring conflict that has existed at the core of the show through its whole first season:
- First, Alana’s family (The Thompsons (Alana is Honey Boo Boo btw)) tries to take a family portrait on the bank of a local river. At least, it looked like a river. Essentially, all 6 of the family members get together on the shore of a large body of standing water and bicker at each other until they get a useable photo.
- Then in the next sequence Alana’s 18-year-old sister Anna gives birth to a baby girl named Kaitlyn. The family is genuinely ecstatic and wonderfully supportive of the new addition to the family. It’s important to note, though, that baby Kaitlyn was born with three thumbs, two on her right hand, totaling eleven fingers… because like of course she has eleven fingers, sigh…
- After that it is revealed that Alana’s father Sugar Bear, a beautifully kind and patient man who is never once seen on camera without a beaming smile and a mouth full of chewing tobacco, has a gay brother. The family loves their gay uncle and proudly and lovingly refer to him as Uncle Poodle. When the producers ask why, Alana’s middle sister Pumpkin quite bluntly explains that “Alana calls all gay people poodles.” The family then has a big grass fight in the backyard with their Uncle Poodle.
- Lastly, and probably the least important part of the finale covers Alana’s pageant. And really, the beauty pageant portion of this show is so completely not the point of this that it really isn’t worth talking about.
These four moments make no sense together. And most episodes follow this format. Alana is being fit for a prosthetic ass in one scene, in the next she’s watching Fourth of July fireworks on a lakeside sitting on her mother’s lap. And it’s safe to say that mainstream viewers have never seen a raw feed of the grossness, baseness, and undignified weirdness of a real family on TV. And in that same swing, most people aren’t used to seeing the real and downright fucked up-ness that comes with actually loving your family. A loving family is goddamn fucked up.
Alana’s family is a demented group of Walmart-brand Morlocks that chug liters of soda and actually at one point are seen EATING FUCKING MELTED BUTTER AND KETCHUP. And worse than that, the butter-ketchup sauce they wolf down like frenzied monkey-people is apparently a family recipe that goes back two generations.
That is real. That is the fucked up nightmare world that exists inside the walls of every American home, to some extent. It’s that really American swirl of rampant commercialistic detritus that we’re forced to mold around our lives around. The Thompsons live in rural Georgia, the heart of the post-Walmart wasteland that has eaten up our culture like some kind of HP Lovecraft monster, and yet they’re just trying to do their best. They live next to a gas station mini-mart where they do most of their shopping. Their mother is an extreme couponer with hoarding tendencies. That is the new American reality right there. And the horrible, sad, soul-crushing 21st century American culture of families just trying to go with it.
Alana’s mom June is the mother of all the girls in the house. She had her first daughter when she was 15. That daughter, Anna, is the 18-year-old who has the eleven-fingered baby. It’s then explained that June (or “Mama”) worked in a packing plant until an industrial accident gave her what she calls “Forklift Foot.” “Forklift Foot” is, according to Mama, a condition you get after a forklift mangles your foot beyond all recognition. She now cannot work and receives disability checks for it. I think. Pretty sure. Details are sketchy on it.
Alana’s father Sugar Bear works in – I kid you not – chalk mines. The man works in a fucking chalk mine. He is not married to June and is only the biological father of Alana. He does not say much, but anything he does say is usually a painfully lovely statement about how much it means to him that the girls treat him like a father.
The family lives simply and doesn’t think too much about anything outside their immediate world, but never maliciously. But we’re used looking at the xenophobic rural Americans that the news shows holding signs outside of abortion clinics. We aren’t however used to seeing these people as just people. The Thompsons aren’t branded as villains or even as particularly interesting or useful people like in similar shows like Swamp People. They aren’t loud-mouthed political pawns or diamonds in the rough gimmicks, they’re just a really normal and weird family that does weird shit together to pass the time.
It’s sad and amazing that something so genuine is so immediately gross to mainstream audiences. But it’s nice to know that Honey Boo Boo did so well in ratings. It should be a good thing that there was a show that showed a real family doing real stuff. Like a scene where a 40-year-old grandmother bottle-feeds her granddaughter, smiling proudly from the crowd, as her youngest 7-year-old daughter, on stage in a sparkly pink pageant gown, is surprised by her gay uncle carrying their pet pig up the stage steps. Yes, that happened.
In Little Miss Sunshine the main characters have a super mumblecore revelation that’s like “fuck it, man, like fuck like people who judge you and shit man.” And that’s great for movies, but in real life, things are way more complicated and stranger. In Honey Boo Boo, there’s a moment where Alana puts make up on her mother and then tells the camera that she was proud to make her Mama look beautiful. And that’s why Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is important.
Because if you think about it, the screen that sits in every family’s living room constantly tells you that you aren’t good enough, or pretty enough, or interesting enough. It shows you pretty “Modern” families having easily resolved problems and loving each other at PG-13 levels of intimacy that fucking suck. And the most messed up thing about Honey Boo Boo is that when a show finally attempted to get close to showing some sense of the nonsense-reality we all live in people were horrified. And that’s sad and poignant and something to think about I guess.
Guest post by Ryan Broderick who blogs here.