The first time I heard of Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, I was watching a clip from Toddlers and Tiaras—the youth pageant show that would lead to the spin-off Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, making the six-year-old a household name. Initially, it’s easy for someone unacquainted with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to dismiss it or ask themselves, “Why would anybody watch this shit?” But fans—and one of the show’s producers—might ask the dismissive viewer to take some time and “redneckognize” the underlying appeal of the show.
Considering all the strange things the Honey Boo Boo crew gets up to, it would be easy to see the show as exploitative. It captures on camera exploits like the Redneck Olympics, Honey Boo Boo’s niece being born with an extra thumb, and the family making “sketti,” a spaghetti dish with a sauce made of ketchup and butter. Together, it sounds like a recipe for the perfect guilty pleasure series, but for some fans, what others might lambast as pure trashiness is precisely why they tune in.
“It’s exploiting them because it’s making them look weird. If they’re a fine family, why do they need a TV show?” says Calvin Hu, a School of Engineering and Applied Science junior who watched the first season of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. “The way you watch Honey Boo Boo, it’s not like a documentary. When you start a documentary, you’re like, ‘I want to learn about nature or the Civil War.’ When you start watching Honey Boo Boo you think, ‘I want to make fun of some people in that part of America.’”
Indeed, a lot of people might watch the show with a touch of schadenfreude and more than a little irony. And, as Time’s television critic James Poniewozik noted in his review of the show, “That’s the show’s selling point: holy crap, would you look at these people!” Poniewozik isn’t the first to notice this about the show.
In September, The Daily Beast interviewed one of the show’s executive producers, Tom Rogan, who acknowledged this possible appeal of the show, but also ruled it out as a reason people watch it. “[Here Comes Honey Boo Boo] runs counter to their expectations; where they tune in expecting train wreck TV, and what you have is a loving, very cohesive, supportive family that is really enjoying each other and having a great time,” Rogan told The Daily Beast, adding that “you get caught up in the fun they’re having, and in their enjoyment of each other.”
And while that may sound like the sycophancy of a person doing his job—defending the show he works on from what might be valid criticism—the argument is more common than one might imagine. As Poniewozik noted in his review, “While I was creeped out by the way Honey Boo Boo was framing the family and presenting them to us, I couldn’t help loving the Thompsons themselves.” Rogan’s claim, then, isn’t completely unsound. Fans of the show do find the family endearing, and see the show as an interesting look at a family that people aren’t used to seeing on TV or in real life.
“It’s just really genuine, and she never wins pageants. But she loves it and she thinks she’s beautiful and each of them think they’re beautiful, and I love that because obviously most of TV doesn’t represent normal-looking people,” says Paulina Pinsky, a Barnard sophomore who admits to loving the show. Part of the appeal, she says, is that “their situations aren’t solved by buying a Chanel tennis racket or buying a Bentley,” as on, say, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and other reality shows that document the lives of the uber-rich.
Of course, it’s hard not to focus on the possible long-term effects of being so young and headlining a reality TV show, especially one that isn’t regarded with genuine affection but rather with something akin to disdain. The Onion pointed this out in a fake op-ed, jokingly attributed to Honey Boo Boo, titled “You Do, Of Course, Realize That This Is Going To End Very, Very Badly,” which points out some of the possible drawbacks of early stardom and the family’s lifestyle.
“It is definitely good that people enjoy gathering around the television and laughing at my chubby cheeks, and my tacky family, and all of our hysterical antics,” the article reads. “Just so long, of course, as people are aware that there is no possible scenario in which I will grow up to be a functional human being who is healthy and psychologically well-adjusted. Or successful. Or anything but a sick punch line, or worse,” it continues.
With examples of the lives of child-stars going awry on full display thanks to the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes, with their various runins with the law and illegal substances, it makes sense that the writers of The Onion article foresee similar consequences for Alana. But an interview with Alana and her mom, June, on Dr. Drew’s talk show earlier this year, indicates this might not be the case. Despite her mugging for the camera, Alana admitted that she “hates” when fans approach her and answered with a loud “no!” when asked if she likes being on TV.
Where Honey Boo Boo’s story will go remains to be seen, but according to TMZ, she’ll be helped along by a trust fund when she comes of age—one of five set up by her mother, into which she deposits the show’s earnings to help Alana, her three other daughters, and her grandchild. That’s enough to buy a lot of sketti.