When I first heard about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, to be honest I was not in the least bit interested. TLC, the network on which the show airs, has a history of turning marginalisation and personal struggle into cheap entertainment for the masses. What are we actually learning from watching Hoarders, or Intervention for instance? Of course, the people who participate do get some kind of gain through help, but generally speaking, these shows are created to encourage voyeurism and judging. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is cut from exactly this cloth. The Shannon family are extremely poor and they are loud – they are what is socially referred to as poor White trash.
Just like many of the shows currently airing on TLC, the problem is that the voyeurism focuses on an ism. June Shannon says on many occasions throughout the ten episode season that she feeds her family on eighty dollars a week, and that she only managed to get a GED, after dropping out of highschool to raise her eldest daughter Anna. The mere fact that a staple of the household is sketti (melted butter and ketchup covered spaghetti) and they constantly take things from dumpsters, which people have discarded, tells us that this family is very poor. Dining on cheap junk food and carbohydrates with nary a vegetable or a fruit in sight, is a sure sign of poverty, rather than choice. Families who constantly negotiate food scarcity buy food that will fill the stomach at the cheapest price possible, rather than concentrating on nutritional value. The Shannon poverty is presented as a spectacle and something that they should be ashamed of, even as the U.S. economy is stuck in the toilet and more and more people are applying for food stamps on a daily basis. Also interesting, is the fact that Americans tend to see themselves as nearly universally middle class, even as it becomes harder and harder to maintain subsistence. Even June’s body is a marker of the family’s poverty. She explained that she was always wears socks because of an accident which happened at work and is clearly embarrassed by this. Well to do people do not hurt themselves on the job, and if they do, one can be certain they will receive appropriate treatment. This family has no pretensions about which class they belong to and this refusal to live in denial horrifies many. The Shannon family is what happens when you stop trying to keep up the Joneses.
In case you could forget for one just one moment what class of people the Shannon’s are, we are constantly treated to trains going by their home, reminding us repeatedly that they literally live on the wrong side of the tracks. Though the Shannon’s mangle the queen’s english horribly and this includes creating words like “smexy” and using words incorrectly, their meaning is clearly understood, yet TLC provides subtitles. TLC doesn’t provide subtitles for the hearing impaired, but they have made an exception in this case. Clearly, the point is to remind us that the Shannon’s are to be othered at every turn. It suggests that they are not like everyone else. It’s not difficult, let alone impossible to understand them despite the subtitles constantly scrolling on the screen.
Of course, watching this show there are a number of people crawling out of the woodwork to judge the Shannon family and how they live. Just as TLC clearly expects, people are flocking to say how terrible the family is – from their hobbies to shaming their weight, to attacking their diets, their pets (specifically Glitzy the pet pig), their community, their manners and just about every other aspect of their lives. Everything is public property to be analysed, judged and criticised. Of course, rarely do these criticisms take into account the various pressures on their lives – or even how the Shannon family may choose to live their own lives.
It speaks a lot about the arrogance of society and the way poor people are dehumanised that people feel entitled to rip apart these people’s lives. Like their opinion on the Shannon’s family is somehow valid, their criticism matters and their judgement has any kind of value, rather than being the height of arrogant presumption.
People will protest that the Shannon family put their life on television and therefore consented to be judged. By various accounts the Shannon family is being paid from $7,000 to $20,000 per episode. Very few of us would be able to resist that – and when you consider, again, that they feed their family on $80 a week, it’s more than understandable why they’d feel they’d have no choice but to agree to this. To say this is a free choice they could have refused, is to ignore their poverty and the size of the incentive – and, besides, even if they joyfully wished to be judged, it doesn’t change the arrogance of those presuming to do so.
But as well as those deciding that their opinions on how other people live somehow matters and isn’t an act of pure arrogance, we also have to look in askance at those who pity the Shannon family so. The refrain of “they can’t help it” or “they don’t know any better” is really common especially among the more liberal critics. To be honest, we find this more than a little condescending and infantilising. The idea that, because someone is poor or lives in rural Georgia means that they don’t know that having “crusted neck dirt” is poor hygiene or that playing with litter found in the dump is inadvisable, or that farting at the table is not okay, feels highly othering and belittling.
This idea that the family, or anyone in that area or of that class position, is so helpless and ignorant is, again, arrogant and condescending and so very common. It feels charitable, but in reality, it both denies their agency and presents them as lesser people – less capable, more ignorant and unable to understand even basic concepts. It is belittling and, having watched June, there is no indication that this intelligent, capable woman is a hopelessly ignorant person who can’t help how she acts, rather than a determined woman who lives her own life the way she wants to. There are definite limits to their life characterised by lack of education, wealth and opportunity, but this does not mean they are irredeemably ignorant fools who “don’t know any better.”
Frankly, when I heard about this programme and was prodded to watch it, I expected an utter, irredeemable hot mess. I expected horror from edge to edge, I expected to watch the screen with my face frozen in shock and disbelief. And, yes, there were moments, but it wasn’t even close to what I expected and, far more than those incidents, I found so much there to admire.
June raises her daughters to live their lives their way and refuses and rejects any judgement. She teaches them that they are beautiful regardless of their weight but, when Jessica wants to lose weight, she is there to help her, encourage her and work alongside her in solidarity. June and Mike clearly care for their family and spend an incredible amount of time with them – going to events with family friends, going out to the water park, getting a pool, going to the “Redneck Games”, going 4 wheeling and, yes, even playing in the mud. Even without the pageants that first drew attention to the family, this family spent the whole Summer together and repeatedly enjoyed activities together. Maybe this was only because the cameras were rolling, but this is a family that is close, values each others company and enjoys its time together. And they seem to have a lot of fun – whether bobbing for pigs feet, engaging in breath sniffing contests, or coated in mud off-roading – they take the time to enjoy life and each other. And while June rarely excerpts limiting control on her family, when she does say “no” they listen to her.
Whatever else Alanna will grow up to be – loud, gaudy, prone to inappropriate flatulence – she will grow up loved and confident enough to be her own person and live her life her way. For that alone, there is a lot to commend in June and Mike’s parenting. The only people who should be ashamed are TLC executives for encouraging voyeurism, shaming and judging on a continual basis. Yes, they raised the salary of the Shannon family but that does not erase the fact that the family is still being exploited and filmed in a manner to encourage the video to judge them. The Shannon family are many things, but what they are primarily is a family that loves each other unequivocally and we could use a lot more love like that in this world.
Editor’s Note: After much copious whining from Sparky, I agreed to watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The above piece was written by the two of us.