Honey Boo Boo and the Country Ghetto

After watching the first two weeks of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the tragic comedy reality show on TLC, it’s clear that some “hixploitation” is going on at the network.  The cast of characters–at the center of which are Mama June and her pageant queen daughter Alana–are what you might call “country ghetto.”  They rattle off phrases (“A dolla makes me holla” and “I’m all that and a pack of crackers”) that Helena Andrews writes makes them appear as if they channeled an “angry black woman” from a ’90s sitcom. (See her article in The Root, Aug. 15, 2012).

Alana and her family

Yet, Alana (a.k.a. “Honey Boo Boo”) and her family are firmly situated in rural Georgia, and what I see is more than just the language of the ghetto.  This family literally lives IN a country ghetto.  They are, as a friend suggested, like the Evans family on the sitcom “Good Times” because they have to laugh to keep from crying about the poverty which they can’t seem to escape.

I see the cycle of rural southern poverty on full display.  Underneath all that sass is a family that struggles to stay afloat financially, while also gambling on Honey Boo Boo.  If you listen closely, in between all the colloquialisms (ignoring the subtitles even when they aren’t needed), you’ll hear Mama June tell you that her “baby daddy” works 7 days a week and that she got pregnant at 15, which meant that her education was cut short, although to her credit she finished her GED.  And now her 17 year-old daughter is repeating the cycle of teen pregnancy, and there will be one more mouth to feed.  In addition to “extreme couponing,” June also goes to food auctions and her family happily accepts a deer carcass, even if it was roadkill, because the meat they preserve from it will save them money.  Her older daughters complain that their mother considers anything over $5 expensive.

People may find it irresponsible that Mama June would spend the money she’s scraped to save to invest in Alana’s pageants. But this is consistent with people who live in poverty who pin their hopes on a gamble they hope will pay off.  It’s no different than if they were playing Powerball or scratching off tickets–maybe one day they’ll hit the jackpot, although the odds are stacked against them.

This isn’t just moralizing on my part, because I’ve experienced poverty and can remember a time as a little girl when my Mom (a single mother who scraped by on a secretary’s salary) gave me $2 to purchase a raffle ticket in hopes of winning a new car since we didn’t have one. I still remember the look in her eyes that even she knew this was a long shot.  Of course, we didn’t win, but I hoped with everything we would because it might make life a little easier.  I can see this in little Alana.  She’s a sassy kid, to be sure, but underneath she’s vulnerable and still just six years old. She desperately wants to win that Miss Grand Supreme title and it hurts her a little more each time when she doesn’t.  It hurts June, too.  This is what makes it hard to watch, because I understand how poverty makes you feel “less than” and so I also hurt a little for them.

Maybe they have hit a small jackpot with their show (no doubt TLC has).  During commercials, you’ll see that the network is offering ringtones of Alana’s sayings like “a dolla makes me holla.”  I just hope TLC is cutting Alana a check for those ringtones, since it is profiting by exploiting her.  Maybe she will earn enough to fund a college education, break her family’s cycle of poverty, and escape the country ghetto.  I’m rooting for her.

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12 thoughts on “Honey Boo Boo and the Country Ghetto

  1. This family is so easy to mock (god knows I’ve done it myself). Good for you for resisting the urge to pile on; your take on them is remarkably sympathetic. I haven’t watched their show because I don’t have cable, but I’ve seen enough on the internet to have formed some very firm opinions that you have done much today to soften. Thanks for the insight.

    • Clearly there’s enough here to criticize, but underneath it all there is something about them that cries out for some sympathy. When TLC is done using them, they will still be poor folks living in the South trying to make ends meet.

  2. Karen,

    An insightful take on the reality show phenomenon, and the public’s thirst for ridicule of those with whom it cannot possibly relate. It is, all at the same time, absurd, fascinating and sad. The media seems to be answering our yearning for instant entertainment with endless opportunities to watch in horror and say, “at least that’s not my life”. Even more sad is the prospect that viewers don’t even get it, and completely miss the boat on the social implications of shows like this.

  3. I haven’t seen the show, but did see the preview and was struck by how marginal the father seems to be in all of this. After reading your piece here about class (which is very good) and the piece on The Root about race, I hope that people will start think about this show in terms of gender as well. It is striking that this appears to be a household run by women in which the burden of escaping poverty seems to rest on the shoulders of women (and a girl.) I think there is a story here about female poverty and the new household economy. As traditional male jobs in industry and farming decline (and, in some places, disappear) women are increasingly becoming the sources of household income. But because women are paid significantly less than men for their labor, this simply exacerbates their economic problems. It is interesting to see how this show (or, more likely, its critics) will take this into account.

    Again, I haven’s seen the show so I don’t know if this makes any sense, but it seems striking to me how the women seem to take center stage and hope that somebody will consider it.

    • Actually, it is a household of women (mother and four daughters), but as I said in the piece, the father (“Sugar Bear”) works 7 days a week, so you don’t hear much from him except what he garbles out of a mouthful of snuff. In fact, I can’t tell that the mother even works at all. Also, he is not the father of the older children, just the youngest one. And they are not married. So the dynamic is a little more complex.

  4. Karen, please! These people are as happy as a pig in slops. I grew up with this, and for every family (OK, maybe every five families) like Mama June’s there was one in similar circumstances who realized the importance of education and not having babies without having any way to support them. These were the people who became productive citizens.

    And you can be damn sure they are getting paid – remember the Groslins and the Duggers? The more exposure they get, the more money will come their way.

    And they aren’t trapped in a country ghetto. Out of six family members there is ONE with a ‘job’ — I’m unaware that they have ever said what Sugar Bear does on those seven days. Like it or not, Mama June and kin have decided that they would rather live the way they do than work hard and change it.

    Maybe I’m more sensitive since I was just recently introduced to “The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”, but I am thoroughly sick of ‘reality’ TV’s obsession with the nasty outliers of society. Why don’t we all just pay a shilling to gawk at the madmen on Sunday?

    As for your Mom’s $2 raffle ticket? Hey, we all need two dollars worth of dreams sometimes. There is a big difference between that and thousands in pageant expenses.

    • Thanks, Anne. I’m aware that there’s a difference between how my mother dealt with our poverty and how the Thompsons deal with theirs. Still, I found something sympathetic there, even if you did not. If you’ve never experienced poverty, then you probably don’t get it. I also find something terribly sad about the Whites, since I’m from WV. Essentially, that if you don’t want to work in the state’s coal economy and aren’t able to get a college education then you might end up addicted to meth or alcohol, but at the very least there’s nothing there beyond minimum wage work which is not enough to get you out of poverty. And, there’s a lot of generational poverty there. Did you ever see Diane Sawyer’s piece on Appalachia?

  5. Diane Sawyer’s piece? You mean the Diane Sawyer that pulls in $12 million dollars a year and loves to point sadly at poor people? The one thing that struck me was the couponing that she does to ostensibly make life livable — which is a good idea on the face of it, but she has an entire room filled with more laundry detergent, boxes of crackers, toilet paper, and godknowswhatelse that would take decades to use up. A few classes in how to shop, how to REALLY use the coupons, maybe nutrition and household management would go a long way to making this family less a part of the “country ghetto” and a contributing member of society. In many places poverty is also about choices.

    We were poor growing up. We had 8 kids and dad didn’t make much at all. Mom needed to stay home to take care of us. School clothes were so hand-me-down that the few youngest kids looked homeless. So, did we hope to be rescued by fantasies? No… we learned to sew. We grew food in a patch by the side of the rented house. We found clothes at places like goodwill and salvation army and fixed them up. All my sisters and my prom dresses were found at good will and re-purposed. We paid for our own prom by working every day after school. I worked 40 hours a week since I was 13. No matter where you live, there are things you can do – from babysitting to fast food to mowing lawns.

    This culture of entitlement and victimhood creates as much of the poverty we see as the lack of high paying jobs do. It pays to be making less than the govt thinks you should make. Thousands in food stamps, thousands in aid to dependent children, thousands in so many programs that we encourage poverty by not encouraging people to get off their butts and get to work. My parents essentially said, “No allowance. If you need something after you are 13, figure it out. If you want to go to college, work hard on your grades and figure it out. If you want to have a place to live after you graduate from high school, work, save and figure it out.” And we did.

    Poverty consciousness is passed down from generation to generation. If you expect it you will not find ways to step away from it. We were never told we lived in poverty. But we did. I found out many years later about our financial status. And we weren’t much better off than the people in the appalachia piece. But we believed we could rise above it and we did. Out of the 8 kids, 6 of us have risen up enough to get together and buy my parents a home. One brother took the “poor me” route and self-medicated with meth and other dangerous substances. One sister is autistic and we take care of her.

    IMHO the more you validate poverty consciousness and feel “sorry” for people, the less you help. The best help you can give is to say, “What makes you happy and what do you love to do?” Then you help them figure out how to find a way to do that. Teaching a child to use a vulgar hooker term is not helpful. If she loves to be in pageants, well ok. But don’t turn her into a walmartian spectacle. There are little girls who do pageants who are learning how to be poised and articulate. I have no problem with that. I DO have a problem with encouraging go-go juice in a 6 year old, encouraging trashy dress and behavior, and dumbing the whole family down to be made fun of by America (and foreign countries who are watching this in horror.)_

    • Thank you for taking the time to write such a lengthy response, as it clearly struck a nerve. We may have a difference of opinion on some things, but I imagine we can also agree on others. Let’s begin with Diane Sawyer’s piece on Appalachia. Perhaps we saw a different documentary, but I did not see this as pointing sadly to poor people. In fact, I think that’s oversimplifying it. What was clear in that piece was that there IS a cycle of poverty in the region–and on this point I can speak with experience–in which one of the only viable options to get out of poverty is to work in coal mines or accept minimum wage work which at 40 hours a week barely pays the bills. (See Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days piece in which he lives on minimum wage for a month.) Plain and simple, a state like West Virginia does not have a diverse economy where people can decide they want to do something other than go into a coal mine at risk to their lives. And, if they are so fortunate as to receive a formal education, they LEAVE the state, taking their talents with them because there’s nothing for them to do.

      I’d agree that what one family does about its poverty is different than what others might do about theirs. And, no doubt, there is justifiable frustration with people who abuse a the system that is intended to offer a helping hand out of that situation. Still, I’d disagree that we can place everyone in the camp of “entitlement and victimhood,” which I think is another oversimplification and misunderstands that today’s economy is very different and affected by the global economy. So many people, especially those in the last few years who lost their jobs in this recession, are not likely to be content to be on food stamps and unemployment, and unemployment (which they payed into) is going to dry up and then what? And when you look at the percentage of state budgets that is directed to the “thousands in food stamps, thousands in aid to dependent children,” etc., it’s still very small in comparison to the overall budget. The fact is, the poorer the state, the less it devotes to social welfare and that often means the South.

      Still, the lack of education is the key ingredient here. I attribute the fact that I have an education as the key to helping me break the cycle of poverty. Yet, I’m not sure if I could even afford the same education today without being in debt up to my eyeballs (by the way, I do have considerable education debt). If we are talking entitlements, then a college education is about to become affordable only to those with wealth and it’s sad to think that only people with money are entitled to an education, because there are talented people who live in poverty who will be denied one because of its costs.

      Going back to June Thompson, mother of Honey Boo Boo, there’s nothing in that show that suggests that she is on welfare. In fact, like your own family, she is resourceful, but perhaps not in the ways you’d like. True, she has more toilet paper than you can shake a stick at. But then, she attends auctions at the local food bank in order to save money AND they preserve deer meat even if it is roadkill. She is constantly thinking about saving money to the point that her kids complain about the fact that anything over $5 is expensive. This does not sound like entitlement to me.

      When you write “don’t turn her into a walmartian spectacle,” I’d like to suggest that we hold the folks at Authentic Entertainment and TLC to account for a lot of this. The fact is, we wouldn’t know about Honey Boo Boo if they weren’t putting her on TV. I recently spoke with someone who has dealt with companies that produce these shows and they are absolutely engaged in exploitative tactics to lure people like this family into a lair that will help the network line its own pockets. Whatever this family may earn, and who knows what that is, you can rest assured that the network is making millions. When it’s all over, that mother will go back to her coupons and food bank auctions and TLC will be on to the next show. By the way, guess what Kate Gosselin is up to these days? Writing for a coupon blog.

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