Quick recap for those who haven't been obsessively downloading each new episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on Thursday nights: TLC's new reality show centers around Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson (she of Go Go Juice fame) and her family who are spending the summer in their home in Georgia preparing for Alana's upcoming child beauty pageants. Alana's mama June — the matriarch of the family that also includes daughters Anna "Chickadee", Lauren "Pumpkin" and Jessica "Chubbs", and Alana's dad Mike "Sugar Bear"—is an obese woman who has never been married and whose daughters were all conceived with different partners. Cool, now we're all up to speed.
When you watch Jersey Shore, you're expected to love its characters despite their flaws (Vinny and Pauly are sexist pigs, but they're so sweet together! J-Woww, Deena and Snooki have some upsetting ideas about femininity and women's roles in the world, but they're so silly when they're drunk!). When you watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, you're supposed to ignore the positive traits of the Shannon/Thompson family and perceive them as disgusting, stupid pigs. But I refuse to.
TLC is desperate for June to be seen as a grotesque monster. You see it each time they hold her interview shots for an extra few moments to catch her burping, sneezing or farting. You see it each time the cameras frantically zoom in on her washing her stringy hair in the kitchen sink. You saw it, especially, last week when the camera crew zeroed in on her dimpled thighs as she walked with her daughters around a water park (to which, I should mention, she wore a full-piece bathing suit and knee-length swim shorts).
The image of her fat body is supposed to be so disgusting, that this kind of camera work appears to be justified. Why? Because fatties are gross and they should know how yucky their weird, smooshy bodies are. If the camera treated a thin person like this—showing extreme close-ups of their butt as they wandered around a swimming pool—it would be creepy and perverted (let's not even go into how people would react if a man was filmed from this angle). And that is because their bodies are supposed to be sexualised, and an image of their bathing suit-clad toosh is supposed to arouse you.
No matter how hard they try, though, June refuses to let them depict her the way they are so eager to. She is in on the joke (and, let it be known, that the jokes she and her daughters make are often genuinely funny. They are quick-witted and have incredible comedic timing) and she is aware of what you expect from her. She is a fatty with a head (as opposed to the headless variety we're so accustomed to seeing on TV). She refuses to be anonymous and will not allow the network to exploit her for entertainment (except, it's reported, financially—the entire family are supposedly only being paid $40,000 for the entire 10-episode season).
June doesn't think she looks like a supermodel, but she also doesn't think she's as ugly as the producers of this show want you to. She is proud of and secure in herself, and has clearly taught her daughters to possess these traits as well. When 15 year old Chubbs wanted to lose weight to fit in better at school, the family rallied around her goal to diet (everyone but 12 year old Pumpkin, who is cynical and dry and amazing and declared that she wanted to gain 200 pounds) without applying any pressure or guilt. When Alana met her pet pig Glitzy — a male pig whose hooves were painted with nail polish and who wore a tiny tiara — she announced she would make him "a pageant gay pig"! The fact that June has raised a 6 year old in Georgia to understand and embrace the concept of drag queen culture, far outweighs the recent "news" that each of her children was fathered by different men, each of whom has a criminal record.
The critics crying for quality in television and clutching their bosoms over what passes for entertainment these days are the ones who are falling for the tricks of reality television. Just as the Kardashians skew their "reality" show to depict them positively (and anyone with an ounce of common sense will take this for what it is: an edited reality), TLC is skewing Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to make you think less of the Shannon/Thompson family and more of yourself. You're supposed to feel high and mighty about how much more educated, polite and proper you are than the people you're watching. You're supposed to feel disgusted by June, feel sorry for the older girls, feel outraged at Alana's passion for pageantry and sympathy for Sugar Bear.
But if you feel any of these things, you've fallen into the trap.
By contrast, when I watch the show, I feel proud that bodies that resemble mine are getting so much screen time without being criticized, mocked or expected to change (read: shrink); I feel hopeful when I hear Alana detail Glitzy's sexuality; I feel excited for Pumpkin's inevitable spin-off (PLEASE). But most of all I feel happy, because a show has been created that is testing our ideas of beauty and class while making me laugh. While the 5 seasons of MTV's Jersey Shore showed us ignorance in the form of racism, homophobia and sexism, the stars of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo are most ignorant when they don't remember the name of Jabba the Hut. I know which one I'd prefer to watch.