Reality television has never held much appeal for me. I get plenty of reality in reality, thanks – I like my TV fictional. Besides, hasn't the last decade or more of respectable journalism assured me, in the shrillest possible tones, that reality TV is the very lowest form of entertainment, positively reveling in the filth of humanity's worst, most voyeuristic excesses: a Coliseum for the digital age?
Even without watching it myself, I've become less and less comfortable with the traditional critiques of reality TV as I've sharpened my critical apparatus. For a start, it seems predicated on the notion of a hierarchy of art, the assumption that some forms of entertainment are somehow innately higher or better than others. It's a terribly condescending form of knee-jerk moralizing. And if you don't ever watch it, it's a bit presumptuous to be judgmental about the whole genre.
I've tried to stay in the moral middle ground, having no real opinion on reality TV other than that it's not for me. I'd likely have continued my reality-TV-free existence, had it not been for this excellent piece at the incomparable Womanist Musings.
Renee and Sparky watched TLC's infamous Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the reality show about six-year-old beauty pageant contestant Alana and her working-class Georgia family, and their reaction was not necessarily what you'd expect. They make many terrific points about how repugnant the show is as a piece of television, how it “other[s the family] at every turn,” but they also offer an invaluable counterreading. They like this family – the four daughters aged between six and seventeen, the quiet father figure, and heroic matriarch June – and they'll continue to like them, no matter what the show's structure seems to want us to think.
|I love them all, but "Pumpkin" is my favorite.|
If you consume entertainment and have any conscience at all, you are a practiced counterreader. You have to be, if you're going to stand up to the hateful kyriarchal bullshit with which 21st-century westerners are bombarded every minute of the day. All responsible entertainment consumption requires a risk assessment, weighing the potential value to be gained against the potential harm to be done, and everybody's evaluation is slightly different. For one person, well-rounded white female characters but no characters of color is worth the trade-off; for another, it simply isn't. And sometimes performing an adequate counterreading requires you to marshal all your critical resources.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is not a text that welcomes counterreadings with open arms. Operating well within the established format of reality television, it utilizes an arsenal of techniques – both subtle and not so much – to impel voyeurism. TLC makes it very, very easy to sneer at and judge Honey Boo Boo and her family. You have to work quite hard to counteract this compulsion. You really have to be on the critical ball the whole time. And is that okay?
All summer the debate has raged as to whether, or to what extent, the show is exploitative. Having watched all of it inside of a week, I'm still undecided. There are moments when June and the girls express a self-awareness and a confidence that has me cheering them to the skies, sure that their assertions of not caring what people think of them are sincere. At times, though – especially when outsiders are brought in to interact with the family, an etiquette teacher or a pedicurist, and get all flustered and shocked by them – the whole thing seems enormously exploitative and gross.
It's this indeterminacy, this openness to a multiplicity of different interpretations, that has the national conversation about Honey Boo Boo going so fiercely. As Time's James Poniewozik observes:
...overall, she has a kind of sassy sweetness to her. In the second episode, she gets a pet teacup pig as consolation for losing a pageant and decides to dress him as a girl, which she says will make him gay. The ensuing argument with her older sister is both ridiculous and oddly wise in a 6-year-old way: “It’s not gonna be gay.” “Yes it is, because we’re making it a girl pig! And it’s actually a boy pig!” “O.K., but it’s not gonna be gay.” “It can if it wants to. You can’t tell that pig what to do.”
You can’t tell that pig what to do. See, you can look at that scene, like you can most of Honey Boo Boo, several ways. You can laugh at the intensity of Alana’s conviction that she’s right. You can tut-tut at the gender-role signals this pageant girl must be getting to conclude that you can “make” someone or something gay by dressing it in girl clothes. But you can also see something kind of remarkable in it: a little country girl, whatever confusion and misinformation she has in her mind, fervently arguing a teacup pig’s right to determine its own sexual identity.
There are plenty of other interesting aspects of this show (Salon considers the race angle; Slate tackles the class issue), but the two that can't be ignored are the gender dynamic and the class factor. The gender dynamic is pretty glorious: five strong, opinionated women who love each other deeply and don't take anyone's shit. They do what they want to do, they look how they want to look, and they are happy. Dare I suggest that one of the reasons the country's spent its summer in thrall to these people is that we just don't see women like this in our scripted entertainment?
Of course, it's rare to see poor white people portrayed sympathetically on US TV at all. My understanding of class in the US is much less nuanced than my understanding of the British class system, but I'm aware of this country's distaste for its own working poor. “Rednecks” appear in the media as rapists, as racists, as the butt of jokes and the object of revulsion. Voyeurism and disgust motivate hate-watching in our culture to an obscene degree, and that is why I think it's important to perform a counterreading, to celebrate this family and refuse to let your responses be dictated by classism and hatred. If you want to be truly horrified by your fellow humans, check out the comments on this Gawker article (I hope you have a strong stomach). To me, this is the aspect of Honey Boo Boo that's truly awful – not a happy family letting a camera crew into their lives in exchange for some money they surely need, but the legions of haters who judge Honey Boo Boo and her family to be less human, less worthy of dignity and respect for their life choices, than themselves.
The family certainly does not reciprocate that sentiment. Even in the throes of labor agony, when asked, “Do you recommend to anybody else to get pregnant at 17?”, oldest daughter Anna replies, “Do whatever you want to do.” She just refuses to tell anyone else what to do with their body or their life. The rest of America – from legislators to judgmental internet commenters – could learn something from her.