It was hardly surprising for Time magazine to choose President Barack Obama to be its “Person of the Year.” But for a new face that represents the spirit of these times, I believe a serious argument can be made for Alana Thompson, better known to many as TLC’s pint-sized reality-TV star, Honey Boo Boo.
Hear me out. It was a year of political, economic, meteorological and -- if you believed the Mayan calendar rumors -- apocalyptic uncertainty. What better place for anxious Americans to turn than to the low-income world of the Thompson family in rural McIntyre, Georgia, for a reoccurring and reassuring message: even life at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap has its rewarding moments of triumph.
In case you have been totally disconnected from the corner of pop culture that contains TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” -- and that’s not necessarily a bad thing -- you should know that it features the sassy, chubby-cheeked veteran of toddler beauty pageants, who turned 7 in August, along with her mother June Shannon, father Mike Thompson and her three older sisters.
But the main attraction is little Honey Boo Boo. With a brassy narcissism that rivals Donald Trump, Kanye West or the Kardashian sisters, she preens for the cameras, chugs mama’s “go-go juice” (a combo of Mountain Dew and Red Bull) and offers up such wince-inducing catchphrases as, “A dolla’ makes me holla!,” “You’d better redneckognize!” and “Girls must be crazy if they think they’re gonna beat me Honey Boo Boo child!”
Not my idea of must-see TV. Yet the show popped up on my decidedly unhip (just ask my kid) radar screen when it scored higher ratings in the coveted 18-to-49 age bracket on cable TV news channels than the live coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Since then she has been named to Barbara Walters list of her “most fascinating people of 2012,” and TLC has renewed the program for a second season -- plus specials for those viewers who just can’t get enough of the little attention magnet.
TLC used to call itself The Learning Channel, which raises the question as to what its executives think we are learning. Is this show a revealing snapshot into the world of the economically struggling? Or is it an elegantly exploitative slumming by the cultural elite?
Honey Boo Boo’s riser is part of an intriguing explosion in what television critics are calling, with all due respect, “redneck reality shows.” They include A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” History Channel’s “Swamp People,” CMT’s “Redneck Island” and Animal Planet’s “Gator Boys.” After years of drama-inflated reality shows about the wealthy and self-absorbed, the people who make television have turned their cameras on the down-market self-absorbed.
Not impressed is West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who fired off a stern letter to MTV’s executives for their upcoming “Buckwild,” which fills the time slot of “Jersey Shore,” an old show about young New Jersey party animals, with a new show about young rural West Virginia party animals.
“Instead of showcasing the beauty of our people and our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior -- and now you are profiting from it,” Manchin wrote. “That is just wrong.” Nice try, but Manchin probably won’t have any more success than New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who hated “Jersey Shore.”
Besides, judging from the preview clips, the young people in “Buckwild” did not require much coaxing. The eagerness of the participants to be on TV saves reality shows from charges of exploitation. If the participants are not embarrassed, it is reasoned, why should the rest of us be?
Yet, as a black American, I cannot help but wonder whether a show like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” about, say, a low-income black family and their sassy child wouldn’t be hounded off the air as simply too embarrassing for just about everybody.
Americans could laugh at a 1970s sit-com like “Good Times” about a fictitious working-poor black family, but the reality of real-life poor black families, no matter how charming their children, might touch too many sensitive nerves and grim realities even for reality TV to find entertaining.
That’s the hidden side of Honey Boo Boo: it is easier to laugh at people who already appear to be laughing at themselves.