Reality TV and the Demise of Innocence

photo– by JoAnn Richi

Amid allegations that Alana Thompson’s mother ‘Mama June’ took up with a sex offender, the reality show ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’ is now history. However, in looking back at it’s long run one cannot help but ask why this tasteless display of  low living captivated millions of viewers for several years.

Perhaps the answer can be found in the original TLC program that catapulted little Honey Boo Boo, and her family, into the national eye; the equally mesmerizing ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’

Ever since the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the gorgeous six year old pageant winner of the mid ‘90s, America has been fascinated with, and horrified by, the phenomena of little girls transformed into miniature Barbie Dolls, sashaying across the stage to win beauty contests. We decry their loss of innocence, express disgust at the entire process and blame the mothers; but we can’t stop watching.

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There is plenty of hand wringing over the sexualization of these children and the demonic competitiveness of their parents; but the sight of doll-like little girls in elaborate gowns and heavy make up doing spot on impressions of women decades their senior is just too hard to turn away from.

Those are the traditional winners; polished, precocious and perfect.  And then there is Honey Boo Boo. With her pumpkin shaped tummy and the jelly rolls of baby fat she in no way fits the bill for grabbing pageant gold. Why does this all seem so familiar? We may have thought Alana broke the mold when she burst on the scene, but we’ve actually been down this road before.

Honey Boo Boo is the Southern fried version of Olive, the pear shaped, wildly enthusiastic central character of the film Little Miss Sunshine. Olive is an endearing child who wants more than anything in the world to be a beauty queen. Her long suffering, dysfunctional family knows better, but cannot bring themselves to  dissuade her. Instead they all pile into a dying VW van and pull together to desperately try to get her to a pageant she has absolutely no chance of winning.

Olive is the perfect pint-sized underdog, and we cheer for her. Herein lies our fascination, and tendency to want to embrace, these characters. Pageants demand perfection. Olive and Honey Boo Boo defy that expectation. We root for them because they are like us, with all our imperfections and unrealized dreams.

If Honey Boo Boo seemed insufferable with her corn pone phrases, cloying facial expressions and exaggerated body waggles, she was a whole lot easier to take than a shining example of a ‘real’ winner; six year old Brenna of You Tube fame.


Here is Brenna having a ‘melt down’; “Just give her space” her mother says waving away the cameras she is usually happy to have follow her daughter everywhere.  Here is Brenna ordering her father to get her a snack.  And here she is weeping because someone asked her “if she was beautiful”; her tearful reply; “I am always beautiful, if you ask me if I am beautiful that means you think I am not beautiful.”

This child is a nightmare, although her doting parents seem oblivious to that fact. Brenna’s Mom and Dad appear to be in their late forties or early fifties, much older than the other contestant’s parents.  She is their baby doll and they dress her accordingly. Her mother beams with pride over her trophies. Her father jokingly goes along with being ordered around like a servant, and Brenna grows more testy, demanding and bratty as the cameras roll.

So, why didn’t Brenna get a reality show?  Because pretty gets boring quickly, and no one wants to watch the systematic destruction of a child by well meaning but obviously misguided parents. They have their sights set on Miss America for her. I’d suggest they save her winnings for a good therapist. If the core of her identity is contingent on being beautiful, what happens when the pageants are over and all this adoration comes to a screeching halt?  Brenna just might be headed for a few more melt downs.

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Meanwhile, back at Mama June’s…..

It has been often said that ‘Mama June’ was the real star of ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’.

There is a lot of truth to that. At over 300 lb. she carried herself well and passed along to her daughters the self-confidence to be big, round and proud.  June didn’t seem to consider herself unattractive, and would not have entered her moon-faced youngest daughter in beauty contests if she didn’t think Alana was beautiful too.

The women in Boo Boo’s family all tended to look alike; the same big fleshy faces, matching rolls of fat pushing up over the top of their jeans. But, they didn’t shirk from the camera, or obsess about dieting, they accepted themselves and went about doing things, hopefully, we would never do.  Where they disgusting? Yes, frequently. Did we really want follow the minutia of their crude and inane daily experiences? Probably not. That menagerie was the car wreck on the reality show superhighway; we didn’t want to see it, but couldn’t stop rubbernecking as we channel surfed by.

Given the alternative of having to be painfully thin to be perceived as pretty or being accepted as zaftig and still gorgeous, wouldn’t most women want to be considered beautiful, no matter what their weight? Mama June had that covered. And wouldn’t we prefer our beauty queens, full grown or miniature, to be captivating rather than spoiled and vapid ? Little Honey Boo Boo took care of that. So we watched, maybe for only a few minutes out of sheer curiosity, the side show that come to town.

The termination of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo left a few unanswered questions. Will Mama June continue to date felons?  Will Honey Boo Boo grow up to be just another trailer dwelling coupon queen?  Will we all get on with our lives and forget these digital hillbillies? Only time and the fickleness of the American viewing public will tell.

Alana Thompson’s reign as Queenie Boo Boo would have come to an end, even without the help of her mother’s dubious choice of paramours. Closing in on third grade Alana was about to age out of pee-wee pageantry anyway. Nine is the new forty when it comes to little girls in tiaras, everyone knows, they peak around six. So, what exactly was the enduring appeal of Honey Boo Boo?  With everyone desperately trying to look like movie stars or models or some other cultural icon of  physical perfection, perhaps it was comforting to know that for a brief period of time in America even a chubby, inarticulate, little girl from Georgia could become a beauty queen.