It’s hard not to notice the way rural working-class female fatness in the “Redneck Reality TV” series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo comes across as a condition to be ridiculed. It is constantly associated with poor health, dirtiness, and outsider status, much the way fatness in US culture is typically dismissed as abnormal, unhealthy, and requiring medical regulation or treatment. But it’s also difficult to talk about that show without also considering what many see as the opposite of disgust: cuteness. The title character, Alana, constantly alternates between cute and disgusting, along with most of the other characters on the show, the majority of whom are fat, working-class, white rural women and girls. The series portrays this family in isolation, as an individual group of people unconnected to the wider collective identities of poor rural white people. This isolation and individualization allows the series to avoid important questions about rural poverty—questions that usually make Americans uncomfortable. Should viewers feel sympathy for the women on the show, or are we being positioned to judge them? Do they make audiences laugh because they are cute, or because they fit pre-existing stereotypes of “white trash?”
We watch as Alana enters pageants and preps for them, attempting to parlay her blonde hair, chubby cheeks, and blue eyes into a celebrity image resembling a contemporary Shirley Temple. The comparison to Temple, made favorably by many fans of the show, and less so by a popular internet meme, draws attention to the element of performed cuteness common to both white female child stars. Behavioral scientists since the 1920s have studied the cuteness response in humans, and identified a set of traits that often elicit it: round head and eyes, chubby face and limbs, clumsy movements, and playful, naïve, or childish behavior. Like Shirley Temple, Alana, her mother, and her female siblings—indeed many stereotypical fat people—fit this model of cuteness.
However, they are also portrayed as abject in their racialized class identity. As a Southern working-class white girl, Alana’s onscreen performance recalls the racialized entertainment of the minstrel show, and the series showcases the family as examples of “white trash,” one of the last publicly acceptable racial epithets in US culture. Their exaggerated unruliness further emphasizes their outsider status. Alana also frequently speaks Southern-accented non-standard English that most Americans would identify as similar to African American vernacular, reminding us that white rural Southerners have long occupied an ambiguous racial position based, in part, on their proximity to black culture and language. Alana’s performed cuteness for the pageants—like the style of most reality TV—feels over the top, but then, one major appeal of the show resides in its presentation of its characters as freakish spectacles for viewing consumption.
This invitation to viewers to laugh at the characters is part of Honey Boo Boo’s appeal. The show draws on well-worn clichés about rural Southern white trash, portraying their coarse behavior, highlighted with onscreen graphics and comic music, and suggesting parallels between the characters and animals, particularly pigs. Because Mama June’s character is the fattest, her body size is the subject of constant discussion, including her own remarks that she feels too fat or doesn’t care how fat she is, or talking about starting a diet or eating as many cheese balls as she wants. The camera’s emphasizes the size of all the girls and women even when it isn’t being discussed, and they are filmed in a surprising number of sequences involving pigs, mud, and bathroom humor. Even when she is not audibly passing gas, June is associated visually with toilet paper (which she hoards along with other consumer goods) and toilets.
This abjection is an overt theme in the pilot episode “This is My Crazy Family,” which features an outing to the Redneck Games: several sisters compete in events such as the “mud pit belly flop” and bobbing for pigs’ feet. At this event, which the series positions as exotic and repugnant, we also see a sign warning of dangerous pond bacteria where many attendees are swimming, as Mama June explains against a backdrop of portable toilets. The other segment depicts Alana’s competition in the “Natural Beauty” children’s pageant (which she loses), producing a clear parallel with the Redneck Games and provoking the question: which spectacle is a better metaphor for the series itself? (Answer: both).
Similarly, the second episode of the first season, “Gonna Be a Glitz Pig,” presents two more spectacles of abjection that seem designed to comment on one another. First, Alana’s family gives her a pet pig as a consolation prize for losing the pageant, planning to train him to participate in her pageant routines. Her slapstick, endearing efforts to train him serve as implied commentary on the episode’s other segment, in which Alana and her sister deliberately antagonize their etiquette instructor with rude table manners and unseemly conversation topics at the table, prompting us to wonder, who’s more trainable, the pig or the sisters?
Despite constantly misbehaving to annoy the characters who represent middle-class propriety, the women on the show also present themselves and healthy and well-adjusted. They continually proclaim that their self-esteem is intact despite acknowledging that they don’t conform to conventions of feminine beauty and the lack of success in both the child pageant circuit and their various efforts to lose weight. Critic Megan Carpentier points out that while middle-class viewers might expect to feel only condescending disdain for the family, they are often surprised to feel sympathy for them: “so many people find it shocking that they love each other and themselves.” Mama June comes across as a devoted mother doing her best in straitened circumstances, trying to teach her daughters self-respect and self-acceptance. She makes it hard for viewers to scorn the family for their “trashy” behavior by playing into widely held platitudes about self-love and good parenting.
Sometimes, though, Mama June at times appears to be “playing” the dumb redneck to fulfill the minstrel-show aspect of the series, and at times she reveals a canny intelligence and knowing common sense that raise her above some of the more clownish maternal mavens of reality TV. What emerges instead is a complex interplay of staged and actual cuteness, mixed with freakishness and disgust. The series offers a hyperbolic, often satirical, look at the child pageant as metaphor for aspirational femininity, even as the characters scorn the middle-class notions of polite behavior that usually accompanies it, all with an element of quasi-feminist self-esteem rhetoric mixed in.
The thread of class runs through and gets tangled up in the series, and even as the different characters display various forms of agency and even subversiveness, it is always clear that they are a Southern working-class family performing at the whims of the television industry. Whether one responds to Honey Boo Boo, Mama June, and their family with admiration or disgust, however, this focus on their personal behavior helps to obscure the larger problem that the show inadvertently exposes: the challenges of rural poverty and the American public’s difficulties in responding to it.
Julia Leyda is Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin. Her research interests include class, cuteness, and gender politics in film and popular media.