Well, we did our best. To Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, George Washington, Winston Churchill, and Co., thanks for trying, but game over. If it wasn’t already embarrassingly obvious, one little factoid should confirm for everyone that the West has fallen, and fallen hard — the fact that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a TLC reality show about the life and times of a seven-year-old beauty-pageant contestant, reportedly had more viewers than the Republican National Convention.
At least, that seems to be the general consensus among cultural commentators, despite the dubiousness of that factoid. Jezebel’s Anna Breslaw sees the show as “a dark American nightmare,” and the A.V. Club’s Ryan McGee calls it (unironically, I believe) “a dire warning to the world at large.” Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University, was a bit more measured. “I’m not sure these people should be disallowed from doing it,” he told NBC. (Yes, he’s “not sure” we should ban Honey Boo Boo.) David Brooks joined the hand-wringing camp in a September 28 column, citing the show as an example of “how social dysfunction can ruin lives,” given its “train wreck working-class family.”
For the uninitiated, said family has rocketed to fame and comparative fortune thanks to its less-than-aspirational qualities. Seven-year-old Alana first gained notoriety by drinking a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew before taking the stage at pageants. She seems to have coined the term “redneckognize.” Her Georgia accent is so thick that the show’s producers feel obliged to subtitle much of what she says.
In short, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo isn’t exactly the zenith of Western culture, and the show has been the cause of much despair. But here’s the thing: A lot of people really like the show, and many of those fans are members of the well-educated, non–morbidly obese sector of the population. My roommate from Hillsdale, who was the editor-in-chief of our paper and is about to move to South Africa to save orphans or something, is a devotee. NR’s own Patrick Brennan, who went to Harvard — and, honestly, is just weirdly smart — is also a fan; he thinks it’s funny and enjoyable, and seems to see nothing embarrassing about taking it in. And Mike Barthel of The New Republic recently praised Alana’s apparently progressive attitude towards sexual politics. In one episode, she put a tiara on her male pet pig, declared that this made him gay, and thereby “assert[ed] the fluidity of gender roles.” Indeed.
What makes the show really exceptional is how sharply it has broken from its progenitor, Toddlers and Tiaras. My professional opinion is that if watching Toddlers and Tiaras doesn’t make you physically ill, something is wrong with you. Remember that Newsweek cover of Michele Bachmann with crazy eyes? The moms in Toddlers and Tiaras look like that all the time. I mean, that’s what you’d expect — anyone who thinks her nine-month-old deserves a crown for being the prettiest tot in the nursery probably has a lot of issues that are best worked out far away from reality-TV cameras. Most pageant contestants and their parents, predictably, come off as narcissistic or just generically awful. Compared with the patently repulsive behavior of most of the kids on the one episode of Toddlers and Tiaras I watched before my eyeballs started bleeding, Alana is a breath of fresh air — fart jokes and all. Toddlers and Tiaras explores depths of human depravity that were previously unplumbed. Alana’s success at being in that world but not of it is kind of remarkable.
That’s not to say her world is pretty. By the numbers: She and her three sisters have four different fathers. Her mother, who weighs more than 300 pounds, says that farting 12 to 15 times a day helps you lose weight. And Alana’s niece, whose birth was celebrated in one episode, has a teenage mother and three thumbs (Alana’s reaction: “I wish I had an extra finger, then I could grab more cheese balls!”). But the members of the Boo Boo clan actually seem to enjoy spending time with each other, which is saying a lot for any group of people on TV. Granted, family time sometimes involves playing “Guess Whose Breath” (it’s exactly what it sounds like) and eating a dish called “sketti” made from pasta and a sauce of microwaved Country Crock margarine and ketchup. But David Brooks and his ilk would be hard-pressed to argue that their lives are substantively worse than those of, say, the nascent alcoholics of Jersey Shore or any of the Real Housewives.
And while Here Comes Honey Boo Boo might be grounds for a lot of nose-wrinkling, it’s no reason to despair. After all, the stars’ nigh-incomprehensible dialect and penchant for bodily-function humor make them direct cultural heirs of Flannery O’Connor’s amputees, hermaphrodites, and street preachers. Their hometown is just 20 minutes from hers, and their behavior wouldn’t have surprised her a bit. And don’t tell me Samuel Clemens wouldn’t have loved Guess Whose Breath. The family members’ nicknames — including Sugar Bear, Chubbs, Pumpkin, and Chickadee — could have been taken from a Faulkner novel. And while the show is less than literary, it’s also less than groundbreaking. The fact is, there have always been poor and poorly educated people who think halitosis is hilarious. And the rest of the country has always found their antics wildly entertaining. From the southwestern humorists to The Beverly Hillbillies, this brand of entertainment — lowbrow though it may be — is a pretty fundamental part of the American experience. It’s not everyone’s piece of pecan pie, as it were, but it’s also not a cultural crisis.
So don’t worry about the moon turning to blood anytime soon. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo isn’t a new low; it’s business as usual. You don’t have to like the show. I certainly don’t. But you don’t have to panic, either.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.