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How Liberals Learned to Love Honey Boo Boo

If you’ve heard of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” it’s probably because of a joke. TLC’s reality series about a six-year-old beauty pageant contestant named Alana and her rural Georgia family got good ratings for a basic cable show, but became an easy punchline to an audience far larger than the two to three million who watched each episode. “SNL” portrayed her as a dim bulb, Jimmy Fallon joked about her affinity for sugary drinks (a moral wrong now thanks to the obesity epidemic), and the Onion said that “this is going to end very, very badly.”

It’s easy to see why the show attracted such scorn. Alana’s family is like a lazy liberal’s stereotype of Southern whites. As the series opened, Alana’s mother June was about to become a grandmother at 33. None of her four daughters are from the same father, and she’s unmarried, though she has been together with Alana’s father Sugar Bear for eight years. June is on disability. They eat spaghetti with a sauce made from ketchup and butter. Someone is heard farting in the opening credits. It was widelyreported that the show got better ratings than the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and though that wasn’t actually true, it aligned nicely with our existing stereotypes about the great unwashed.

But then a funny thing happened: The more people got to see of Alana’s family, the more they liked them. What began as a classic “thank God we’re not those people” show for liberals and other cosmopolitans turned out to be weirdly inspirational. We wanted to laugh at them but slowly realized we were laughing with them. June and her girls, for all their apparent problems, seem to genuinely like spending time together, yelling at and making fun of each other in the way only families can, and much more winningly than the worrisome families we see in “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” or most of the Real Housewives series. Like any reality show, some situations are clearly created by the producers, but they led to real moments. Miss Georgia 2011 probably wouldn’t have met with the family without the show’s intervention—she looks more than a little uncomfortable to be there even so—but Alana’s response to the experience is indicative of why the show is so winning: “She’s very pretty and I don’t think she farts.”

Even more notable, however, was the show’s attitude toward homosexuality. Alana first appeared on the TLC show “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which was widely condemned for exploiting its underage pageant contestants but slowly gained an audience that appreciated its campier aspects. (“What’s draggier, ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ or ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’?” asked EW in 2010.) “Honey Boo Boo” returned this affection. On the first episode, Alana is given a male piglet and slaps a tiara on its head to, she says, make it gay; when her older sister objects that the pig can’t be gay, Alana yells, “It can if it wants to. You can’t tell that pig what to do.” And in the season finale, we meet Alana’s gay uncle, about whom Alana shouts, “Ain’t nothing wrong with being a little gay. Everybody’s a little gay.” The moment was swiftly autotuned and has become a minor online hit. Among all the easy jokes, it’s now equally easy to find serious excitement about “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” online.

At TV Hangover, Ryan Broderick writes that the show gives us a vision of the kind of people who “the news shows holding signs outside of abortion clinics” as “just people.” Even more so, it imagines that we followed those people home and discovered that we agree on a lot of issues, even highly divisive ones like gay rights. In a political culture that’s at historical levels of polarization, this is comforting. Our culture seems to define our party identification—conservative Southerners, liberal Northeasterners—which makes the possibility of change seem remote: If to be Southern and white is to oppose rights for women, gays, and minorities, then the persistence of Southern culture necessarily means the perpetuation of such intolerance. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” suggests that this isn’t necessarily so. Alana and her family can be enthusiastic rednecks (a word they use to describe themselves) while still being casually tolerant. We can come together while maintaining our differences.

It feels far more earned than similar expressions of tolerance you’ll find on other shows. It’s hard to see much of yourself in the Cleaver-clean houses of the gay doctors and lawyers on sitcoms like “Modern Family” and “The New Normal.” The sitcoms use their fictional advantage to construct a situation that’s almost too perfect, loading the deck in favor of gay rights by presenting characters that are mostly flawless. These shows make the easy demand that we accept gay parenting in well-to-do professional couples, extending tolerance only an inch beyond what we already grant, whereas on “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Alana asserts the fluidity of gender roles while putting a tiara on a piglet.

Of course, none of this is strictly accurate. On the one hand, Alana exhorts some gnats to “go back to Africa” in the same episode she asserts the normalcy of being gay, and on the other hand there are lots and lots of white Southern liberals who are plenty tolerant. Our differences are too structural and persistent to be overcome by even the loudest of six-year-olds. But sometimes art’s political value is not in its ability to educate but its ability to sympathetically depict the experience of people whose humanity we might otherwise discount. Showing the possibility of tolerance in people it’s easy for liberals to be intolerant of, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” gives us a political fantasy of the best kind.