When “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” premiered in 2012, it achieved such ratings that media outlets suggested—erroneously, if not baselessly—that the show had garnered more viewers than the Republican National Convention. The show’s instantaneous success could only be rivaled, it turns out, by TLC’s similarly abrupt decision to cancel it. The news arrived last week after TMZ broke the news that one of the show’s central figures, “Mama” June Shannon, was dating convicted child molester and registered sex offender Mark McDaniel. Since then, the story has grown more convoluted and distressing with each passing day.
Viewers have since heard allegations that McDaniel was dating Shannon before his 2004 conviction for aggravated child molestation, and that his victim was an eight-year-old relative of Shannon’s. Shannon’s eldest daughter, Anna Cardwell, came forward with the claim that McDaniel had also molested her when she was eight years old, and that her younger sister, Lauryn, who was three years old at the time, had been in bed with them on at least one occasion. Anna also spoke out about her mother’s denial that the molestation had ever taken place, her claims forming a damning counterpoint to Shannon’s continued denial that she was dating McDaniel at all.
In light of all this one can easily understand TLC’s impulse to cancel “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” and viewers’ impulse to turn away: What began as a farce had turned into a tragedy, and continuing to watch could seem like the worst kind of voyeurism. Yet TLC, which once marketed itself as The Learning Channel, has a chance to make good on its name by allowing viewers deeper insight into the family dynamics that give rise not just to catchphrases, but to abuse.
Throughout much of the press coverage of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”’s cancellation, there has been one universal thread of anxiety: what will happen to Honey Boo Boo herself? Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, six years old at the time the show began airing, became not just a low-rent celebrity but a kind of icon for countless viewers. Alana was the one figure viewers couldn’t easily reduce to a punchline. She had the pursed lips and watchful, sardonic gaze of a renaissance cherub, and though the show followed the rough narrative of her life on the pageantry circuit, it was in her home element that Alana’s fans found her most entrancing: She swore, she bellowed, she cavorted in hallways and belly-flopped into mud pits, and feasted on economy cheese puffs and a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull she called “Go-Go Juice.” Scraping beneath the pith of the show’s bespoke catchphrases (“All that vajiggle jaggle is not beautimous”; “You’d better redneckonize!”), viewers could imagine they found something both genuine and positive in Alana, who delighted in her farts and belly fat, and proclaimed that “everyone’s a little bit gay.” Since her first appearance as the sassy show-stealer of TLC’s “Toddlers in Tiaras,” viewers fell in love with what they imagined as Alana’s freedom: from body shame, from homophobia, from restraint, from self-consciousness, from seemingly any sense of limitation. Competing in a local pageant in the show’s first episode, Alana listed her ambition as: “To be anything [I] can choose.”
The show reserved a more mocking approach for the rest of Alana’s family, and viewers followed suit. The cameras moved through Alana’s hometown of McIntyre, Georgia as if completing a game of redneck bingo, finding a rusted-out fan, a freight train cutting through a yard, a house frosted with Christmas lights in August, and a dead armadillo curled supine in the sun. The series’ opening minutes treated viewers to the spectacle of Alana’s mother, “Mama” June, washing her hair in the kitchen sink, then telling the camera operators: “hold on, I’m scratching my bugs.” At the start of the show, June was thirty-two years old and about to become a grandmother. The cameras lingered on her rash-reddened rolls of fat, her coughing fits, seeming to find Alana’s shadow-self in her. June Shannon inspired distaste in viewers from the first. She was as easy to mock as Alana was to adore, her body bearing, as it did, the impress of poor health and early motherhood (she had given birth to Anna, her eldest daughter, when she was only fourteen). She also showed the world what might have been her daughters’ future.
And yet, the family still lived without much anxiety or sense of responsibility—as least once each episode had been fully edited. “Our family is crazy,” June proclaimed in the show’s premiere. “We like to be ourselves. You like us or you don’t like us. We just don’t care. We love our little life, and we’re having fun doin’ it.” Her Georgia drawl rendered in subtitles, it seemed as if she was a representative not of American society but of an idiosyncratic yet harmonious enclave as yet unspoilt by the modern world. Cheese puffs and “Go-Go Juice” were not indicators of bad nutrition, but ethnic specialties; June’s disability checks proof not of disenfranchisement but of her love of leisure; the Confederate flags visible at the town’s periphery nothing more than tribal décor. Alana’s family was happy because its members were shamelessly dedicated to momentary pleasures and brassy celebrations of their individuality.
The recent allegations that have both ended TLC’s run of the show and torn Alana’s family apart at the seams have challenged this idea to its very core. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is no longer a celebration of a kooky, joyful family. It has become, instead, a chance for insight into the circumstances that lead to the strife and abuse now visible in its protagonists’ lives. The real question is whether viewers intend to use it—and whether TLC will take this opportunity to scrap the happy-go-lucky world they had confected for Alana and her family, and instead represent the darker forces at play in their lives.
When June Shannon’s relationship with McDaniel first came to light, viewers reacted with horror, but also with a deep sense of betrayal. They had been promised gawking and fun and a vision of a family they never needed to worry about, because it was comprised of people far too shameless and proud and outspoken to ever experience self-doubt, let alone danger. For a fan of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” learning about McDaniel was like discovering a dead mouse on a plate of tiramisu: it was a horror that had no place in the happy, “crazy … little life” June described.
But taking a hard look at the world of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo means acknowledging that the threat was there all along. This is a world of rampant unemployment, disability, and economic disenfranchisement. It is a world where teen pregnancy is the norm and poor health that may lead to costly and painful health problems is a given. It is a complex world, and one that does not exist merely for viewers’ enjoyment, even if TLC has done a fine job fashioning it as such.
In the same way that director Lauren Greenfeld approached the material usually reserved for the soapy dramas of the “Real Housewives” in her circumspect and provocative documentary The Queen of Versailles, TLC now has the opportunity to move beyond the first incarnation of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” and do more. They can abandon the amply colonized territory of “Sister Wives” and “19 Kids and Counting” and “Breaking Amish,” and toward the quieter observations viewers have access to in documentaries like Streetwise and Paradise Lost. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is not just cakey, insubstantial pleasure—trash TV about trashy people—it’s a reflection of America.
In the show’s new incarnation, TLC could present June Shannon not as a joke or a villain, but as a woman who became a mother long before she had the emotional or financial resources to raise a child, and who has enabled harm to befall her daughters not because she is evil, but because of her limitations. They can expose the layers of fear and self-loathing and codependence that can lead a woman to privilege her relationship with a man above her children’s safety. They can look deeper at the vulnerability that lives beneath June and her family’s brazen exteriors: at June’s legal blindness and disabling cataracts, at Anna and Lauryn’s history of abuse, and at the real little girl who lives somewhere within the “Honey Boo Boo” of gif sets and T-shirts, underneath the mop of ringlets and behind the set of quips and catchphrases that seem just a little too epigrammatically profane to have been cooked up on the spot by a six-year-old.
What will happen to Honey Boo Boo? In many ways, this question is irrelevant: more than anything else, it seems, Honey Boo Boo was a caricature cooked up by a team of overzealous producers. Honey Boo Boo the icon cannot be harmed: She is a spigot of piss and vinegar and folksy wisdom, a girl who snaps and struts and does not need anyone’s approval or care. She is the ultimate fantasy of the “white trash” woman, because she knows not just how to defend herself but to love herself. She demands nothing of her audience, except attention, and attention is easy to give.
Alana Thompson, the girl behind the character, is a little harder to find. You can see her crying at the end of a pageant in which she has won nothing. You can see her in the moments when she forgets what she is supposed to know. And you might see more of her if her show stayed on the air, and examined the dynamics of her family’s life, exposing them not as freaks but as typical Americans. Alana’s safety is not the viewers’ responsibility. But learning to look for the little girl behind the pageant character—and learning that she deserves the public’s interest and attention even if she cannot attract them with an outrageous persona—is.