Popular television, like the popular culture itself, has several roles. One is to entertain. Another is to kick open the shutters of closed societies and closed minds. The latter doesn't always go smoothly. Herewith, the evidence.
First they came for Britney Spears and attacked her for all that trashy behaviour, not to mention the clothes and terrible boyfriends. Britney had a meltdown, lashed out and languished for a while. Then she came back, earning $15-million to judge other people on X-Factor.
Then they came for Snooki, but Snooki didn't care. Snooki kept on dressing like a streetwalker, giggling and flirting, and ended up finding true romance with one hunka-hunka burning love named Jionni LaValle. He got her knocked up, so she quit tanning and drinking to excess, and today is a proud mom. Also, Snooki might be proud that the vehicle which made her famous and so condemned for her vulgarity, Jersey Shore, is the subject of intense academic discussion. Because, you know, it illuminates something in the culture.
Now they've come for Honey Boo Boo. Who also manages to inadvertently illuminate.
In the brief, sometimes surreal lull between the summer shows and the new TV season, a new megastar emerged. She is the six-year-old Alana Thompson, better known as Honey Boo Boo Child. She is Shirley Temple from hell. She and her family are proud rednecks. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) is a huge hit. Millions of Americans are tuning in to see and hear Honey shout "A dollar make me wanna holler" while her mom, she of the triple chins and extreme-couponing habit, just laughs.
So the pundits, critics and columnists – those guardians of taste – are aflame with outrage. The show is "transparently heinous," "exploitative," "socially irresponsible," "awful and soul-crushing" and a "horror story posing as a reality-television program."
Yada-yada. What is so terrible about this show that celebrates the Thompson family of McIntyre in rural Georgia? Is it their poverty and the fact that Mama explains they all line up to wash their hair in the kitchen sink? Is it that Honey Boo Boo is a creature of the child-pageant world who knocks back her "go-go juice," a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew? Is the fact that dad, known as Sugar Bear, is a chalk miner who works seven days a week and enjoys seeing his family belly-flopping into mud puddles for fun?
The outrage, and outright assertion that the show is "revolting," is anchored in a deep middlebrow American unease with the reality of the rich social tapestry that is the United States today. Honey Boo Boo and her family, like Snooki in her heyday on Jersey Shore, push at the boundaries of bourgeois convention. Most of network television is rigidly middle-class in attitude and appearance. These people aren't.
When critics find Honey Boo Boo "revolting," they are reacting against a group of people – dirt-poor and happy – who cannot be Disneyfied. They are recoiling in horror at inhabitants of the underbelly of American society portrayed not as tragic figures aspiring to be bourgeois, but as unvarnished working-class and aware if it. They are horrified that there are happy hillbillies cavorting in the mud who decline to be stoic, tragic figures.
There might also be a touch of fear. Affluence ain't what it used to be in the U.S.A. The middle class is shrinking, while the category called "lower income" is getting bigger. Maybe some pundits, toiling in media with an uncertain future, fear that the world of Honey Boo Boo and her family is the future for the majority of Americans.
There has long been a distaste among some viewers and critics for "lower-income" figures on TV, when such people actually appear on TV, in fiction or reality. The Conner family on Roseanne wasn't aspirational enough for many. Roseanne Barr's cackle was disconcerting because it conveyed happiness and derision of bourgeois ideals.
They came for Roseanne Barr too. And she survived, eventually, rich.
The negative critical reaction to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo speaks to an intolerance, a disgust with happy rednecks who are uncannily at ease in their world. The revulsion is ludicrous and something to be rejected. After all, the acceptance of rigid orthodoxy about behaviour, income, looks and attitude means that eventually those guardians of taste will come after you.