It took me all of 10 seconds to fall madly in love with “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the “Toddlers and Tiaras” spin-off about Alana Thompson, the 6-year-old pageant hopeful known for her one-liners and love of Go-Go-Juice, and her self-described redneck family. While I was already enamored with Alana after seeing her on “Toddlers and Tiaras” last year — for being, essentially, the opposite of everything the pageant world wants their living dolls to be — but “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” sold me on the entire Thompson family. What Alana, June, Sugar Bear, Pumpkin, Chubbs, and Chickadee lack in traditional etiquette and higher education, they make up for in love, acceptance, and family values.
There’s a distinct difference between watching Alana on “Toddlers and Tiaras” and watching her on “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” She’s still the same vivacious, crazy, loud, and hilarious little girl on each, but the context and tone of each show reveals a startling difference in the way she’s perceived. “Toddlers and Tiaras” has always made me a little sad; little girls parading around as tiny embodiments of the Madonna/Whore complex. And then you have Alana, a cruder version of the girl in “Little Miss Sunshine,” whose sassiness cannot be hidden under layers glitter, fake eyelashes, and a hand-me-down flipper. She is a star in every sense of the word, simply by being herself. While viewers may root for her to succeed, you know she never will in that arena. As stupid and useless as pageant crowns and accolades may be, that’s kind of a bummer.
The brand that is “Toddlers and Tiaras” isn’t supposed to “get” a girl like Alana, let alone her family, and there’s the distinct sense that the pageant world and the show is laughing at and even disgusted by them. While many of the families who participate in pageants have to penny pinch in order to afford the expensive dresses and travel costs, it’s clear that the Thompson family is perhaps poorer than average. In one scene from Thursday’s new episode, which aired before “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Alana’s mother June talks about how the local police call her when a deer has been hit by a car so they can come pick it up and actually use the meat. I felt like I was supposed to be, I don’t know, grossed out that this family would eat roadkill, or depressed about the level of poverty they must endure to do such a thing. A friend of mine, who loves Alana, tweeted her discomfort, saying the episode was making her sad because the “joke” was about how poor the Thompson family is, like a running string of “you’re so poor” jokes. Though I personally saw the roadkill segment as an example of how, frankly, practical June is (seriously, why should a freshly killed deer go to waste, regardless of how it died?), I completely get the discomfort with feeling like the show is using the Thompsons’ poverty for laughs. At the same time, I don’t think the Thompsons want or are seeking our pity. In fact, their spinoff show, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” indicates they’re doing just fine without our armchair sympathy.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” has a different tone than “Toddlers and Tiaras” for me as a viewer. For starters, there’s less focus on the pageant world as a whole and its variety of horror show parents and the children they hairspray and spackle into submission. The focus is purely on the Thompson family and life in Georgia, pageants just being one aspect. In that sense, it’s no different than any other reality TV show out there, from “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” to “Miss Advised,” except that the reality being presented isn’t “aspirational” in the traditional sense. And yet, farting and burping at the dinner table aside, the Thompsons’ approach to life and the way they treat each other is far healthier than what is presented on many of those other shows. While their life lacks glamour, and the family shops with coupons and at food auctions, they have an abundance of what money and material goods cannot buy.
With the spotlight fully focused on Alana and her family in their own environment, the tone of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” has a lighthearted humor, even sweetness to it. Instead of being prodded to laugh at Alana and her family, you’re laughing with them — at their silliness, their bawdy humor, the exuberance with which they do everything, from bobbing for pigs feet at the Redneck Games to getting etiquette lessons. It’s impossible to deny that they all adore each other, that they’re each others’ biggest cheerleaders — compared to the constant catfighting and backstabbing on other reality shows, that’s nice to see.
As much as the family embodies some of the more harmless stereotypes about people from the South, the especially negative redneck stereotypes are nowhere to be found. June and her husband Sugar Bear seem to have a loving marriage — no spousal abuse here! They don’t, from what I can tell, drink alcohol — and they’re certainly not drunks. Most noticeably, they are not homophobic. In fact, Alana’s uncle (seen on the preceding episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras”) is gay. And then, of course, so is her pig Glitzy. And as far as Alana is concerned, that’s a great thing, because that means he’ll be interested in performing in pageants with her. While this is obviously not the most broad perspective on homosexuality, and the context is silly, it’s nice to see a child understand and express that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.
One of the most striking aspects of the show is how confident each of the girls is, both in her appearance and her convictions. Alana, obviously, is overflowing with positive self-esteem. There doesn’t appear to be the slightest bit of shame in Alana’s actions when she squeezes her belly to make it talk. Her older sister is affectionately nicknamed Chubbs, but she has a rather blasé attitude about losing the extra little bit of weight she carries around, likely because there is not an emphasis on physical beauty within the Thompson household. Yes, Alana participates in pageants, but the hair, makeup and frilly dresses that go into it are purely a stage performance that has no place at home, aside from practicing her tennis routine in the living room. If there’s a healthy approach to child pageantry to be had, it’s that.
And then there’s Pumpkin, Alana’s 12-year-old sister, who revels in sharing her bodily functions with the camera and anyone within a 12-foot radius. “I’ll stop farting when I’m dead,” she says firmly. Considering she’s at that impressionable age when most girls are learning — via society, their parents, and their peers — to find their own bodies gross and shameful, Pumpkin’s doesn’t-give-a-fuck attitude about what anyone thinks of her is kind of fantastic.
Lastly, there’s big sister Chickadee, who, at age 17, is pregnant with a little girl the family has already named Kaitlyn. There was a rare subdued moment on the show when June talked about finding out that her eldest daughter — who she had at 15 (and she had her second child at 17) — was pregnant. While she wasn’t happy about it, knowing how hard it was for her to be a young mom, she was determined to be supportive of Chickadee, and expressed pride that she was still focused on school. There are certainly parents who wouldn’t have handled it as well as June and Sugar Bear clearly have, and it’s obvious — the whole family goes to her ultrasound appointment — that Chickadee has a solid support system in place. The situation is not ideal, but how a person or a family rises to meet a challenge says a lot about them.
Of course, only two 30-minute episodes of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” have aired, so much remains to be seen. Even fart jokes wear thin after a point, and, as they say at the Redneck Games, there’s only so many times you can belly flop in a shallow mud pit.* Luckily, I think this show’s got depth.
* They don’t actually say this, but they should.