There’s an old tale about a very holy woman—her specific faith varies depending on who’s telling the story—whose neighbors come to her seeking wisdom. How, they ask, can they be as enlightened as she is? Happily, she gives them her recipe for living in peace with the cosmic all: “Every morning, I wake up and thank God for the blessing of sleep. Then I sit up and thank God for the blessing of the day ahead of me. Then I fart.”
Consider a certain group of people: Nearly a fifth of them are morbidly obese. At least a third are overweight. And the number of children whose fathers aren’t living with them has doubled in number recently.
If you’re a regular TV watcher, you may think we’re talking about Mama June, Sugar Bear and the rest of the Thompson/Shannon family who star in the TLC reality series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In fact, no. Those statistics describe the current population of the United States.
When it debuted in 2012, Honey Boo Boo may have exposed the American cultural divide more clearly than any election-year political debate ever could. Urbanites and liberals, accustomed to taking pride in their tolerance, had little to show for this earthy Georgia bunch; making snide jokes about Mama June’s family quickly became a national pastime. As People magazine’s television critic Tom Gliatto recently admitted: “When Here Comes Honey Boo Boo debuted… I thought the sky was falling and that civilization was ending. The show seemed to expose viewers to a new low in what passes for American life on TV.” With the coming of the show’s second season, Gliatto claimed to have seen the light—and yet his words still sounded vaguely mocking, still rang with liberal smugness: “Where I once might have been disgusted that a family would make pork and beans from a roadkill pig, as [they] do in the season premiere, this is actually ‘green.’ Or so I believe.”
Somehow, these cultured critics rarely seem to bother comparing Mama June and Sugar Bear’s progressive, improvised family unit to America’s demographic reality. If they’d stop focusing on the crass details—yes, yes, making pasta sauce with tubs of Country Crock spread and ketchup is a bit much to stomach—they might then also stop expressing lofty disbelief about the show’s appeal and, instead, applaud TLC for painting a portrait of a world that millions of Americans actually recognize. The Thompson/Shannon family, so-called because it is, in fact, a modern blend of multiple fathers and mixed backgrounds, actually seems all the stronger for reveling in its low-culture bona fides.
In the recent episode chronicling Mama June and Sugar Bear’s commitment ceremony—hey, look, old-fashioned, paper-based legal marriage doesn’t seem to matter much to these folks!—laughs are less frequent than the heartwarming moments of human vulnerability. At one point, June expresses consternation she might not fit into her dress; later, she discusses “stress pooping.” Come ceremony time, the groomsmen, all wearing camouflage tuxedos with bright orange vests, present themselves as a mixture of nervous men’s men and dutiful partners; meanwhile, June anxiously searches for her also-hunting-themed veil as her granddaughter Kaitlyn somehow finds her way down the rain-soaked backyard aisle in a plastic Radio Flyer wagon. Through the whole thing, all the members of the family exude love for each other and concern that the auspicious event go off successfully.
This is exactly what a functional family does.
Government-sanctioned legal marriage doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the practices of love, support and commitment. All the bullshit arguments that rear their head extolling the virtues of the “traditional family”—whatever the hell that is—seem to have little basis in demonstrable fact in modern America. As Honey Boo Boo shows us, real American families can be messy, troubled and happy while embracing their surface-level grotesqueness, which I’ll take any day over the truly ugly nature of those oppressive, emotionally stunted families that think of themselves as “normal” and “classy.”
Yet liberals and conservatives both, it seems, enjoy the perverse shin-kicking of the poor, the uneducated and the physically different as a pastime seemingly more American than baseball. When Here Comes Honey Boo Boo launched its first trailer, Lindsay Goldwert wrote in the New York Daily News: “The Thompsons are seen frolicking in mud puddles, slapping their bellies and arguing about whether or not they are rednecks.” Smug recitation of fact, apparently, comes standard with $20 martinis in Manhattan.
The fact that so many folks in media and politics can’t believe that happiness doesn’t have to exist in a directly proportional relationship with college tuition or Trader Joe’s prices tells us a lot less about the societal worth of the Thompson/Shannon family than it does about our insecurities as a society obsessed with perception.
Social conservatives seem to think poor, uneducated people should get married and stop having babies out of wedlock in order to stabilize society. Liberals, for their part, seem to think poor, uneducated people should show their gratitude for food stamps by, hey, maybe giving NPR and Downton Abbey a shot. Both groups share a stultifying inability to appreciate Honey Boo Boo’s actually faithful, loving and supportive family without making cheap-shot jokes about fat people and how exploitatively gross the human body is. For the record, though, everybody stress-poops on occasion—particularly during high-anxiety moments like, say, before weddings.
While we should certainly express befuddlement at the notion of Country Crock being anything but processed crap, we must not do so at the expense of an American family that’s shown itself to be more structurally and emotionally healthy than countless others. Frankly, if I had a man in my life who expressed the same love for me that Sugar Bear expresses for Mama June, I’d be the luckiest man on Earth.
Josh Kruger is a writer and editor from Philadelphia. His PW column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” presents stories and ideas that challenge our cultural understanding of what “normal” means in American life anymore.