On Honey Boo Boo and the ethics of self exploitation

I’ve noticed a few things lately. I’ve noticed that scripted television isn’t around much anymore. I think there are still writers out there (or did I miss something? Are professional television writers banned?). Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but none seem to be busy writing for prime time TV.

I have noticed that there are a whole lot of “reality TV” shows flooding my Time Warner cable.

I’m not necessarily complaining about reality TV. I actually like some of these shows. I admit I can’t do without my RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, Chopped, Face-Off, or My Cat From Hell. Although I enjoy watching the overly dramatic (and thoroughly edited) lives of reality TV stars and their shows, I’ve noticed that despite the tremendous entertainment value of reality TV, the genre has been the object of an equal amount of criticism. As of late, the criticism seems to be focused on one reality TV show in particular.

This one:

This is the cast of The Learning Channel’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just somewhere where there is life beyond television), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo follows the lives and antics of seven-year old pageant kid, Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, her parents, June “Mama” Shannon and Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, and Alana’s three older sisters, Anna (aka “Chickadee”), Jessica (aka “Chubbs”), and Lauryn (aka “Pumpkin”), while giving the rest of America a glimpse into life in rural McIntyre, Georgia.

Might I add that the family recently added Baby Kaitlyn, the daughter of Alana’s eldest sister Anna.

…And for a while the family owned a pig named “Glitzy”.

Now, on the surface, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is no different from its watching-real-people-as-entertainment predecessors. PBS’ An American Family, which aired in the 1970s, established the tradition of broadcasting one’s private tribulations for the world to see (I think one can clearly mark the start of the decline of reality television from the moment PBS aired Pat Loud asking her husband Bill for a divorce). The problem with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, some say, has to do with the fact that the Family Boo Boo has done something one might have thought was impossible to do in reality television: show has actually crossed the line of good taste. A critique of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in The Hollywood Reporter read:

“You know this show is exploitation. TLC knows it. Maybe even Mama and HBB know it, deep down in their rotund bodies. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a car crash, and everybody rubber-necks at a car crash, right? It’s human nature. Yes, except that if you play that card, you also have to realize that human nature comes with the capacity to draw a line, to hold fast against the dehumanization and incremental tearing down of the social fabric … “

The Hollywood Reporter called the show “horrifying”.

The Guardian wrote:

“none of the women or girls who participate in the show seems to hate themselves for their poverty, their weight, their less-than-urbane lifestyle, or the ways in which they diverge from the socially-acceptable beauty standard.”

In addition, The Guardian accused TLC of  portraying Honey Boo Boo and her family as something to “point and snicker at”.

But what exactly are we pointing and snickering at? As much as we might want to keep the reality of rural America a secret, the Thompson/Shannon family is no different from many families in the U.S. Thirty-seven percent of Americans live in the South. At last count, a clear majority of the American public (like Honey Boo Boo’s family) is overweight. And like June Shannon’s family, many American families include children fathered by different men.

So what’s the problem?

If The Guardian is correct and TLC is offering Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as something to “point and snicker at”, then we should consider what exactly the network is up to in airing the series. If the show is on merely for the purpose of laughing at the Thompson/Shannon family, we may have an ethical problem on our hands. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (via the Second Formulation of his Categorical Imperative) argues that we are not to use others as mere means to our ends. Kant writes:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” — Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

This means, if we want something (e.g. we want to be entertained) we must make sure that no one is exploited by our act. THAT means if we watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for the sole purpose of laughing at Honey Boo Boo and her family, we are using them as mere means to our ends. There are other, less harmful ways we can be entertained (like reading philosophy). And our entertainment should not come at the of the degradation of others.

But is the TV show truly exploitive? Well, lets start by asking what is truly exploitive about the show? We know that low-income, not-too-educated, rural, self-professed “rednecks” exist — whether they are on TV or not — and Alana Thompson’s parents were entering their daughter into kiddie pageants long before the show aired. Watching a family like Honey Boo Boo’s isn’t necessarily exploitive, even if we are entertained by what we see.

It is possible that some people are watching the show for educational reasons.

Hey — It’s possible!!!

I guess we’re left to ask, does the fact that a camera is present automatically mean that anyone is being exploited?

Watch it and make the call for yourself:

SOURCES:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_Comes_Honey_Boo_Boo

* it is worth noting that The Learning Channel (TLC) was created as a joint project between NASA and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, in 1972, for the purpose of providing “real education” via television. So, the claim that one is watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for its educative value is not so far-fetched as it seems.

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