First, a confession: My wife and I don’t watch much television. We are readers. I polish off four to six books a week, plus magazines, journals, newspapers and daily blogs from a wide range of Internet sources. I just don’t have time for TV and also get my work and pleasure-reading done.
So when I first heard of the TLC program “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” I naively was under the impression it was a cartoon about bears. Then I stumbled onto a group of co-workers raving about the reality TV show. All these people have lived in the Big City most of their lives — one confessed she thought hay bales in fields were intended to keep the ground warm in winter and another relocated to a new apartment when she found a tiny dead mouse in her old one.
But they unanimously raved about the latest episode of Honey Boo Boo: the chronicle of an unusual family in McIntyre, Ga., population around 700. My wife and I checked the TV listings, tuned in the satellite dish and sat down to watch a series that rivaled the national political conventions for viewers last summer.
It was the Thanksgiving episode, when the family makes a trek to the local Piggly Wiggly for groceries. They buy bunches of fresh collard greens, which supposedly no one knows how to cook so they eat the leaves raw.
At this point, I turned off the TV in disgust. Now you may argue that this family is making money by agreeing to be portrayed as ignorant, greedy, grasping rednecks, but I don’t have to watch and take part in the national embarrassment of rural life. We have enough poor, under-educated and unemployed folks in rural communities and small towns. To elevate this condition and make it seem unnecessary to strive for better lives is an insult to parents, teachers, employers and community leaders who work hard to improve the quality of life in McIntyre, Ga., and across rural America.
If you live in Appalachia or anywhere in the rural South, you know folks like the members of this family. How much is scripted and part of the comedy line? Probably a lot, but the show works because the reality actors don’t have to try hard. My revulsion for this show is a realization that, but for the grace of God, a loving family that valued hard work, perseverance and education, I would fit right in with Honey Boo Boo and her supporting cast.
It hurts on several levels to see this stereotypical rural family elevated to celebrity status. I’ve never objected to someone laughing with me and I value self-deprecating humor, but this Honey Boo Boo phenomenon is different. The nation is laughing at all who reside outside the glass-enclosed, high-rise downtown city centers and shopping mall-filled and freeway-laced suburban areas.
If the shoe was on the other foot and the focus was a poor and ignorant family in a Chicago public housing project, activists would cry foul over the comical portrayal, and the show would soon be taken off the air. I have no doubt this would be the case.
But the national media apparently believes the rural condition doesn’t warrant the same concern. It is OK to create and embellish a stereotype. Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies and trailer trash are fair game and not subject to the rules of political correctness.
Just as disturbing to me — more than the Honey Boo Boo family that seems to be trying too hard to fit the mold of white ignorance and non-aspiration (for audience penetration numbers and ratings, of course) — is the fact that few objecting voices have been raised. Where has our streak of rural activism from the 20th Century gone?
Let me make this clear: To many people residing north of the Mason-Dixon line, native southerners and rural folks from all regions are odd creatures, not well understood, clinging to their Bibles and guns, possessed of peculiar traditions, observers of clannish rituals and still full of the perverted pride that (they think) caused the Civil War and family feuds like the Hatfields and McCoys.
They really can’t help it when the images of rural life they see on television come from shows such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” When will the rules of political correctness apply to the rest of us? Finally, how can any rural resident, current or former, not know how to cook greens?
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.