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How reality TV like ‘Honey Boo Boo’ can shape debate on poverty

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 12:20 p.m. MST

Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson reads a book to her doll on "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson reads a book to her doll on "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."

Tlc, Isabella Vosmikova, Fox, Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press

The popular reality TV program “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” follows the lives of a poor family in rural Georgia who enter their 6-year-old daughter Alana — aka Honey Boo Boo — into beauty pageants for little girls. In the process of following storylines and cobbling together episodes, the show gives viewers unfettered glimpses of lives lived near the poverty line.

Many viewers who see “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on the cable channel TLC know nothing more about lower-class life aside from what they see on that reality TV show. Consequently, “Honey Boo Boo” is increasingly becoming a flashpoint for an ongoing national debate about whether to respect or disparage America’s poor.

“Obviously, people watch (‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’) because it is so awful,” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote Tuesday. “You can’t believe it and so you keep tuning in. But is it right to watch? … If we don’t revel in the hilarity of poor, uneducated people, neither do we protest their exploitation. Our silence conveys approval while ratings disprove objection. Culturally, we are all complicit in the decline of community values.”

On Wednesday, a blog post on the political website Red State held aloft “Honey Boo Boo” as a symbol for why conservatives should vigorously oppose raising the federal government’s debt ceiling: “Have you ever just watched an episode of ‘Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo’ and realized that every character therein would be infinitely more valuable fulfilling a different role in the carbon cycle? Wanna know what really makes this show kinda sorta sick? The fact that we all pay to subsidize this behavior each time we shop at the grocery store or pay our taxes. The fact that the longer we subsidize these people, the more these sort of people will become the future of America.”

Tangentially, it turns out the impoverished protagonists on “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” may not be as shortsighted as they appear on camera. A Wednesday blog post on the mom website The Stir revealed some surprising financial acumen from Honey Boo Boo’s mother, “Mama June.”

“The family makes about $15,000 to $20,000 per episode, and instead of squandering the money, Mama June has put it into a trust fund for her four daughters and granddaughter,” Jenny Erickson wrote for The Stir. “The only way they can withdraw money from the accounts before they’re 21 is for schooling or medical emergencies. … For as much flack as this family receives for their hillbilly ways, I have to admire them for putting money aside for their kids and not spending every cent that comes in and then some.”

Even though the show is between its first and second seasons, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is a hot topic this week because TLC debuted a “special episode” Sunday night that attracted 3.1 million viewers — “a larger audience than any of the show's first-season episodes,” according to the entertainment website Variety.

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