Honey Boo Boo: Creating a redneck stereotype target?

Honey Boo Boo, the rising reality TV star from poorest Georgia, attracts big audiences, but what are those audiences thinking – about her, her community, and the society that entertains itself with a 7-year-old child to reinforce redneck stereotypes?

John Bazemore/AP Photo
"Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" has been a ratings winner in recent weeks, capitalizing on redneck stereotypes and the oversized personality of Thompson. Seven-year-old beauty pageant regular and reality show star Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson gestures during an interview in her home in McIntyre, Ga., September 10, 2012.

The reality show "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" has been a ratings winner in recent weeks, capitalizing on redneck stereotypes and the oversized personality of a 6-year-old beauty pageant regular. But some who live nearby are concerned about the way their quiet pocket of central Georgia is being portrayed on the TLC series.

The show centers around Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, her mother June Shannon and their family. The round-cheeked second-grader, who previously appeared on the TLC show "Toddlers & Tiaras," has a penchant for outrageous catchphrases – "A dolla makes me holla!" and "You better redneckognize!" –that have gone viral and raised some eyebrows.

Yet as the show attracts healthy audiences for a TLC series – from 2 to 3 million weekly – it has also drawn strong reactions. Some say it exploits and mocks small-town people and perpetuates offensive stereotypes of life in the South. Others criticize the parenting involved. Still others insist the series shows a loving family that doesn't let outside opinions bother them.

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Alana said filming the show was fun because she got to do things she doesn't always get to do, like going to a water park. Her mother said the family has enjoyed doing the show and believes the way it's edited portrays their unscripted life fairly and accurately.

"This is who she is," Shannon said as her daughter interrupted her with silly jokes and giggles. "This is her everyday life. She's got her own little personality, especially like when the cameras come on and when she's got attention."

Alana, who turned 7 late last month after filming ended, was friendly and playful, though a bit distracted, during her second national media interview of the day. Like so many kids her age, she likes to be the center of attention, and when she said or did something funny, she'd look around to gauge the reaction of those around her. She whined to her mother about not wanting to go to school, but finally headed out the door to join her classmates in a tan dress and strappy silver sandals with little heels.

The tiny town of McIntyre is nestled in a rural county that is a major exporter of kaolin, a chalky clay used in a wide range of products, including cosmetics, medicines, catalytic converters for vehicles and heat shields on space shuttles. The town's population is around 650 and nearly 40 percent of the families had an income that put them below the poverty level, according to 2010 Census numbers. Main Street stretches for about three blocks and features a small handful of businesses.

The show has portrayed the area unfairly, choosing to fixate on shots of junk cars, garbage dumps and stray animals, Wilkinson County Chamber of Commerce president Jonathan Jackson said in a statement, adding that he'd like to see more of the region's positive attributes on the air.

"You can't very well ask and expect a television network to possess tact and taste — unless it makes them a dollar," he said.

Among the more than two dozen locals approached by the AP, the most common reaction to the series was that, for better or worse, it has "put McIntyre on the map." Many said they watch and enjoy the show, though most didn't necessarily think it represents the way most people in the area live.

"I don't mind it, it's just that it doesn't give a good image for the county since it is a small county, and it's a really family-oriented county, and we are basically, you know, church goers down here, and a lot of the things they do ... we don't agree with it," said Carolyn Snead, a McIntyre resident who works as a tax preparer. But she thinks Alana is funny and adorable and that if the show helps her succeed, it's worthwhile.

Tommy Floyd used to live near the family in nearby Toomsboro and has ridden four-wheel all-terrain vehicles with them and called them "good people to be around."

"They don't put on," he said. "That's everything they do every day. It ain't just put on for the show." Anita McGahee owns a flower and gift shop near the family's home and said several fans have stopped by her shop to buy stuffed animals or balloons for Alana or her 17-year-old sister Anna, who recently had a baby. She said she knows the family and called them "simple, country people."

"It bothers me a little that people might think that that's what everyone here is like. It's like we all don't have any manners," she said, but that doesn't stop McGahee from going to her mother's house every Wednesday evening to watch the show.

Homer Rawls lives in nearby Gordon and said he's not too worried about the show making people in other parts of the country think all Southerners are backward rednecks.

"They already think that," he joked. "It kind of makes country folks look a little bad, but it's done in fun."

Some people who stopped by a gas station convenience store to pick up a burger or barbecue for lunch said they didn't want to discuss it, while others blasted the family's behavior. But in this close-knit community where most people know each other at least a little bit and word travels fast, none of those with strong negative opinions were willing to give their names.

Since the show premiered last month, online criticism has focused on the family's behavior, weight and diet — which often includes junk food and sometimes a mixture of Mountain Dew and Red Bull they call "go-go juice." Many online commenters liken it to a train wreck they can't stop watching because they're shocked and horrified.

When the show began, Shannon said she was concerned about online criticism of her family and the way she parents, but she said she doesn't go online much these days unless one of her friends or a fan alerts her to a particular story. She said she also knows opinions in town are mixed.

"It's small town living," she said. "I don't have any trouble with anybody here or whatever, but people are going to have opinions. I mean, that's everyday life."

Executive producer Lauren Lexton rejects accusations that the show is exploiting the family or playing on stereotypes. The show has been so popular, she said, because the family members clearly love each other and strike a chord with the audience.

"They seem outrageous, but then once you get to know them, you really relate to them and like them," she said.

Shannon declined to disclose how much TLC is paying them for each episode, saying only, "We are very well compensated." But the money isn't going toward lavish purchases and is instead divided into equal trusts for each of the four kids, she said. The family still lives on the money Shannon's partner, Mike "Sugar Bear" Thompson, makes from his job in the nearby chalk mines and has no plans to move from the modest house they lived in before the show, Shannon said.

The show's one-hour season finale is Sept. 26. TLC isn't saying yet whether it will do a second season of the hit show, but Shannon isn't concerned.

"Life is all about experiences," Shannon said, "and this is one of the experiences on the journey of life, and if it continues, fine, and if it doesn't, then we move on to be the same people we were before the show even started."

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