Two years ago, The Onion published a fake Op-ed by Alana ‘Honey Boo Boo’ Thompson, titled “You Do, Of Course, Realize That This Is Going To End Very, Very Badly.” It included gems like, “So, assuming you all understand this, then that means you are all totally okay with gleefully laughing at me and my family, even when there is a pretty darn good chance that an act of horrific violence may very well lurk in my not-too-distant future.
The article was darkly funny and uncannily prophetic, even by The Onion standards. The satirical newspaper had already tuned into something most of the country (and world) was unable to accept: Watching Honey Boo Boo and her family on TV had no upside. It was merely a conduit to self-destruction.
This past week, Honey Boo Boo’s mom, June Shannon, reunited with an old boyfriend who was just released from jail and has been indicted on multiple accounts of child sexual abuse. The man, Mark McDaniel, reportedly molested her then 8-year-old daughter (Honey Boo-boo’s sister) Anna Cardwell. Shannon has denied reports that she’d dating McDaniel, but photos have leaked of the two vacationing together back in September.
Since the news, the show has been canceled. As expected, it’s garnered national attention and outrage.
Let’s be clear: I am no stranger to reality television. I’ve fueled the fire of some of the most infamous shows in recent history—everything from Jersey Shore to Laguna Beach to NYC Prep to Lock Up Raw to America’s Next Top Model to The Bachelorette. The list goes on, but I’ll spare us all.
Reality TV is to television what clickbait is to the Internet: “This mom enters her daughter in to beauty pageants, and you won’t believe what happens next.” And we tune in, again and again, eager to have our jaws drop. The thing about reality television is that “reality” is complicated, and anyone who’s going to film it will only complicate it further.
The participants are willing and the viewers are easy bait. The fame is quick and the fall is faster. But there are editors and producers, scripts and set ups. And it’s easy to forget the complex intricacies behind the scenes as we drown in undemanding entertainment. But, at the end of the day, we’ve got to ask ourselves: at what cost?
With Honey Boo Boo, the cost is high. It is haunting and damaging. But the Honey Boo Boo narrative is so sinister that even Hollywood has deemed it “too much” for the viewer’s pleasure.
But how did we end up there? Did anybody watching Honey Boo Boo ever think that all this was somehow healthy? That this family was thriving? Will we allow networks and producers to pull the plug only after the damage and dysfunction crosses the hazy line between scandalous and sickening? We’ve watched misogynistic men demean and abuse women. We’ve watched alcoholics relapse and heroin addicts go to rehab. We’ve watched violent fights and pregnant teens. And it seems that no one has looked twice.
What most of us realize by now is that we are watching a series of people who are being provoked. They are being prodded and edited, scripted and manipulated, pushed over the edge for the sake of the ratings. And as a country, we’ve become increasingly OK with this notion, placing the blame on the people who seem willing to partake in the broadcast drama. But at what point are we perpetuating an incredibly hurtful and destructive cycle? At what point does it go too far?
In the case of Honey Boo Boo, this answer is simple: it obviously has gone too far and the network has responded appropriately (canceling the show). But what about in other, more “nuanced” scenarios (as nuanced as reality television can be, I suppose)?
The Real World
If you have watched even snippets of MTV’s original reality show over the past 20 years (yes, how’s that for making you feel old?), you’ll likely remember drunken debauchery, questionable decision-making, and lots of grainy black and white night-vision camera work for illicit scenes. But why are we exploiting obvious alcoholism, debilitating self-doubt and multitudes of other, darker problems instead of actually intervening? And why are we, as a country, watching and thereby condoning it?
Keeping Up With The Kardashians
This absurd show that functions primarily as a self-indulgent vanity project doesn’t get dark often, but when it does, it gets really dark. Some episodes featured Scott Disick drunkenly breaking mirrors and verbally abusing his girlfriend while his young child is in the next room. Not only should this be private fodder for personal therapy, it’s legitimately dangerous.
Sixteen and Pregnant
This show might claim to illuminate the struggles and pitfalls of teen pregnancy, but what 16-year-old girl isn’t going to jump at the opportunity to end up on television? Sure, the show has oft been carped for this exact reason, but it’s still running. People still tune in, know “characters” by name, and funnel time, energy and unspoken support into a show that gives struggling young women a platform for … what exactly?
The Real Housewives Series
This show is a reality juggernaut all its own; in fact, the Internet is so full of “best of” and “top ten” lists for fights, clips and moments of this show that it’s hard to keep track. But it all boils down to this: the show’s premise is based entirely on the platform of being a rich housewife (who ideally is incredibly good looking or at least working toward that outcome). In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this as a show set-up, except producers and cast members perpetuate drama that appears on screen to be inane and shallow, yet it ends marriages and friendships more often than it seems to bring them together.
Likely one of the most famous reality shows that fans found themselves embedded within a very complicated love-hate relationship, Jersey Shore launched more “careers,” quotes, nightclubs and personality than most reality shows could ever dream of. It may have provided indulgent guilty-pleasure entertainment for viewers, but is there really a benefit to anyone?
Does it really take a “technically legal” scandal (like one that involves children and sexual deviancy) for a show to get canceled? Not crumbling marriages or verbal abuse? Not assault or alcoholism?
As Americans, we love easy entertainment—mindless buzz that will fills our brains as an antidote to the stresses and details of everyday life. And, at the same time, as reality stars (or wannabe reality stars—let’s not pretend we haven’t imagined ourselves as one of these), we all want to be known. We want the aching center of our souls to feel important and beloved and recognized—and starring on a show that films your “everyday life” seems like a perfectly simple answer to this ache. But it’s the human answer, and it’s filled with darkness and cracks and brokenness—the tendency to go way, way too far. After all, trying to meet human desire with the human response will always be insatiable.
Liz Riggs is a freelance writer and English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. She eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk @riggser.