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Introduction to “Redneckaissance: Honey Boo Boo, Tumblr, and the Stereotype of Poor White Trash”

As you may have noticed I have been somewhat absent from these parts of late, because I have been working on my dissertation proposal for my study of Honey Boo Boo and Tumblr.  I have finally finished the proposal and will defend it next week, at which point I will hopefully be cleared to write the second half, which is the actual independent research.  I thought I would share with you the opening of the dissertation.  As you may have guessed, working more than full time and writing a dissertation leaves little time for blogging, but I thought I’d take advantage of my week of breathing room and the fact that I have actually written something.  Enjoy.

Mama June on a waterslide honey boo boo

“Who knew television audiences would be completely enthralled with a Southern family acting out every stereotype of “redneck” on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo…” – Alison F. Slade[1]

My first realization that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo had become a complex discursive phenomenon came with the appearance of an image from the show in my social media feeds.  In this animated image, June Shannon, the overweight matriarch of the show, careens down a water slide in her bathing suit with joy on her face.  This image became popular on Tumblr, with hundreds of reblogs, and spread elsewhere online.[2]  Most of the previous discourse I had encountered around the show was negative and focused on how “trashy” the show was, but, in my social media feeds, people praised the show for fat acceptance of “real” bodies and embraced June’s joy.  There were still negative comments about the show but they were complicated by people claiming identity with her around one of the same signifiers, her weight, that was used to mock her and call her “white trash.”

This study seeks to explore how online content creators engage with television stereotypes online.  Specifically, this study seeks to understand the ways in which online content that is created using a reality television show as source material supports, undermines, and interacts with the tropes of the white trash stereotype.  It also seeks to discover how online content creators participate in the construction of meaning using the show.

In particular, this study will examine a selection of Tumblr posts about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for the ways in which online content creators uphold, undermine, and “play with” white trash stereotypes. The goal is to gain insight into online content creators’ participation in television culture and its use of the white trash stereotype as well as into how they use Tumblr to communicate. This research uses discourse analysis to examine the Tumblr content created with, around, and about the show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

In seeking to explore this phenomenon, the study addresses the following research questions: How do Tumblr users use Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in discourse explicitly and implicity about race, class, gender, sexuality, and geography?  What are these discourses?  How do these discourses adopt, negotiate, or resist common U.S. stereotypes of “white trash” and “rednecks?” How does the online audience’s role as a secondary content creator change meaning and discourse around and about the show?  Honey Boo Boo represents a unique intersection of poor, white, fat, southern, LGBT-allied, and female-dominated social actors, positioning the show along the power axes respectively of class, race, weight, geography, sexuality, and gender.  This dissertation attempts to understand Tumblr discourse about the show through the framework of intersectional theory. Intersectional theory assumes that social categories of race, class, and gender are intertwined and together constitute identity and describe power relationships. How do these axes of power interact in online discourse?  The study is an attempt to understand the online content creator’s role in creating meaning around a show that relies heavily on negative stereotypes.

Although Here Comes Honey Boo Boo debuted only two years ago, it has already been the subject of scholarly interest.  As a popular reality television show dependent on stereotypes of rural Southerners, it has offered scholars rich ground to explore those stereotypes.  Bevie Tyo examined the redneck stereotype within the show, doing a cultural value analysis of the problematic representation of the main characters and noting that the show was constructed to use those stereotypes for entertainment.[3]  Similarly, Ariel Miller did a quantitative content analysis of the show, alongside Duck Dynasty and Buckwild, to explore the construction of Southern identity on reality television and the frequency with which the shows used stereotypes.[4]  Unsurprisingly, these studies showed heavy reliance on negative stereotypes about “rednecks” and “white trash.”

But scholarship on the show has not exclusively focused on the negatives.  Scholars like Geoffrey Parkes and May Friedman have pushed back against a simplistic understanding of the show as merely exploitative of Southern stereotypes, suggesting instead that it also serves as a site of resistance.[5]  The show includes radical acceptance of fat bodies, female empowerment, and queer individuals in addition to the stereotypes about rednecks.  The show also offers resistance to issues of class expectations and, in that way, serves, at least partially, as a site of resistance against the Southern stereotypes it uses.[6]

Closer to this study’s interest, Andre Cavalcante has done a discourse analysis of the Facebook fan page of the show.[7]  Reality television and social media have been intertwined over the past decade. For example, reality television is dependent on social media for generating interest and in voting on competition shows, and social media frequently focuses on television as a source of conversation topic.  Social media has allowed audiences to interact much more closely with television while reality television has encouraged a sense of intimacy for audiences. These two phenomena have led to the creation of fascinating sites of discourse around reality shows.[8]  The tension between the resistance that Parkes and Freidman note and the dependency on exploitative stereotypes that Tyo and Miller observe is revealed in the attitudes and language used by the commenters on the Facebook page.[9]  Audiences use “the Thompson family and their show as reasons to debate the ‘proper’ and moral parameters of self, family, society and nation.”[10]

This intersection between stereotypes, power structures, identity formation, mass media, social media, reality television, and queer intersectional feminism is exactly where I want to situate my research. These studies help problematize the idea of representation issues in television, especially the relationship between what is presented on screen as the reality of the people’s lives and “actual reality,” and add to the body of feminist and critical television studies.  Cavalcante even extends this research into online social media spaces, where there has been less analysis of stereotypes, by locating his discourse analysis in the medium of Facebook. This study wishes to add to that scholarship by focusing on an area of social media that has been under-studied—Tumblr and the image macro—and that offers new insights into the stereotypes and resistance to cultural expectations while also offering insight into the cutting edge of online communications.



[1] Alison F. Slade, Amber J. Narro, and Burton P. Buchanan, eds., Reality Television: Oddities of Culture (Lexington Books, 2014), vii.

[2] “Chasingapril,” accessed May 12, 2014, http://aprilloveslies.tumblr.com/post/38232075183/http-whrt-it-rjyqn0; “Community Post: 25 Crazy Mama June GIFs,” BuzzFeed Community, October 2, 2012, http://www.buzzfeed.com/hyvesredactie/25-crazy-mama-june-gifs-7j5s.

[3] Bevie Tyo, “Coming to Appreciate the Redneck Stereotype: A Value Analysis of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (California Polytechnic State University, 2013), http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1144&context=comssp.

[4] Ariel Miller, “The Construction of Southern Identity Through Reality TV: A Content Analysis of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty and Buckwild,” Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 4, no. 2 (2013), http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/824/4/the-construction-of-southern-identity-through-reality-tv-a-content-analysis-of-here-comes-honey-boo-boo-duck-dynasty-and-buckwild.

[5] May Friedman, “Here Comes a Lot of Judgment: Honey Boo Boo as a Site of Reclamation and Resistance,” The Journal of Popular Television 2, no. 1 (April 1, 2014): 77–95, doi:10.1386/jptv.2.1.77_1; Geoff Parkes, “He’s Gonna Be a Little Gay: Redneckognising the Queer American Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” in Proceedings of the 4th Annual International Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference (PopCAANZ 2013) (University of Southern Queensland, 2013), 138–46, http://eprints.usq.edu.au/23932/.

[6] Friedman, “Here Comes a Lot of Judgment.”

[7] Andre Cavalcante, “You Better ‘Redneckognize’!: Deploying the Discourses of Realness, Social Defiance, and Happiness to Defend Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on Facebook,” in Reality Television: Oddities of Culture, ed. Alison F. Slade, Amber J. Narro, and Burton P. Buchanan (Lexington Books, 2014).

[8] Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood, “The Labour of Transformation and Circuits of Value ‘around’reality Television,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 22, no. 4 (2008): 565.

[9] Cavalcante, “You Better ‘Redneckognize’!: Deploying the Discourses of Realness, Social Defiance, and Happiness to Defend Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on Facebook.”

[10] Ibid., 42.

Comments

  1. Jackie the wacky says

    I never watched the show, but I will be reading further posts about it.

    I’ve learned something very important just from watching that gif. That’s that I do not enjoy water slides nearly enough.

  2. says

    I don’t watch the show either–I’m not much interested in reality shows unless they involve some sort of creative endeavor (thus, I enjoy So You Think You Can Dance, the fashion one with Tim Gunn, and Dancing with the Stars (until they fired the band))–but I remember seeing a clip of the show where Honey Boo Boo is wearing a yellow swim suit, I think? And she complains that it makes her look like a lemon. Rather than denying it, her mother just says, “Yes Honey. You’re a beautiful round lemon.” (Words to that effect.) It was presented as a nice little object lesson in how to not to body-shaming. I liked it.

  3. geekgirlsrule says

    I’m really glad people are taking a more nuanced look at this stuff. I remember when Toddlers and Tiaras first started, which is where Honey Boo Boo got her start, I think, and lots of my “liberal” friends spent all their time snarking it, being horrible and just class-shamey as hell about it. I kind of had a meltdown at them, because they, having lived their entire lives in very liberal parts of the country, had absolutely NO idea what life is like for anyone else. I really resent “white trash” being used as jesters for the “more enlightened.”

    I was only the third woman in my family to go to college, and there weren’t that many more men who had when I went. Most of my family had kids and got married young (not necessarily in that order), the men got jobs working at one of the Ford plants and the women stayed home if they could afford it, or sometimes also got jobs at one of the Ford plants. Or the guys become contractors. I went back to Michigan for a visit when I was finishing my BA, and my aunts and uncles all wanted to know what I was doing in college, since I already had a husband.

    People who have spent all their time in liberal areas have no idea how hard ideas like feminism get stomped on, IF women and girls are informed about them at all. I do not begrudge women who put their kids in pageants, they’re doing the best they know how with the tools they have, to help their kids make a better future. And before anyone says, they should encourage them to study more, I’m sure many of them do. I’m also sure that a lot of their school districts are underfunded and low-performing. Rural schools tend to be.

    Sorry, rant over. Thank you for being one of the people taking a more nuanced look at Honey Boo Boo and her family.

  4. dickspringer says

    A basic assumption in your analysis is that this program promotes acceptance of the attributes you describe the characters as having. My guess is that the program”s appeal is primarily to people who want to laugh at and feel superior to the “rednecks” in the show, not a positive thing.

  5. Ashley F. Miller says

    Actually, no, that’s not an assumption of this research at all. This is not a study of how the show is constructed but rather of how the show is received Content analysis of the show and, having worked for the production company on toddlers and tiaras, does indeed point to a schadenfreude or superiority driven construction of the show. How the show is constructed and intended to be consumed is not always how the show actually is received. I am not, however, looking strictly for sites of resistance but also for the ways the stereotypes reveal themselves in discourse generally.

  6. Pen says

    It sounds great so far. Will we be getting any more of it at any stage?

    I understood that you were looking at reception because we use the same concept in art history. Social media is such a new aspect of reception (and re-production, actually). Its has and is going to change so many things so you’re really at the cutting edge I think.

    Good luck with your defense. I imagine it will go well. Do you have a section on the nitty-gritty details of your proposed methodology which you didn’t share with us?

  7. AnotherAnonymouse says

    @geekgirlsrule; how odd that you’re railing against your perceived attitudes toward people who force their children to strut like painted whores…by slamming people who find that tacky and harmful to little girls’ development. For the record, I live in a sort-of liberal area (technically the south but a lot of out-of-state folks) and grew up the only member of my family–man or woman–to go to college (both my mother and one sister didn’t even finish high school). I am the only woman in my family to hold a job, and a technical job at that. I don’t laugh at the Honey Boo Boo family; there are a lot of strengths to admire. I do laugh (as does the rest of my family) at the antics of the vain women who want to live their lives bankrupting their families through forcing their little girls to compete like painted sows in some country fair.

  8. geekgirlsrule says

    You know, I hate that they do that to the kids. But I’m not going to slam them for working with the tools they know. I went through that phase, and I’m done with it.

    Besides, I’m also not so down with the sex-worker shaming going on in your comment. Not cool.

  9. AnotherAnonymouse says

    @geekgirl; not shaming the sex workers; I’m shaming the mommies who dress up their toddlers to look like sex workers.

  10. MyaR says

    Just an observation — “painted whores” comes across as religious-based (sex |sex worker) shaming. The rest of the context is lost, I think, because the phrase calls to mind sanctimonious church ladies.

  11. AnotherAnonymouse says

    @Mya; please read for comprehension, please. The term I used was “painted sows”. It makes you look foolish when you attack something that wasn’t actually said.

  12. AnotherAnonymouse says

    So, to sum up what GeekGirlsRules seems to be saying: it’s horrible to judge people based on class, but those “liberal” and “elite” people are to be judged for snarking on Honey Boo Boo (and we’ll just ignore the fact that a lot of the snarking seems to be coming from non-liberals and non-progressives), and anyway, it’s perfectly wonderful for women to try to live out their dreams of stardom by oversexualizing their young infants, because geeze, how could you POSSIBLY expect people like that to know any better?

    In other words, it sounds like snarking on the very people we’re being finger-shaked against snarking against. How confusing.

  13. kage says

    So, to sum up what AnotherAnonymous seems to be saying:
    – Don’t judge me for judging!
    – “You know, I hate that they [put their kids in pageants]” = “it’s perfectly wonderful for women to [put their kids in pageants]
    – I totally didn’t use the phrase ‘painted whores’ in the first sentence of my first comment.

  14. Salmo says

    “The term I used was “painted sows”. It makes you look foolish when you attack something that wasn’t actually said.”

    – AnotherAnonymouse

    “how odd that you’re railing against your perceived attitudes toward people who force their children to strut like painted whores”

    – AnotherAnonymouse, ten minutes earlier

  15. geocatherder says

    Fascinating study. I look forward to the day you proudly post the link to the published thesis! I may be in over my ears, since this isn’t my field, but I won’t be able to resist trying to understand it.

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  1. […] Introduction to “Redneckaissance: Honey Boo Boo, Tumblr, and the Stereotype of Poor White Tras…–”My first realization that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo had become a complex discursive phenomenon came with the appearance of an image from the show in my social media feeds.” […]

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