‘Honey Boo Boo’ scandal sheds light on the nature of TLC

Haley Beyma

TLC was founded in 1990 under the name The Learning Channel. However, a quick glance at the most popular shows that the channel has become anything but educational. TLC markets itself as a global brand that “celebrates extraordinary people and relatable life moments” which translates into reality shows like “Little People Big World,” “My Strange Addiction” and “Sister Wives.” 

The crown jewel of the TLC collection, however, is the popular “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” which combines countless trashy reality show buzzwords—teen pregnancy, obesity, child pageants, country hicks—that its creation is a stroke of marketing genius. “Honey Boo Boo” rose to a depressing amount of popularity to become a titan of cable TV, and the Thompson family—the stars—became cultural icons. 

For those unfamiliar with the show, the Thompsons have managed to encompass every negative stereotype of “white trash” American life. They have come to represent a particular social class that audiences love to make fun of behind their televisions. Even when the Thompsons go to the Redneck Games or buy donuts at the food auction, the camera will often settle on, not the Thompsons, but the ugliest, fattest, most pathetic looking of those in the crowd. TLC uses the Thompsons’ experience to create some sort of modern freak show. 

TLC dehumanizes people like the Thompsons and presents them as a species different than that of the audience, complete with subtitles to further the gap.

“Honey Boo Boo” was recently cancelled due to the matriarch, “Mama June’s” decision to reunite with her sex offender ex-boyfriend, Mark McDaniel. In their official statement regarding the cancellation, TLC said that “supporting the health and welfare of these remarkable children is our only priority. TLC is faithfully committed to the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.” 

TLC’s position that they are supporting the health and welfare of their cast members is incredibly ironic considering that the families that their shows often feature end up in ruin. Anyone who follows entertainment news no doubt remembers the media frenzy following the collapse of the Gosselin marriage while their TLC show “Jon and Kate Plus 8” was still airing. 

The result was similar to the one we see with the downfall of “Honey Boo Boo” now: a broken family and innocent children cast in harm’s way. TLC cares about their cast members as long as they continue to bring in the viewers and the ratings. They are knowingly exploiting families and individuals for entertainment. 

TLC is not the only party at fault though. TLC would not even bother to look for the most messed up of families to exploit if it wasn’t what brought the profits. The public’s fascination with the lives of the most uneducated people of the lower class has become the modern equivalent of carnival freak shows’ popularity. It is an issue of classist voyeurism and is a mechanism people use to feel better about themselves. 

Psychologist Steven Reiss at Ohio University reported that the “attitude that best separated the regular viewers of reality television from everyone else is the desire for status. Fans of the shows are much more likely to agree with statements such as, ‘Prestige is important to me’ and ‘I am impressed with designer clothes’ than are other people.” 

This obsession with status is what drives many viewers to watch the Thompson’s train wreck family life crash and burn. There is no doubt that this behavior is immoral, but supporters of TLC and “Honey Boo Boo” will often argue that the cast is paid for their participation, and they are willingly participating in taping. However, voluntary participation in an exploitative activity does not make it any less exploitative and immoral. 

I have no doubt that another crop of reality shows exploring the lives of the odd and obscure will crop up on TLC’s line up soon, but I hope Americans will acknowledge the destruction these shows cause in families and among entire social classes and change the channel.