Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column is about the circuses of distraction we seek–like Honey Boo Boo–and their impact on our culture .
Frequent readers of this column will know that I am not a fan of contemporary culture. Every critique I have written to date, though, pales in comparison to this:
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo proves that we are witnessing The End of the World as We Know It.
Perhaps the Mayans were onto something.
For those of you not familiar with this monstrosity, Honey Boo Boo Child is the nickname of six-year-old Alana Thompson, a rather rotund contestant made famous by the show Toddlers and Tiaras. Her favourite slogan is “a dollar makes me holler”, which made me want to gag. Her mother dresses up her offspring in over-the-top outfits, teaches her to talk and act like a tramp, and fosters this freakish persona for all to see. I have not seen the show (we don’t subscribe to cable), but I’ve watched enough YouTube clips that my brain’s constant refrain is now “make it stop”.
The cultural appeal of Honey Boo Boo is similar to that of a train wreck: it’s so awful that you just can’t look away.
And this is not, of course, a new phenomenon. In the past we had circuses with bearded ladies or elephant men. Centuries ago families would embark on a nice Sunday outing to watch the latest hanging. We have always enjoyed watching freaks. It makes us feel better about ourselves.
And pretty much everyone is better than Miss Alana’s mother, who feeds her child a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew (her “go go juice”) to boost Honey Boo Boo’s energy during pageants. Few of us would ever parent that badly. And so the show has wide appeal. In fact, more people watched Here Comes Honey Boo Boo than watched the Republican National Convention in the United States. The people who will be determining the next leader of the free world aren’t bothering to listen to the candidates; they’re watching a family that gives rednecks a bad name.
I do not believe that everybody should watch all political debates or conventions; that truly is a personal choice. At the same time, though, our world is facing major problems. The Middle East is in an uproar again; Europe is disintegrating; China is flexing its muscles. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that we should choose instead to watch reality TV shows, where we can immerse ourselves in this alternate reality, and ignore the even scarier one that is encroaching upon us.
Nevertheless, this is a huge cultural blunder. Back in Roman days the senators and leaders provided “bread and circuses” to distract the masses. They produced dramatic yet gory extravaganzas so the people would be appeased and would have something to think about and talk about rather than how corrupt and inept the government was. And it worked.
The difference today is that it is not our leaders putting on circuses to distract us. We are doing it to ourselves willingly.
After millennia of people fighting for freedom, we are choosing instead to ignore the real issues and gloat about obese redneck freak shows. I know I frequently border on snobbery, and so perhaps I am putting too grim a spin on it. But I can’t help feeling that a free people must deserve to be free. And a free people must be vigilant about staying that way. I don’t think a society immersed in Honey Boo Boo, or the Kardashians, or the latest sex tape qualifies. And so I worry about what cultural phenomenon comes next.