When I was growing up, my grandmother kept a photograph of her forebears, my great-great (I may be missing a great) grandparents, in her dining room, where it hung over the rolling bar cart, an implement that for complicated reasons cultural and generational never held anything more intoxicating than an economy-sized vat of Gummi Bears and another one of rapidly decaying Chex Mix. Anyway, I hope it’s not speaking ill of the dead to say the image was not a flattering one. To be more precise, it scared the shit out of me. It was made in Europe sometime in the 1890s, using the same technology as those Victorian mourning portraits of dead bodies. The woman glared fiercely into the camera with strange pale eyes that pointed in two different directions, like the witch in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Her stiff horsehair wig, styled in a tight samurai-style topknot, did little to soften the frankly Habsburgian-underbite that made her lower canine teeth protrude over her lower lip. As for him, his face was almost entirely obscured by a scraggly length of matted beard, like if you put a pair of glasses and an enormous yarmulke on Cousin Itt.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure they were both lovely people, but life in a turn-of-the-century, pre-orthodontia Poland was clearly hard on the looks, and I used to stare at the picture—this “heirloom,” as my grandmother liked to call it—with horrified fascination, pondering what vast existential schism of time and bizarre confluence of genes could possibly connect these people to me. Not that I thought I was any great beauty, but there’s a difference between the odd bout of chin acne and having teeth that touch your nose.
Time passed, I grew more secure in both body and background, my grandparents died. The picture went into a closet somewhere, presumably because the rest of my family found it pretty creepy too, and I mostly forgot all about it. Then I started watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, TLC’s latest exploration into the various types of unusual earthlings that make up this great country of ours, and it all came rushing back.
Bear with me.
For those of you who mistakenly think your minds too beautiful to sully with the Victorian freak show that is modern American television, Honey Boo Boo (sometimes seen suffixed by the honorific “Child”—or “Chile,” when one is feeling particularly deep-fried) is the nickname of Alana Thompson, a curly-haired 6-year-old from McIntyre, Ga., whose linguistic genius and fabulous talking stomach on Toddlers & Tiaras, the network’s Dantean-look into the world of kiddie beauty pageants, earned her the kind of instant viral microfame that screams “spin-off.” In Honey Boo Boo, we are plunged deeper into the lives of Alana and her clan: her indefatigable mother, June, who seems to have sprung fully formed from an unproduced draft of Gypsy written by Flannery O’Connor; her older sisters, Lauryn (“Pumpkin”), Jessica (“Chubbs”), and Anna (“Chickadee”), and her father, the indulgent, sweet-natured Mike, AKA “Sugar Bear.” If the producers had any intention of making a stereotypical mockery of their subjects—in the first episode, they attend en famille the Redneck Olympics, where events include bobbing for (uncooked) pigs’ feet and belly flops into a pit of red Georgia mud—they are quickly foiled by the Thompsons themselves; their good-natured self-awareness; their obvious adoration of each other, and in particular, their matriarch’s astonishing gift with colloquial language. In reference to several morbidly obese women in bikinis, the 309-pound June sagely notes that “all that vajiggle-jaggle is not beautimous”—a line almost Seussian in its onomatopoeic perfection. In these moments, one moves quickly past the gawking and sees the show for what it actually is: a reflection of the classic immigrant experience.
Obviously, the Thompsons, Georgia natives that they are, are not what you might normally think of as immigrants. But they are clearly on a demarcated path of upward mobility that would be familiar to my great-grandparents, who came to this country at the turn of the last century with nothing and in the space of four generations spawned a line of lawyers, doctors, business leaders, and people who write about reality television on the Internet for a living. Most shows of this genre derive their principle from laying bare the façades of people who are not quite what they are pretending to be—how many nascent Madame Defarges were distracted from actual revolt by the schadenfreude-laden financial foibles of the Real Housewives in all their various incarnations, we may never know—but the Thompsons, for better or for worse, are authentically themselves. “Some people are gonna love us and some people are gonna hate us, we really don’t care,” says Mama June.
But they do care—about each other. This is a family that is smart enough to know it’s going places, and nearly every episode contains at small attempt at betterment. Realizing her girls lack a certain polish, June sends them warily to an etiquette class with a teacher from Atlanta who treats them with the alarm of an assimilated Hebrew Aid worker assisting a bewildered greenhorn. (June also clips coupons with a ferocity familiar to anyone who had a bubbe who never threw out a paper bag or a rubber band.) Alana’s pageant career seems less about the ambitions of a stage mom channeling her frustrations into her daughter than having a goal and working toward it, and learning to work through the inevitable and frequent disappointment with no loss of enthusiasm—a challenge young Alana rises to with enough buoyancy to make Winston Churchill proud. When Sugar Bear, who works seven days a week in a chalk mine to make ends meet, shyly faces the camera with the family’s pet teacup pig cradled tenderly in his arms and his lips curled self-consciously around his bad teeth—as if to suggest “who knows? Alana could be Miss America someday”—I actually cried. It reminded me, vividly and searingly, of my beloved great-uncle’s assertion that his father wanted him to go to America because “there a Jew could be anything, even President of the United States.”
In the Thompsons’ world, pageants may take the place of piano lessons, and reality TV is the new medical school, but the ambition is the same: to see your children move a little further up the food chain than you are. Who knows where you’ll wind up, as long as you don’t forget where you came from.
“We love our little life,” June says, a heartfelt admission.
We loved our little village of Anatevka too, but we had to leave it anyway. So will the Thompsons, and I’ll be happy for them when they do, because somebody somewhere is still living the American dream.
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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.
Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.