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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

35

The Language of Honey Boo Boo

Alana, we need you to solve the mystery: What is a door nut? I understand ooing on yourself, feeling smexy, looking beautemous, and even how to redneckognize.

But the door nut—the phrase you say when you’re on a roll, talking in the camera confessional—is beyond my knowledge. Teach us. Teach us your language, Honey Boo Boo Child.

•••
As we approach the second season of TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I set myself a challenge: Watch three episodes while blocking off the subtitles and see how much I understood.

I come to this challenge with some baggage. Southern baggage. From the start, I considered it ridiculous that anyone really needed extensive subtitles, some of which included nonstandard spellings, to understand what a family from rural Georgia was saying.

I figured it was producers’ meddling, pure and simple, trying to make the Thompson-Shannon clan seem different, less educated, more country. I was born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia by a Georgian and a Virginian. I still live in Virginia. And I’m tired of defending my region. Many of us are smart, we’re not all racist, and our accents give us character. Please don’t ask me about Paula Deen.

But as I watched my three episodes—from the first part of the first season, “What Is a Door Nut?” and “Time for Sketti,”—followed by the most recent special from February, “A Very Boo Christmas,” I realized I wasn’t hearing just Southern American English. This was Southern Reality English. These were catchphrases, marketed well.

Hilary Levey Friedman, a Harvard University sociologist who is an expert in child pageants, has attended many pageants like those chronicled on Toddlers and Tiaras, the show that first discovered Alana and her mother, June Shannon. Friedman has watched both shows, and she says that of course the family was trying to introduce a memorable phrase—probably several of them, to see what stuck.

“That’s typical in reality shows across the board,” Friedman says. Anything to distinguish the show from all the others, to create an impression in the viewer’s mind and lure her back for the next episode. The success of Honey Boo Boo is essentially “the Holy Grail,” Friedman adds.

The irony is that Alana is not a pageant winner. On Toddlers, after prancing around the stage in a “Daisy Duke” outfit while her mother shimmied in the audience, Alana won the third-runner-up trophy, and she usually doesn’t do much better than that. In fact, we may not see much mention of pageants this season because the show has evolved beyond the hook; it is more about the family’s personalities.

“They’re like a conglomeration of every TLC show,” Friedman says. She’s right, and we can even expand this statement to include other networks’ reality offerings. In this show, we have couponing, pageants, a larger-than-average family, redneck humor and a teen mom.

But returning to linguistics, let’s look at the family’s (and probably producers’) attempts at creating catchphrases.

I don’t know who came up with “redneckognize,” but coming from the mouth of seven-year-old Alana, performing for the camera during “Door Nut,” it’s instantly memorable. You’re seeing the very conception of headlines and T-shirt slogans play out before you. Some other efforts don’t quite succeed on that level. Mama June tries out “smexy” (sexy) and “Ta-dow!” (ta-da!) with mixed results.

The preparation of “sketti,” a dish featuring ketchup and butter on spaghetti noodles, occupies a great part of the storyline in the “Time for Sketti!” episode. It’s a child’s word, notes David West Brown, a visiting assistant professor of applied linguistics at UCLA . As a plot device, the producers played up the preparation of sketti, which emphasizes the poverty and poor diet of the family. It’s one of many signifiers of class and the region in the show, says Brown, whose work focuses on vernacular English and code-switching.

Then there are the nicknames. In one family, we have Honey Boo Boo (sometimes called Smoochy), Sugar Bear, Chubbs, and Punkin. The nicknames lend color to the show, and they likely are a mixture of the family making them up and producers choosing to emphasize them. I mean, what rolls off the tongue better: Here Comes Alana, or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo?

“I was struck by the emphasis on subtitling,” Brown adds. A California native, Brown had little trouble understanding the Thompson-Shannon family, but he says that the subtitles effectively “signal the accent is more extreme than it is.” Also, the show’s establishing shots, particularly the “Kuntry Stoe” sign in “Door Nut,” place us squarely in redneck country.

These are just some of the reasons that we Southerners get our backs up when we’re portrayed on television or in the movies, whether it’s fiction or reality (by which I mean a highly edited and choreographed version of the truth).

We’re the Beverly Hillbillies, over and over again. Friedman, who lives in Massachusetts, says that perceptions of Southerners in other parts of the country are more nuanced than just “South = rubes.” There are other archetypes like the pageant queen, fraternity man and well-bred matron, along with a fairly recent entry: the new-money strivers (see Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta and Lifetime’s Pretty Wicked Moms).

But we’ve also had the unsophisticated working-class types, exemplified in the 1990s by “You’re a Redneck If…” creator Jeff Foxworthy and, going back further, the Clampett clan. And now there’s Honey Boo Boo.

•••
Travis Mushett, who is working toward a doctorate in communications at Columbia Journalism School, is from Snellville, Ga. He kindly watched the same episodes I did, also blocking the subtitles. We caught up later and discussed the shows.

I had a bit of trouble understanding Alana and her dad, Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, who both tend to run words together quickly. Even Mama June wasn’t sure what Sugar Bear was saying in one scene of “Door Nut,” asking him a few times to repeat himself. But a non-Southerner can still follow along by paying attention to the context of the scenes, we agreed. Subtitles are needed here and there, but not in such heavy usage, we concluded.

“To me, the subtitles make a mockery of their accents,” Mushett says. Yet Brown and Friedman also said the extensive use of subtitles emphasized the family’s “otherness,” making them seem different from and subordinate to the audience.

“I have cousins who talk like that,” Mushett explained. He had no problem knowing what everyone was saying.

I had to ask him: Do you know what a door nut is?

“I think it’s something she made up on the spot,” Mushett says. “I thought at first it might be some twist or play on doughnut, but I think she was just playing around.”

We agreed that the show gains texture the longer you watch. Sure, there’s a fart heard in the opening credits, and on one episode we’re treated to a game of Whose Breath Is It? (I’ll let you discover what that is for yourself.) But it’s more than just potty humor.

“I think it’s really easy to see how a cursory view of Honey Boo Boo confirms stereotypes: They have Glitzy the Pig, and they’re eating awful food, and they’re overweight,” Mushett says. “There are some ways that it plays into stereotypes, but it also subverts them. Uncle Poodle, for example, the gay uncle—Honey Boo Boo says there’s nothing wrong with being a little gay. That’s not the way people think of blue-collar Southerners thinking or talking. It also shows that the family seems quite happy, and the girls are heavier than normal—especially on TV—but they don’t seem ashamed of their bodies. If you sit down to watch the show, and you can get past the swimming in the mud and the pig shitting on the table, they seem to be pretty happy and functional in their own way.”

Television can certainly play an important role in first exposure. Mushett notes that many Americans’ first glimpses of real-life, out-and-proud gay people were drag queens or other flamboyant characters on crazy talk shows in the 1980s. These certainly weren’t the most nuanced portraits for gay or straight people to see, but the talk show guests eventually yielded ground to a broader range of gay people in the media, both fictional and real.

I don’t know that this is the era in which poor Southerners are seen as the complex people they are, but it’s possible. The family from Duck Dynasty, on A&E, already shows a different subset: rednecks with money and serious entrepreneurial skills. I wonder if this season of Honey Boo Boo will reflect Alana’s family’s new financial reality.

Last year, according to Parade, the family earned $50,000 an episode, and Mama June has reportedly set up trust funds for all of the children (and for Anna’s baby, Kaitlyn), which they will receive when they turn 21 or if they use the money for education. Presumably, Mama June no longer has to be a coupon queen.

And now that we’ve gotten to know the family so well, perhaps the producers will lay off on the heavy subtitling, the snide winks at the family’s redneck identity, and some of the bodily humor. I somehow doubt it, though: the first new episode, premiering tonight, will feature “Watch n’ Sniff” cards ripped out of People and Us Weekly magazines. You can now smell the sketti as you watch.

Honey Boo Boo creator and executive producer Howard Lee says he was influenced by the great blue-collar camp auteur John Waters, who handed out scratch-and-sniff “odorama” sheets at screenings of Polyester. The alignment makes perfect sense: as anyone who has watched Waters’ movies knows, once you get past the gross-out humor and low-rent plots, you wind up getting attached to the characters.

 

Kate Andrews is an editor and writer for a nonprofit agency, a former monthly magazine editor and an extremely erratic tweeter at @smudgenancy (her cats' names).

35 Comments / Post A Comment

meeyawl

I'm not ashamed to say that I call spaghetti "sketti". I just can't be arsed to worry about the extra syllable. I also call strawberries skrawburries. My pronounciation of oil is an entirely different subject and not one I can really elaborate on without a sound bite of myself saying it.

frigwiggin

The reality-catchphrases thing makes me think a bit of RuPaul's Drag Race--RuPaul seems to know how to play the reality-show game, but I don't have experience in the drag community to know if some of the phrases and terms come from the community or if they're a part of making the show memorable and catchy.

Anyway, this was thoughtful and interesting! Thinking critically (and uncritically, okay) about reality media takes up a lot of my time.

pajamaralls

@frigwiggin "Thinking critically (and uncritically, okay) about reality media takes up a lot of my time."

Here, here.

redheaded&crazy

@frigwiggin agreed, I really liked this! I always wonder how the reality show sandwich gets made. Particularly with jersey shore, I always wanted to know how much conflict was scripted or at least prompted. Okay Mike you're going to go have a conversation with Snookie. Probably so much.

KeLynn

@frigwiggin - I took a cake decorating class a year or two ago and she went on and on about how Cake Boss made everybody think "dirty icing" is a real thing, when in fact real bakers call it "crumb coat." So then I had the same thoughts about RuPaul's Drag Race when the queens talked about "cooking" their makeup (i.e., letting it sit on their face before blending) and I think about that every time I do my makeup.

On a related topic, does anyone know if this "cooking" thing is even a real technique?

shantasybaby

@KeLynn Hah I think it, too! Usually when I put glops of foundation on and then get distracted and start doing my hair or something and then I think "oh I was just lettin' it cook." Alot of the catchphrases are for real terms used in drag (or at least used in Paris Is Burning) but Rupaul features such a colorful array of terminology that some of that has to be made up, right?!

@KeLynn I don't watch RuPaul, but I do let my moisturizer and primer "cook" for a bit before the foundation goes on, and then a little bit more time before I do any blush or contour. The skin is a porous organ -- it'll absorb some moisture and product, and some of the product will air-dry. It keeps it from feeling too heavy and from rubbing right off.

Each layer (moisturizer/primer, foundation, blush/bronzer, etc) is a piece of double-stick tape, and you need to make sure your tape is the right amount of sticky.

TheBelleWitch

I've never seen the show, but this was still really interesting! I'm from Tennessee but have a pretty standard American accent, give or take a few words, and it can be interesting to hear people's responses when they find out where I grew up. (usually along the lines of surprise I don't sound redneck, yikes.) There are lots of class issues tied up with accent in the south and people often don't seem to get that.

QuiteAmiable

@TheBelleWitch With your name, I should have known you are from Tennessee! So am I :)

does it need saying

@TheBelleWitch I was surprised to learn recently that one of the lawyers that works for my company is from the south. She said she worked hard to get rid of the accent because it made her sound less intelligent. That threw me a bit. I had never had that thought.

Away Laughing

@does it need saying My dad's from Alabama and he claims that he got rid of his accent by watching TV shows where everyone spoke with a more standard accent. His southern accent slips through every once in awhile, but the way he talks is definitely something he pays attention to.

Kulojam

@TheBelleWitch @doesitneedsaying I'm from Alabama, and I got rid of my accent by moving to New York and living with 2 women, one from Long Island and the other from New Jersey. It was suprisingly effective in neutralizing my accent, which I didn't think needed to be neutralized until my first week in law school, when one of my professors did not understand the words that were coming out of my mouth because of my accent, which really was never that thick to begin with. There was also the mind-blowing fact that I had lived my first 22 years in Alabama, a place my northern classmates were simultaneously terrified of (more than one person told me they were too scared to get out of their cars on roadtrips that passed through my state) and fascinated by (is it really like Forrest Gump?).

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

As much as I think child beauty pageants (and adult beauty pageants, for that matter) are creepy, and I think this show is not-so-subtly making fun of this family, I find myself defending it. I don't watch it - I think I've seen maybe one episode? - but I like that the family seems happy with their lives and with one another. But, I'm not one to judge, I guess. The only reality TV I watch is "House of Curves" and "Pregnant and Dating," oh, and sometimes "Bridezillas."

pajamaralls

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose The issue of "are they in on it" gets me sometimes. I think they're funny, and they appear to be actual nice people. I've heard how Mama June is/was an extreme coupon-er and was donating a lot to charity, they do their Christmas in June thing and donate the money to charity. Sugar Bear is a volunteer firefighter (I think.)

So when asshats like Adam Levine talk about how their show is the ultimate decline in Western Civilization I get defensive about it - because I don't know who told him that Maroon 5 or The Voice was placed firmly in the pantheon of high art.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@pajamaralls But he's at a pay phoone tryin' to call home, all of his change he spent on you. Also, don't worry about Honey Boo Boo, because she wiiiiiilllllllll be loved, and she's probably got moves like Jagger. But if Adam Levine is in misery, there ain't nobody who can comfort him about it. (Just give him one more night.)

iceberg

@pajamaralls The "are they in on it" thing, yes. This is sort of ho I feel every time I have to do an ad with a midget stripper for the local strip club. (yes there has been more than one) Like, she HAS to know most people are coming to gawk and giggle and see the "freak", but she's gettin' paid and she presumably has the same skills as any other stripper... Would she WANT my pity?

pajamaralls

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose I love this comment, I hate that I'm now singing "She Will Be Loved" in my head.

@iceberg I think there was a Wife Swap/Trading Spouses with a family of little people and they did St. Patrick's Day parades? New Wife was telling them how humiliating it was, but they were like "We're okay with it. We're always going to be spectacle. Might as well make some money."

Hellcat

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose I agree with you! I watch a few reality shows, some for the drama/trainwreck factor (e.g., Real Housewives and Toddlers & Tiaras) and some for the game (e.g., The Amazing Race and Project Runway), and I think this family is pretty cool. I mean, I don't want to live with them or anything and they are a bit sloppy for my taste, but the mom seems like a good mix of "mother" and "friend," her BF seems to legit love her and the kids, and they seem to find lots of stupid stuff to be really funny and laugh a lot. And I think Alana seems like a pretty bright little girl; I feel like you can actually see that on the show. These people are far less reprehensible to me than tons of other reality-show cast members.

blushingflower

@pajamaralls Yeah, I guess if you know people are going to be staring at you anyway, you might as well get paid for it, right?

Queen Elisatits

I love this show ( while hating practically every other reality tv show) because its the only one that has anything near a positive message. It's just a family that loves each other and actually gets along, no manipulation, no screaming, no obviously scripted story lines. Sure some people watch it and go "oh what a bunch of dumb rednecks" but those people are terrible and at least June gets to laugh her way to the bank. It's nice to be able to see a real family who loves each other deal with the ups and downs and all of the hilarious adorable things Alana says on a regular basis.
Basically I have a lot of feelings about this show, thank you for writing this!

shhh...it's a wig

shantasybaby

I've never watched it but when I saw the wedding it made me a little upset that I went such a traditional route. That mossy oak/magenta combo was truly awesome. If only everyone put that much personality into their weddings! It actually makes me miss My Big Fat Redneck Wedding- those folks had a good ass time getting married.

MadPiglet

I haven't watched this show, but the subtitle angle is an interesting one. I am severely hearing-impaired, and therefore watch almost all television with the closed-captioning on. It's both a blessing and a curse, because I get all the words, but I sometimes miss visual things (or things are blocked by the captioning). So a show that is heavily captioned wouldn't cross my radar as something that could be questionable.

That said, I do wonder how much of this family's behavior is All Them and how much of it is For The Camera. The act of watching changes the thing being watched, after all, and I don't know of anyone (except this current crop of Big Brother contestants) who can totally forget that the cameras are there.

queenofbithynia

Friedman, who lives in Massachusetts, says that perceptions of Southerners in other parts of the country are more nuanced than just “South = rubes.”

well, yeah. and re: rubes, it's an attitude of goggle-eyed admiration as much as snobbish condescension; the most common ignorant northeasterner perception I know about is the one of worshipful awe, that treats southerners as a mass of beautiful noble Rousseauian savages, full of a simple love and a special connection to earthy folksy folk music and folk culture -- the Americanest of Americans, all this crap. It has always been the perception that unscrupulous entertainers played to the hilt, with a lot of calculation and deliberation. It's pretty much inseparable from an automatic equation of southerners with white southerners (which, I must say, this essay pretty much embraces -- nothing wrong with partitioning it off and focusing on white southerners, focus is useful and interesting, but when the "we" starts out as this expansive Virgina-North-Carolina-Georgia regional identification and suddenly without warning narrows into whites only, it has a kind of bait-and-switchy effect.)

but to return to the point, a great deal of how southerners are portrayed is actually how southerners portray themselves (the Housewives may be all choreographed and fed lines, but Jeff Foxworthy, for one, is a for-real Georgian.) And for whom? There is a lot of popular mythology about southerners as canny exploiters of their own image as aw-shucks-ing yokels -- showmen who know exactly what they're doing and have the lowest possible estimation of their audience's ability to see through it. I am not suggesting that this stereotype is any more true than the one about southerners being for-real yokels, but it's always there. & I also think a lot of this business is sold to southerners, by southerners, with a wink and a nod -- you get this very heavy undercurrent of they think we're serious, but you and I know better -- it's self-representation with heavy, heavy layers of camp and archness and irony. It's been that way for, I don't know, a good hundred years at least. I have always had a difficulty with this aspect of represented southern culture -- it's exactly the same difficulty I have with camp in any of its forms; I am theoretically in sympathy with the aesthetic but I want to yell YES I GET IT ALREADY.

Katyola

@queenofbithynia Thanks for your comment. I should have had a transitional sentence or something because I don't believe that Southern culture = white. I was mainly trying to jump into the meat of the essay, the family on the show.

isitisabel

@queenofbithynia yes all the way to your first point "re: rubes." I went on a road trip through a lot of the south with a girl who was a born-and-raised rich Manhattanite, and she definitely had this idealized version of the south and rural southern culture in her head, and it was so cultural-touristy and weird. I am not from the south, but I am from the rural-ish Midwest (suburbs on one side, corn fields on the other) and it still bothered me.

Katyola

Hey guys, this is Kate. I tried to comment under my own name, but anyway, it doesn't seem to want to work. Thanks for all the comments! I'm excited to have a story on the 'Pin because I'm a regular reader. It was fun to write this. Did anyone else watch it last night? One of my friends did for the first time -- she was taken aback.

Hellcat

@Katyola I did! And I was happy the show was back on. I like them, and I think Alana is cute. And I loved how she said something about, "Leave me alone and let me read my book" while crawling onto her bed.

Katyola

@Hellcat I liked that too! And I wasn't above enjoying the cup-o-fart, which would be a brilliant wrestling move.

stuffisthings

What gets me is when American TV subtitles people with perfectly standard English or Australian accents. Thankfully the BBC goes the other route and will not subtitle anyone, even if they just crawled out of a Scottish crypt speaking 15th century Gaelic.

meetapossum

@stuffisthings I went to London in February and I was watching Come Dine With Me and one woman had such a heavy Scottish accent that I had to put the subtitles on. I felt ashamed.

happymisanthrope

@stuffisthings Actually, I've seen BBC dramas where certain characters are subtitled if the actor speaks in a harder to understand accent and isn't directly facing the camera.

But then again, I also have American friends who can't understand posh English accents.

[sic]

@stuffisthings If they didn't subtitle Red Riding, they're not going to subtitle anyone.

Moshii@twitter

@stuffisthings I once watched a This Morning a good ten years ago where they subtitled Gruff Rhys! Apparently the welsh accent is undecipherable.

I have to admit though, I need to use subtitles on most US tv shows. Either people or mumbling or we need to admit that we speak a different language. Forget Honey Boo Boo, Justified is complete gobbledegook until I switch on subs.

foxbat91

The last time I watched Trainspotting I went through a good twenty minutes before I realized that I was understanding maybe 50% of what they were saying and then had to turn on the subtitles. Scots! So hard to understand.

christopher hart

chris hart foxbat91 you are right seriously so hard to understand

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