TLC has canceled "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" today as a result of the family's mother, June Shannon, dating a convicted sex offender. The reaction to this news has been a mix of disdain, condescension, vitriol, and ironic humor, much like general responses to the show itself. People love to hate and love to love Honey Boo Boo and her family. This week's story and the show's cancellation simply mark a high point in our culture's distorted fascination with a particular kind of reality television. I call it "Class Porn," and it has two distinct but related genres.
The first genre is that to which "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" belongs. I call this genre "Poverty Porn." These shows represent the sense of humor that is unique to our cultural moment. Popular humor (especially in online contexts) has become deeply ironic. The trend of "hate-watching" shows demonstrates the complicated relationship Americans (especially young Americans) have with their entertainment media.
More than this, however, Honey Boo Boo and her family provide a mental salve for the deep economic inequalities in American society by offering poverty as a spectacle. They reinforce our stereotypes about class, reassuring us of the moral superiority that comes from a privileged economic position. "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" obscures the complicated picture of American poverty by exploiting its subjects for a national audience. We consume it with little regard for the exploitation of individuals who create the spectacle for us, and absolve ourselves from the moral complicity in the systems which create vast inequality and the diminishing of human dignity.
The second genre is "Wealth Porn," a collection of shows featured mostly on the Bravo and E! networks. These shows focus almost exclusively on the conspicuous wealth of celebrities and would-be celebrities. Instead of engendering moral outrage at the insanity of multimillion dollar houses, faux charity galas that set the stage for nearly-scripted personal confrontations, and narcissistic personalities being praised for their net worth, these shows also function as mental salve. Once again, by holding them up as spectacle, viewing audiences are able to dissociate themselves from the moral evils of excessive wealth. These shows are watched less ironically than their Poverty Porn counterparts. Even as spectacle, the narratives of these shows suggest that such conspicuous wealth is either enviable or just normal. Once again, all involved in creating these spectacles are not individuals with a dignity and personhood that demand more of them than rampant consumption. Instead, they become even more famous and more rich by simply being famous and rich on television, playing the part of the Rich Other whom we hold at arm's length so as not to see our own consumptive appetites reflected in their eyes. (When I ask my students who Jesus means by "the rich," they often tell me the Kardashians or the Real Housewives.)
Our television habits in this regard are exploitative and escapist. We participate in systems of injustice and have sought and consumed a diet of class spectacle in order to obscure that participation.