Somehow America always goes a little off the rails in the allegedly slow month of August, and this year’s party is as wild as any. Republicans can’t figure out how babies are made; cutting-and-pasting an article from The New Yorker into your Time column is no longer a fireable offense; and all the way down in McIntyre, Ga., there is a mother who feeds her child a Mountain Dew-and-Red Bull concoction before the 6-year-old gets onstage at beauty pageants. June Shannon, who stars with her daughter Alana “Honey Boo Boo Child” Thompson in TLC’s controversial hit Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, would have provoked a firestorm even if what she calls “go-go juice” were the only sin she was broadcasting all over Christendom. All that caffeine, pop-culture commentators everywhere clucked, and all that sugar.*
Lost in the outrage is just how squarely “go-go juice” fits into America’s long tradition of “white trash” entertainment, which for decades has elevated characters like Honey Boo Boo into the nation’s objects of fun. The Pepsi Co. borrowed the Mountain Dew brand-name from slang for moonshine; in the 1960s, it was explicitly advertised as a “hillbilly” drink. The campaign’s entertaining TV ads, which you can watch on YouTube, were scored by twangy banjos and errant buckshot and plotted around a “stone-hearted gal” who will open her heart to you if you only take a swig. Watching these old videos after an episode or two of Honey Boo Boo makes at least one thing clear: The hillbilly has regained the spotlight in American culture.
As Anthony Harkins observes in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, one of the hillbilly’s signature moves is to peak, popularity-wise, just when Americans sense that things in general are headed south. Its first true zenith came in the depressed 1930s, a handmaiden to the birth of commercial country music. Another arrived in the turbulent 1960s, when The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and Hee Haw were in their prime. (Those are hardly the only examples, of course: It also popped up in the Ma and Pa Kettle films of the 1940s and 1950s and Paul Webb’s 1930s Esquire cartoons about “The Mountain Boys,” among other places.)
Though the term first referred to mountaineers in the Appalachians and the Ozarks, the hillbilly trope spread to cover pretty much all non-urban territory in America, joined by its cousins in cultural iconography, the “redneck” and “white trash.” Today, people even apply that last term to residents of certain New Jersey beachfronts, for instance. Yet, as Harkins points out, no matter where an alleged country bumpkin comes from, he will be derided for his crass behavior. And such ridicule has always been politically coded: The hillbilly figure allows middle-class white people to offload the venality and sin of the nation onto some other constituency, people who live somewhere—anywhere—else. The hillbilly’s backwardness highlights the progress more upstanding Americans in the cities or the suburbs have made. These fools haven’t crawled out of the muck, the story goes, because they don’t want to.
This idea that the hillbilly’s poverty is a choice allows more upscale Americans to feel comfortable while laughing at the antics before them. It also pushes some people to embrace the stereotype as a badge of honor. “Guitars, Cadillacs, hillbilly music / It’s the only thing that keeps me hangin’ on,” Dwight Yoakam once sang. For more contemporary examples of re-appropriation, you can attend any number of Tea Party rallies. The classist term “redneck,” originally coined to indicate those who worked so hard and so long in the sun that they sported sunburns in the designated anatomical location, likewise has been adopted in the name of all that’s good and holy. What’s more American than a hard day’s work.
June Shannon is a reappropriator par excellence. One of her signature phrases on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a call to, as she puts it, “Redneck-ognize.” And yet all the cultural chatter that’s attended Honey Boo Boo has been less than affectionate. The word of the day across the media is “apocalypse”—that is, the show is a sign of it. It’s not just the caffeine highs, either. It’s a family of six chopping up a roadkill deer for dinner, belly-flopping in the mud, and—those with delicate constitutions may want to avert their eyes for this next part—farting in public. Even critics who enjoy the show do so from a crouched, defensive posture. People seem to think this has all gone a little too far. Even the Today Show is starting to wonder if reality television just might be “exploitative.”
I’m not a Toddlers & Tiaras fan, so I missed out on Alana’s big splash on that show earlier this year. Beauty pageants in general are foreign and noxious to me: I can barely muster the energy to put on lip gloss and mascara. But I watched Honey Boo Boo out of curiosity about the fuss, and found myself, somewhat surprisingly, relating to Alana and her milieu. I have fond memories of that Dwight Yoakam song playing softly on my parents’ radio as we drove home through the dark from a visit to my grandparents’ house in rural Quebec. My family isn’t from the South—we’re not even from the United States—but I know enough of the land Honey Boo Boo lives in to be dubious of simple accusations of bad parenting and worse morals.
The practices are different, of course, and no, I’m not wild about the caffeine and sugar thing, either. Alana’s little-girl grandiosity must become exhausting when experienced in more than 30-minute increments. But the people raising her are clearly aware of your disdain. Shannon can be delightfully funny when she selfconsciously plays with her hillbilly image, warning the audience that she’s about to “scratch her bugs,” or speaking of her beauty routine: “Granted, I ain’t the most beautimous out the box, but a little paint on this barn, shine it back to its original condition. ’Cause it shines up like it’s brand new.”
That’s not to say the humor is always comfortable or even funny. Alana’s trademark phrases and mannerisms—“a dollar makes me holler,” a particular head swivel she does—are informed by racist stereotypes of black women. This ambiguous borrowing from black culture has always been part of the hillbilly trope as well. Early commercial country music borrowed liberally from black folk music. (Hank Williams learned to play guitar, he said, from a black street performer.) And this borrowing often turned into racist mimicry: The Grand Ole Opry included minstrelsy shows in the 1920s and 1930s. Interestingly, the term “white trash” may have been coined by black slaves in the early 19th century to describe poor white people in the South; American attitudes toward poor white people have long been tangled up with “the race problem.”
And hillbilly stereotypes have always made it easier for middle-class whites to presume that racism is the exclusive province of “that kind” of person. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “It is comforting to think of racism as species of misanthropy, or akin to child molestation, thus exonerating all those who bear no real hatred in their heart. It’s much more troubling to think of it as it’s always been—a means of political organization and power distribution.”
As that distribution of power becomes more and more unequal, it’s no surprise to see the hillbilly here again—on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, on Jersey Shore, on MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom franchises. These shows reassure us that our struggle is worth it, all economic evidence to the contrary—if only because we would never belly-flop into the mud on cable television. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo casts this socio-economic divide in especially sharp relief, since the show is rooted partly in beauty pageant culture, which, in its own idiosyncratic way, indulges the American belief that you can work and spend your way to greatness. If you can afford the entry fees, the glitter, the makeup, the coach, and the stylists, you will be the Ultimate Supreme, as they say in the business. You’ll have the sash to prove it.
But tiny, 6-year-old Alana is too crass and happy to get it. She is a terrible pageant queen. Her wigs are always askew, her daisy-dukes ill-fitting, and sometimes she grinds her fake teeth. Those rhinestone-studded bootstraps simply can’t pull her up the way she needs them to.
Correction, Aug. 27, 2012: This article originally referred to Fareed Zakaria as a Newsweek columnist. He writes for Time. (Return to the corrected sentence.)