The Language of Honey Boo Boo

by Kate Andrews

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).