As I watched it the first time, I alternately laughed and cringed. The family is crude, open, funny and gross. The show is both entertaining and disturbing. Of course the show is staged, but I still found myself asking, “Are these people for real?”
Then yesterday I read an article asserting that conservatives should be more aware of pop culture and watch shows such as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” so that we can engage liberals in discussion and effect change in that culture. Being the hopeful conservative that I am and wanting to engage in pop culture, I logged into Amazon’s Prime Instant Videos and paid a few dollars to watch several episodes of “Girls.”
Before watching “Girls,” I’d only been aware of Lena Dunham twice. Once was before the election when I saw her “First Time” Obama ad in which she talked metaphorically about breaking her electoral cherry by voting for Obama. After all, every girl’s “first time” should be with someone like Barry – right? As I watched it, I felt bad for this chick who was trying so hard to be quirky and cute? Quirky and cute is only quirky and cute when it’s real. When it’s contrived, it comes off as creepy. The ad was creepy to me.
My second instance of Lena Dunham awareness was when I was watching an awards show a couple weeks ago. As she walked to the stage to receive an award, I came away with the impression that Lena desperately needs to hire a stylist because her dress made her look frumpy and old. She appears to have some inherent attractiveness that was obliterated by a dowdy dress and hairstyle doubled down by her sad efforts towards that quirky and cute label.
So now I’ve seen “Honey Boo Boo” and “Girls.” I’ve taken some tentative sips of the pop culture Kool-Aid. What are my impressions? First of all, I never would have thought of the two shows as having anything in common until, as I watched “Girls” for the first time, Honey Boo Boo popped into my mind.
What impressed me about both Honey Boo Boo and Hannah (the character Lena plays in “Girls”) is that both shows attempt to entertain via vulgarity. If we define “vulgarity” as the lack of good manners or taste, both shows have an abundance of it. The vulgarity might be in language (both shows), excessive references to bodily noises (Honey Boo Boo) and bathroom activities (Honey Boo Boo – with humor – and Girls –without the humor), trivializing important issues (Girls) or glorifying excess body weight (both shows). Yes, everyone burps and farts and goes to the bathroom. Few people have a model’s body. Does that mean we want to see and hear about the noises and body fat on a TV show? (Well, okay, since both shows have a dedicated following, the answer for many is obviously “yes.”)
In one “Girls” scene, one of the characters is sitting on the toilet – bare butt and all. Another character is standing there talking to her – handing her toilet paper. As they chat, a guy friend walks in, they talk some and then he leaves again. The scene is contrived to send the message that all really cool 20-somethings have no issues with sharing their poos with friends. The sex scenes are contrived to be boring because really cool 20-somethings have so much sex that it’s no big deal. Similarly, Honey Boo Boo has its contrived “white trash” scenes - mixing butter and ketchup together and eating it - because, you know, all rednecks like food that’s unhealthy. The mom energetically picking her nose – because all rednecks do gross stuff like that. Fostering stereotypes is the major thread running through both shows.
Honey Boo Boo loves to gather her belly fat in her hands and make it “talk”. Hannah played with her belly fat as well – gathering it up in her hands as she’s having sex with her boyfriend. I think that was the moment I first thought, “Lena Dunham is Honey Boo Boo.”
There are contrasts as well. Honey Boo Boo and family take ridiculous delight in many seemingly trivial aspects of their life – getting a pet chicken, going to a farm, cooking dinner, going to the grocery store. They laugh and have a good time throughout most of the show. These folks are just so darn redneck, they get excited about everything.
On the other hand, Hannah and the other “Girls” are mostly bored with and oddly detached from their lives. Hannah and her boyfriend having sex is a yawn-fest – even to them. One wonders why they even go to the trouble if they’re obviously not getting any enjoyment out of it. Similarly, getting an abortion or an STD, lying to parents in order to get money are just what one does in the course of the day – no different from picking up a skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks on the way home from work. The overwhelming theme is boredom. These folks are just too darn cool to get excited about anything.
What was my take-away from watching these two shows and why did I immediately link them together in my mind? I felt a vague uneasiness about both characters – a suspicion that they were willing participants in their own exploitation. They each seem to think they’ve got their own version of quirky and cute nailed down, while I suspect others look on and smirk.