Monday, October 22, 2012

In support of Honey Boo Boo

i was alerted to the phenomenon that is Honey Boo Boo via the issue of Mitt Romney saying he would cut funding to PBS, the educational TV channel that makes Sesame Street. (Run for your life, Big Bird!) The Learning Channel, or TCL, is a privately funded TV channel that purports to engage learning but the result of privately funded educational TV is.....

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Honey Boo Boo's real name is Alana. She is a six year old beauty pageant queen raised in a Southern 'redneck' household. She is known for her one-liners such as 'A dollar makes me holler' and her Here Comes Honey Boo Boo show is a spin off of TLC's earlier show Toddlers and Tiaras. Her household consists of June, age 33, June's partner Sugar Bear age 40, and the four girls Anna, Jessica, Lauryn and Alana, all of whom are known by their nicknames such as 'Chubbs' and 'Pumpkin'. The oldest girl is pregnant and during the series gives birth to baby Katelyn. They live in a very small town in Georgia, and the series shows them preparing for Alana's beuaty pageants, eating out, and attending the Redneck Games. There is a lot of farting and blowing noses. The show is phenomenally popular. One ep was watched by more people than one of the Republican Party debates, although that may indicate that Republicans prefer Honey Boo Boo to any of the candidates.

If you watch on YouTube the extended promo for the show, you will get a good sense of the whole HBB vibe. But i was more interested in the comments, which were numerous and largely scathing. There were far more dislikes than likes, for a start. One person apologised for being a Southerner and earnestly tried to persuade us that all Southerners are not like that.

Sweetie, even we in Aotearoa have a far more sophisticated view of what goes on south of the Mason-Dixon Line. i have watched many episodes of True Blood on HBO and i am well aware that the South contains relatively few rednecks in comparison with hordes of vampires, werewolves, shape changers, Santerian shamen, fairies of all stripes, Mesopotamian nursery demons, etc etc etc ....and of course the gorgeous Anna Paquin. Don't talk to me about stereotypes.

HBB has been roundly criticised as trash TV, exploitation, and simply as bad taste. And so, in order to research this blog post i have watched some hours of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. i have three words to describe this feat: Pulitzer - fucking - prize.

So for the sake of editorial balance, and as a slightly masochistic thought experiment, i  have come out in support of HBB and her world. Here are some of the criticisms, with my responses:

Obesity. June is probably morbidly obese, at the age of 33, and Alana is very overweight. The rest of the family are definitely stocky. There is one sequence where June finds dirt encrusted in the folds of her neck. The sequences that show the family out and about show their associates are also overweight.

OK. i start with the bald statement that obesity an issue of social class. By the 1990's, obesity had become more common among poorer women in most rich countries. In the USA in the 1970's close to half the population was overweight and 15 % were obese. Now, three quarters of the population is overweight, and close to a third is obese. Levels of obesity tend to be higher in countries where income inequality is highest, and in the USA, a very unequal society, obesity is highest in more unequal states, such as Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. The reasons for this are complicated, and seem to relate as much to stress as to diet and exercise. In other words how and why people eat is important. Fast food gets linked to comfort, to status, and to the normative American lifestyle. Evidence about the 'thrifty phenotype' shows that when a baby in the womb is exposed to stress, it adapts to what may well become a life in a stressful environment. Such babies are born with lower birth rates and lower metabolic rates. They are adapted to a world where food is scarce. Except that food isn't scarce - it's crap, it's sometimes even dangerous, but there's plenty of it. There is even evidence that supermarkets in poor areas of the USA sell poor quality food, and poorer quality food is often cheaper. i find it hard to judge June and her family, in their obesogenic environenment. Why do we expect the poor to be morally better than their environments? Me, i paid $20,000 to fix my obesity and i can't say what sort of person that makes me. Except rich.

Bad nutrition. In Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, one episode features 'extreme couponing'. June and HBB go to the local supermarket and use coupons to get their groceries for almost nothing. Naturally, the stuff they buy is of negligible nutritional value. In another episode they go to a 'food' auction. i can only put the word food in quotation marks because none of it was really food. What dreadful modelling for her daughter.

Except - HBB learns a few things here. Maths, for a start, and how to bargain. And thrift. June feeds her family on $80 a week by judicious use of coupons, auctions, and free road kill. The shots of vats of squishy dead animal should really bring us back to our pioneering heritage, back when we had a relationship with what we killed and knew how to do it ourselves. June and co. will survive after the zombie apocalypse even if they can't run fast enough to escape the zombies.

Dreadful parenting. Six year old HBB is a beauty pageant veteran, that epitome of child exploitation. She is also untrammelled by manners or courtesies. People fart and burb and clamber over each other in this household. The kids are rude about their mother, especially her eating habits.

However, if we look at Donald Winnicott's notion of 'good enough' parenting being actually better than 'perfect' parenting, maybe June passes muster with her brood. HBB is a joyful child. She spontaneously goes to her Mama for cuddles. They family don't get any formal exercise but they have outings together, make their own slip-n-slide, have a laugh, socialise, and engage in occasionally witty banter.  There seems to be no violence or aggression. People just say what they mean. From the little we see, it is hard to fault their attachment to each other. We also learn about women on top. June is a classic matriarch, at the age of 33. Her partner Sugar Bear sits around looking dumbfounded, while June runs the show. And while you don't see a lot of paid work, or school, or homework, you do see activity and busy-ness.

Teen pregnancy: Anna, age 17, is pregnant. June was 15 when she had Anna. Babies born to teen mothers are more likely to have low birth weights, to be born prematurely, to be at higher risk of dying in infancy. As they grow their social outcomes are statistically worse than those born to older mothers. Teen motherhood is associated with intergeneration deprivation. The pregnancy is in the background of the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo programme, but it is a theme, and i suppose we are expect to harrumph and disapprove as we watch. Well, yeah, but some of the evidence is debatable. Among some poor American women, exposure to poverty and stress  over their life times compromises their health anyway. There is no advantage for them having their children later. Social scientists call this 'weathering'.June had her kids early, and fair enough, because what we know about her tells us she is unlikely to live to a healthy old age. Be a grandmother at 33 because you may not live to 60. Another point is a kind of evolutionary argument about quality versus quantity. In societies where there is poverty, opportunism, scarcity of resources, and a lack of trust, women reach maturity earlier and become sexually active earlier. It makes sense to have lots of children - some will survive, some good things will happen to you, even if you can't trust your partner or your family or the system around you to support you. These are sad facts. It does not augur well for Anna and her new daughter. But, again, how can i judge her? As the programme goes to air, she has status and support, and someone to love, and she has become an instant adult. And her Mama June models how it's done when you enter adulthood in the fast lane - at 33 a matriarch, with her own life wisdom, when many wealthy 33 year old women are still mooching around wrestling with their first worl problems.

Go go juice: June feeds Honey Boo Boo he own concoction before the pageants, to pep her up. Go go juice is a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew and it seems to give her boundless - well, something.  June has apparently said, at least it's not alcohol. In this, she joins the legions of stressed and impoverished mothers throughout the ages who have dosed their children with whatever, from gin to Ritalin. Mostly they do it for peace and quiet; it seems June's crime is that she is aiming for the opposite effect. Hmm. Of course i do not mean to decry parents whose children suffer genuine mental illnesses, or major behavioural problems. i guess i mean that all through time mothers have just done what they thought best at the time, with whatever they had.

So, what are we left with? It seems to me, all up, that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is like most reality TV, part exploitation of course, part pruriance, part smarts. She and her family look snidely at the viewer and say you think we're dumb, but you're watching us and we're making the money. She really is a child of our times. When The Learning Channel sets out to make us judge the family and accuse them of exploitation, i think there are arguments all ways. The main crime here is aesthetic. The rest is anthropology.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Borderline Society and its Discontents Part III - Farewell Cruel World

In the last post i looked at the possibility that our global north society may be suffering from a kind of arrested development, that the whole of society may not have progressed beyond adolescence and true maturity is rare among individuals. In such a society, adults who regress into adolescent thinking patterns may find themselves indistinguishable from others around them, because the whole of society is not advanced beyond them. Thus they get no help - either from the individuals around them or the role models or policy makers they are expected to emulate. We are used to considering early attachment issues in order to understand Borderline Personality Disorder, but a  look at adolescent thinking may help us further.

A useful model of help was proposed for me by Linda Kavelin Popov, of the Virtues Project. If you are in a hole, you don't need people to get in the hole with you. That's what adolescents sometimes do. When one is in a hole they all get in and wallow, all with the idea of somehow trying to get the first person out. Then all you have is lots of people in a hole. What you need when you in a hole is people outside the hole, people wise and caring enough to put a ladder down and hold it steady so you can climb out.

So, we have lots of people in holes and not enough wise and caring people to hold the ladders. Who are the people from whom our young ones are expected to get their inspiration? Well, the magazine most bought by older teen and twenties women in New Zealand is New Idea. No models of maturity there. A piece of research i was involved with earlier this year* among young people found they do not relate to world changers such as old skool Martin Luther King etc. They are concerned about things that affect them directly, such as plus size models being allowed on catwalks, and the issues touted by celebrities such as Hayden Panattiere's truly brave efforts for dolphins.  Remember, more people voted for American Idol than for the American president. We have a dearth of examples of maturity and depth and wisdom. Our policy makers and shakers preach individual responsibility, then model that special politician's apology that goes something like - I apologise if you perceived that you were thinking that you may have taken  offence by something inadvertant that I am damn well not going to take any responsibility for....

We also have societies that are increasingly unequal and becoming genuinely more anxious. Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kare Pickett describe this in their book The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. These two are interesting because they are so methodologically careful. It's a great book if you like graphs. They state that the age of prosperity building is over; it has long done its work. Societies where there is greatest relative inequality within that society have more social problems. One of those problems is anxiety, and they cite research that shows we are not just more aware of anxiety, we really are more anxious. Of course these guys are epidemiologists and they are not commenting on the individual experience of people with mental illness. They see mental illness as a social feature - they see the context of mental illness. For them the good news is that simply by increasing the relative equality within our societies we can help  social problems. i don't know that in a more equal society there would be less BPD. But i think it is tragic that a woman in her twenties lives alone, on welfare, with no family contact, and few functional relationships, on medication that makes her fat and dulls her intellect, while the soundtrack of trauma and damage plays over in her head. Whatever label she has been given, there is a context for her experience, and we can do better. For this is the social context wherein people decompensate, regress, hurt and even kill themselves, fall in and out of crisis, and struggle to regulate and make sense of sometimes unmanageable emotions.

So in a society that is atomised, immature, de-natured, spiritually arid and porfoundly unequal, how can we tell who are the sick ones? Perhaps it is the individuals who are happily adolescent, who just stand in line for the latest toys, who are 'unwell'? Let us imagine a society where we shake our head sadly at people who have no depth, who care only for themselves, who seem unable to develop the huge compassion for all the planet that is normal for adults....

Miners used to take canaries down mines, and when the canaries got sick the miners knew the air was poisonous. Perhaps those with the BPD label are our canaries. They are telling us our societal air is poisoned, and we are all sick.

* Yeah OK i confess, it was my daughter polling her facebook friends at my request.