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TLC
Pageant enthusiast Alana Thompson of TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” cuddles with her pet pig.

Life’s lessons come slathered in ‘redneck’ TV

Reality shows set in the rural South have never been more popular.

Programs such as Animal Planet’s “Hillbilly Handfishin,’ ” the History channel’s “Swamp People,” the National Geographic Channel’s “Rocket City Rednecks” and TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” gall some pundits who say they traffic in stereotypes and hype epithets like “hillbilly” and “redneck” that many people still don’t take kindly to.

But Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet, assured the Washington Post in early summer, “We haven’t received any negative response at all.”

“These shows are not painting people in a derogatory way,” she said, “because they’re affectionate. I think some people see themselves in the show, but for others it’s reflective of an iconic way of life.”

Far from being a brickbat, redneck “is a state of mind,” “Duck Dynasty” host Willie Robertson told USA Today in March.

“Being a redneck is just cutting loose and getting out there, and for us, loving living off the land,” he said.

It has gotten so that even junior publicists for reality shows are only too happy to call themselves rednecks.

Perhaps Southerners have reclaimed and redefined former invectives like “redneck” and “hillbilly” just as networks such as Animal Planet, TLC (formerly The Learning Channel) and History have refused to let themselves be limited by such narrow-minded adjectives as “animal,” “history” and “learning.”

Coastal cable TV chairpersons no longer deride the states between Washington, D.C., and Miami and between Los Angeles and Atlanta as “flyover country.”

Today, these same captains of industry are proud and honored to fly over them.

Far from being the objects of ridicule by elitists, some inhabitants of the rural South are now role models, according to Dirk Hoogstra, the History channel’s senior vice president of development and programming.

“Here we are, living this fast-paced life where everything is crazy,” Hoogstra told Newsday in March. “And we look at these people making their own way, as their own boss, in an environment that’s almost prehistoric and beautiful. It’s aspirational.”

Richard Goedkoop, a communications professor at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, told USA Today that these shows feed male viewers’ “primordial desire to hunt, fish, brave the elements, and to vicariously live the life of a man before he became domesticated.”

I think it’s safe to write that most of us hereabouts don’t fish with our hands, but it would be foolish to overlook the underlying message of doing so.

In this economy, we all have to use every limb and every thing at our disposal to catch whatever it is we are metaphorically “fishing” for.

None of us who have endured so much during this downturn should be at all surprised the first day we come across the phrase “Hillbilly Face-Fishing” on our satellite TV menus.

What have we all been doing these last few years if not trying to muster the courage and resources to enter the mudhole of our fears and emerge with the catfish of our success?

Reality TV, whether set in the South or not, has always offered countless messages to live by.

The genre is full of gurus, an ever-rotating roster of them.

It never seems possible at first, but whenever we take on a new television guru, we have to know that at some point we will be telling ourselves something very much like, “I think I have learned everything I can learn from ‘The Situation.’ ”

And so we flail about a bit – scanning the dial for a new teacher while trying to maintain the poise that shows we deserve a new teacher.

Luckily, by the time TLC was prepared to say, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” each viewer had done enough work on him- or herself to be able to respond, “I am ready.”

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is about a rural Georgia family devoted to encouraging and sustaining the pageant aspirations of 6-year-old Alana Thompson, also known as Honey Boo Boo Child.

Alana – who is unarguably full of some strange and wonderful music – has been called a Shirley Temple for our time by people who may have meant to flatter Temple, but were almost certainly not trying to celebrate our time.

Still, this comparison has rankled some fans of Temple.

Temple was undeniably great, but she was also most likely a tool of a vast and powerful tap-dancing syndicate.

I probably should have done more research on that.

Anyway, Alana seems a lot more natural.

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” has been accused of espousing child abuse and bad parenting, not to mention dangerous experiments involving the mixture of two volatile soft drinks.

But as writer Willa Paskin pointed out in a wonderful essay at Salon.com, what a lot of these pundits are really objecting to without realizing it is that Alana’s family is not in a high enough income bracket to fulfill their definitions of good parenting.

Despite household practices that a lot of people would peg as eccentric and unorthodox, Alana’s mom is a good parent.

She is a great deal more attentive and present than many mothers in higher income brackets, I suspect.

And “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” may be the most real and honest thing on television right now.

Its fourth episode recently scored higher ratings than coverage of the Republican National Convention.

It could be argued that any party convention, regardless of the party, is always the least real and honest thing on television any night it receives coverage.

“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is a show about how a desperately poor family survives and thrives during tough times.

Maybe it should be shown at party conventions.

Steve Penhollow is an arts and entertainment writer for The Journal Gazette. His column appears Sundays. He appears Fridays on WPTA-TV, Channel 21, WISE-TV, Channel 33, and WBYR, 98.9 FM to talk about area happenings. Email him at spen@jg.net. A Facebook page for “Rants & Raves” can be accessed at www.facebook.com/pages.

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