From the perspective of a modern college student, CNN and Twitter’s daily list of “trending topics” are equally reputable news sources. I check the list periodically in order to be kept abreast of the happenings of the world. Recently, I have seen one phrase in particular mentioned quite often. The phrase is “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” which happens to be the title of a brand new reality show on TLC. The imminent and vaguely threatening title of the show is quite appropriate. Like a pop cultural infection, it has attacked and destroyed every media outlet in my life.
TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” follows the downhome family of a toddler-aged pageant girl and is a spin-off of “Toddlers and Tiaras.” Both of the shows have gained a reputation for their endless drama and their uncanny ability to entertain the masses. Let me get straight to the heart of the matter: Although my apprehensions about TLC have been stewing for quite a while, this pair of shows has officially made them boil over. It perplexes me that a show featuring deliberately sexualized, over-coiffed, over-pressured young children could appeal to so many. In any other context, most reasonable people would be appalled by the type of parenting displayed within these shows. In our culture, which is already so obsessed with outward appearances, is it wise to be granting exposure to families who encourage their impressionable daughters to spend hours perfecting themselves?
Hosting television shows that send unclear and often questionable messages to their viewers seems to be a pattern for TLC, and that disappoints me. Believe it or not, TLC is owned by the Discovery network, and it seems counter-intuitive that a network promoting curiosity, knowledge, health and science would simultaneously endorse programs such as “Nineteen Kids and Counting,” “All-American Muslim,” “Sister Wives,” “Hoarding: Buried Alive” or “Virgin Diaries.” Where did TLC go wrong? They began as a humble source of information on science and do-it-yourself projects (although now meaningless, TLC was originally an acronym for “The Learning Channel”). They were funded by NASA and fueled by their desire to enlighten. The mission statement on their website currently touts, “The network’s hit programming reflects authentic experiences and relatable lives.” But how authentic and relatable are the stories that they tell? Do you know of many families with nineteen kids, of a man (even a Mormon man) with four wives, or of a friend who can afford a $10,000 wedding dress? I certainly do not. Are the shows that TLC produces supposed to teach us that all people, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs, share common values and experiences? Are they meant to unite? More often, they feel alienating. They alienate their casts from the audiences, and vice versa. They make spectacles of the people that they choose to feature, and in many cases, it is despicable to do so.
In “Virgin Diaries,” for instance, middle-aged virgins are interviewed and have their day-to-day lives recorded. Tidbits such as, “This is Bob’s first date in eight months” are included in the subtitles. They are observed and monitored like animals at a zoo, like a sideshow at a circus, and for what purpose? For what reason? To make a show about people who are inexplicably and unbelievably still virgins is to say indirectly, “These people are complete anomalies. They are so abnormal that we should be fascinated by them.” Far from the “slut-shaming” that feminists decry, this is the opposite: virgin-shaming, for the enjoyment of those who no longer carry the label. TLC gives us one simple message: These people are virgins. But they are not simply virgins. They are people with thoughts, emotions, experiences and belief systems that we could not possibly understand by means of an hour-long television program.
TLC takes important issues and belittles them and packages them for the masses. “All-American Muslim,” for example, took Islam — a beautiful, dignified, and prominent world religion — and reduced it to conversations about hijab fashion, football and food cravings during Ramadan. According to “Hoarding” and “My Strange Addiction,” compulsive collection and pica are not serious mental disorders but rather disgusting habits, the perpetrators of which deserve to be mocked and judged. The people on TLC shows are not chosen because of the educational value of their stories, but rather because of the esoteric nature of their lives. We do not know the editing decisions of the network; often, the perspectives of the casts are probably not accurately presented, and the result of watching the shows is not enlightenment about other opinions or conditions, but further stigmatization of the people who possess them.
Perhaps it is time for TLC to re-evaluate its priorities and get back to its roots. I would have much more respect for them if they did.
Ashley Spinks is a viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.