Mama June’s Makeover Was Actually Damage Control


After the reality TV star was ostracized for dating a sex
offender, public weight loss on a new show was a last-ditch
attempt to win back audiences.

Posted on May 10, 2017, 15:27 GMT

Courtesy of We tv / Via screenshot

Mama June Shannon after weight loss surgery

On the premiere episode of Mama June: From Not to
Hot
, the nine-episode makeover series that recently
finished airing on WE tv, Mama June Shannon — the
37-year-old reality TV matriarch of Here Comes Honey Boo
Boo
— is lying in a hospital bed about to undergo weight
loss surgery. Her daughters,
Lauryn “Pumpkin” Shannon and
Alana Thompson, stand next to her; they’re crying,
worried that Mama might not wake up, or worse, that she’ll be
“a whole new mama.” Alana, now 11 and shed of the
over-the-top Honey Boo Boo personality that made her famous
first on Toddlers & Tiaras and then on her
spinoff, breaks the tension: “I kind of got something to say,
but I really don’t want to. I’m hungry.” Her comedic timing
is as perfect as ever. When June is finally wheeled into an
operating room, her familiar Southern drawl interrupts the
action and announces, “Hold up, stop the frame. Y’all are
probably wondering how me, Mama June, got right here.”

Cue a flashback to the Honey Boo Boo days. From 2012
to 2014, Mama June and her family starred on Here Comes
Honey Boo Boo
, TLC’s enthralling celebration of white
trash culture. While Honey Boo Boo was supposed to
center around the Thompson/Shannon family’s antics, it was
Mama June’s unfettered embrace of lower-class redneck
stereotypes (improper vocabulary, questionable hygiene, a

camo commitment ceremony) that made the show a hit.
(During the height of Honey Boo Boo’s popularity,
Alana
earned roughly $15,000 to $20,000 per episode, and its
ratings — 2.2 million viewers for its premiere episode —

were on par with the final season premiere of Mad
Men
.)

Like The Anna Nicole Show before it, Here Comes
Honey Boo Boo
became a cultural phenomenon that took poor
white folks and turned them into a freak show. When viewers
watched and responded to Mama June’s body, they were reacting
to society’s expectations for how women should behave and
look—namely, the notion that women should be thin, polite,
and quiet. This expectation creates two opposing cultural
body types: the classical and the grotesque. As explained by
Kathleen Rowe in
The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of
Laughter
, “the grotesque body exaggerates its
processes, bulges, and orifices, whereas the static,
monumental classical body conceals them.” Most often, the
grotesque woman is perceived to be lower-class and socially
unacceptable. And because these women do not conform to
cultural norms, they are instead treated as parodies of
womanhood. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo solidified the
image of Mama June as a modern female grotesque. Her
outlandish behavior both fascinated and appalled viewers,
until a scandal seemingly upended her reputation for good.

In October 2014, TMZ
broke the story that Mama June was dating the man who had
been convicted for sexually assaulting her eldest daughter 10
years prior. The show was abruptly canceled and the public
backlash was resoundingly brutal, especially after Radar
Online

unearthed the horrifying police report. Here Comes
Honey Boo Boo
’s cancellation ultimately occurred because
Mama June endangered her children and audiences were no
longer comfortable with being complicit in their
exploitation. In the wake of the cancellation, Mama June
became a warning about what happens when you cross a line
from fascinatingly grotesque to unforgivable. For a while, it
seemed as though Mama June would be cast off into the land of
reality TV has-beens, but her life (a
lawsuit! A
sex tape! A
Baywatch-style photo shoot! A
strip club tour!) became perfect tabloid fodder and
allowed her to stay just relevant enough.

During this time, Mama June’s physical appearance,
particularly the excessive weight that made her notorious in
the first place, remained unchanged. But then, seemingly
motivated by her partner
Sugar Bear’s cheating ways and with a new network willing
to broadcast her story, Mama June launched her comeback. WE
tv billed From Not to Hot as “the
most shocking transformation in reality TV history,” but
June’s 300-pound weight loss wasn’t just a revenge fantasy.
If Mama June was going to regain favorability with audiences,
maintain a place in the public sphere, and ensure her
family’s financial security, then she needed to perform a
physical and emotional makeover to reposition herself as
nonthreatening to society.

Courtesy of TLC / Via giphy

Mama June Shannon and family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

Mama June Shannon made her television debut in 2012 on
Toddlers & Tiaras, TLC’s long-running
reality series about the strange world of child beauty
pageants. Back then, her youngest daughter Alana,
nicknamed Honey Boo Boo, was just a 6-year-old hyped up on
her special “go-go juice” (Mountain Dew and Red Bull). During
one episode, as Alana prances around onstage in a skimpy
Daisy Duke costume, June shouts “Shake your butt!” from the
audience. Meanwhile, Alana’s father, Mike “Sugar Bear”
Thompson, ambles around in background; he is mostly seen but
not heard.
Looking back at the moment when Alana sassily brands
herself “Honey Boo Boo Child,” it is absolutely unsurprising
that this family would go on to become reality stars.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo — the spinoff series about
June, Alana, Sugar Bear, and daughters Lauryn, Jessica
“Chubbs” Shannon, and Anna “Chickadee” Cardwell — debuted
later that year, in August 2012. Reviewers called the show
horrifying, heinous, and reprehensible and even reprimanded
TLC for “producing
this without a conscience.” Mama June’s refusal to
conform to traditional beauty and behavioral standards
startled and enthralled audiences. She constantly misspoke,
calling herself “beautimous” (which went on to be a cultural
catchphrase) and boasting about her poor hygiene. She had
neck crust (it’s exactly what you think it is) and a
signature turkey neck. The sound of her farting even
interrupted the classic image of a family in front of their
home during
Honey Boo Boo’s opening credits. Audiences loved
the Thompson/Shannon family and their redneck authenticity.
They were uneducated and dirty, rejected “big fengaly words,”
and loved their “sketti” dinners. Gross smells were so
essential to the show that TLC
aired a Watch ‘n’ Sniff event in
2013, complete with scratch-and-sniff cards and six
unidentifiable scents. More importantly, the family seemed

genuinely happy. Ratings for the series’ fourth episode

famously beat out the 2012 Republican National
Convention. The Season 2 finale episode, which featured Mama
June and Sugar Bear’s camo-heavy commitment ceremony,
broadcast in 2013, set a series high with 3.2 million
viewers.

If Mama June was going to regain favorability with audiences,
then she needed to perform a physical and emotional makeover
to reposition herself as nonthreatening to society.

Given its popularity during this time, endless discussions
about the show’s cultural relevance followed. Honey Boo
Boo
’s Alana
was compared to a Flannery O’Connor character, and Rosie
O’Donnell
likened her to Shirley Temple. For some the show signaled

the return of the hillbilly in American culture; another
reviewer
declared it “exactly the kind of cultural product America
should be exporting.” For a reality series that was readily
mocked on
late-night TV and in the tabloids, Here Comes Honey
Boo Boo
undeniably made a mark on American culture.

Just when the show seemed unstoppable, the scandal turned
Mama June into a pariah. June
denied all rumors about her relationship, but eventually
her oldest daughter Anna confirmed that she was the victim,

telling People that if her mother was dating her
molester, “I would feel hurt. I would not feel betrayed, but
I would feel hurt.” TLC quickly canceled Here Comes Honey
Boo Boo
(a fifth season remained unaired
until recently), and Mama June’s personal life fell
apart. Her daughter Anna cut all ties with her and appeared
on
Dr. Phil in
2014 to discuss the fallout. June finally broke up with
Sugar Bear for good in 2015 after an explosive stint on

Marriage Boot Camp,
WE tv’s staging ground for
has-been or insignificant reality talent to hash out their
relationship troubles and cling to fame.

By the time Mama June and Sugar Bear appeared on the show,
they were just another pop culture punchline.
The season’s promo capitalized on the scandal, presenting
it as June’s big return to TV and one that should not be
missed.
When June entered the room in the season premiere, a
group of D-list reality stars, like The Bachelor’s
Catherine Lowe, squealed excitedly, gaped, and whispered,
“That’s Honey Boo Boo’s mom!”

The attention from Marriage Boot Camp opened the door
for June to return to television with From Not to Hot
and rewrite the established narrative about herself. The show
focused on June’s obsessive desire to both show Sugar Bear
“how hot” she can be and show audiences “the
real Sugar Bear,” but most importantly, it focused on
June’s own emotional journey of self-discovery. After
struggling to keep up a healthy diet and workout routine,
June booked several weight loss surgeries. During the tense
scene that follows, her family expresses their fears about
the upcoming procedures.

“It’s just a little much,” warns her sister Doe Doe.

“I don’t think you should do it. ‘Cause I think you look fine
the way you are,” says Alana.

Meanwhile, her niece Amber assures everyone that June will
just be “a more healthier mama.”

The one looming question June’s family cannot answer: What
happens to June once she loses the cultural signifiers that
present her as both female grotesque and authentic redneck
working-class woman?

Portrayals of the white working class are a staple of
reality television, and like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,
these shows (for example, A&E’s Duck Dynasty,
MTV’s Buckwild) create and sustain
the image of the reality TV hillbilly. Duck
Dynasty,
perhaps the most successful example of this type
of programming, ran for 11 seasons, attracted a
record-shattering 11.8 million viewers,
built a $400 million empire, and
actively influenced national conservative politics. Other
series, like Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, overtly
romanticize working-class white men with tough jobs and give
their characters heroic narrative arcs. And on shows like
Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, and Alaska
State Troopers
, white working-class masculinity is
considered worthy of sustained attention and respect.

But this kind of cultural value is not a luxury awarded to
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and it is especially denied
to women like Mama June. The family’s redneck values and
heightened personalities turned them into a spectacle for
white middle- and upper-class female viewers,
TLC’s target demographic. TLC is also a network whose
programming gleefully embraces grotesqueries of many kinds:
megafamilies, fundamentalists, little people, Mormons,
Palins, and extreme couponers. When Mama June and her family
became TLC’s resident redneck train wrecks, they proudly
embraced all the stereotypes of white trash culture and
cemented Mama June’s perceived lower-class status. Her large,
unkempt body cemented the image of her as both a bad mother
and the pinnacle of the female transgression.

Mama June’s positioning also made it easier for TLC to cut
ties with her, a fact made apparent by the network’s
continued relationship with the Duggar family. TLC
canceled 19 Kids and Counting in 2015, also
following a molestation scandal (Josh Duggar
allegedly sexually abused his sisters). Yet
the Duggars are framed as a good white Christian nuclear
family, which masks their nonconforming religious
fundamentalism. Although canceling 19 Kids
cost Discovery $19 million (whereas Honey Boo Boo
was an
easily replaceable commodity), the Duggar children,
excluding Josh, were given a spinoff series, Counting
On
, which is currently in its third season. This no doubt
pushed Mama June to follow the trajectory of many reality
stars, leapfrogging between programs to stay relevant.

What happens to Mama June once she loses the cultural
signifiers that present her as both female grotesque and
authentic redneck working-class woman?

It was Anna Nicole Smith who first powerfully embodied — and
will be forever synonymous with — the female grotesque. On
her way to becoming a household sex symbol, Smith
profited from white trash stereotypes and her physical
imitation of Marilyn Monroe. Her
pursuit of a blonde bombshell physical ideal — the body
mocked and exploited by The Anna Nicole Show — led to
a very public drug addiction and eventually her death in
2007. Smith’s troubles — slurring her words, excessive
eating, cursing — played out on the show. What we have come
to learn from Smith is that while the female body can be
created, failing to maintain a fantasy body is a terrible
sin. Jeffrey Brown,
writing in Feminist Review in 2005, explains that
“the case of Anna Nicole Smith illustrates that the desperate
and vehement attempt to punish transgressive individuals is
symptomatic of deeper cultural politics.” Simply put, Smith
broke too many rules. Her presence in the tabloids and
reality television destabilized and challenged the moral
codes and
actual laws designed to keep poor people like her in
their rightful place. Her demise seemed
inevitable.

Courtesy of We tv / Via screenshot

Mama June before and after weight loss surgery.

Mama June’s version of the female grotesque is fitting
for a new decade of reality television. While she too has
bought a body in order to transform herself and transcend her
redneck life, she differs significantly from Anna Nicole
Smith. June has never been an idealized beauty. She was never
a Playboy Playmate. June has never used her sexual capital to
gain upward mobility and destabilize class systems. When June
put on Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress
during a Halloween episode of Here Comes Honey Boo
Boo
, she was both lusted after by Sugar Bear and mocked
by her children. For a viewer familiar with Monroe’s
idealized body, it is potentially off-putting to witness June
emulating her. But with her new revenge body, June could
finally adapt to traditional image standards and become
classically beautiful in order to win back audiences. From
Not to Hot
reveals the limits of public memory after
scandal and shows the power of a physical makeover—which
brings us back to how Mama June “got right here.”

2.4 million people watched Mama June reveal her new size 4
body on the penultimate episode of From Not to Hot on
March 31. The episode coincided with a PR blitz in
People magazine in which pictures of June making
duckfaces and eating grapes in ball gowns are displayed
alongside the breakdown of her $75,000 cosmetic surgery
overhaul.
In another photo, June is lying on a couch in a ball gown
and snapping a selfie, skin removal scars visible. June tells
us, “I thought of myself as being sexy before. Now I’m the
shit.” She insists the makeover was solely about her, her
happiness, and not her fame. And she wants you to know

she paid for everything herself.

Through a calculated physical makeover, commitment to an
emotional journey, and the solidification of her celebrity
status through reality television, Mama June has achieved the
ultimate rehabilitation of the female grotesque.
From Not to Hot gives audiences permission to
ignore June’s failings as a woman and parent, for the sake of
entertainment.

Perhaps Mama June will continue playing a bit role as reality
TV’s redneck mom. But there is a twist developing: Mama June
wants her daughters to eventually adopt healthy diets,
telling People, “I do worry about their health, but
I’m not going to say, ‘You got to eat salads all the time,’”
—perhaps paving the way for a family makeover show. At the
very least, June is curtailing the excessive grotesqueness
that made them famous in the first place. It’s necessary for
the family’s survival: Mama June still needs a man and

a second season. Whether she’ll be able to maintain this
standard of popularity remains to be seen, but nearly three
years after a scandal that should have wrecked everything,
it’s clear Mama June Shannon is here to stay.

Joanna Arcieri is a freelance writer with a MA in media
studies. Her interests include the intersection of politics,
spectacle and reality television.

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