The Hard Lesson About Child Sexual Abuse That We All Need to Learn From Honey Boo Boo
TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was one of those TV shows that elicited a distinct “this won’t end well” feeling—not just because its child star, Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, had a monstrous appetite for Mountain Dew, Red Bull, and fame. Any time a family lacking significant means and education is thrust into the morass that is reality TV, you know a train wreck is imminent.
The grim end came a lot sooner than we expected. After recent allegations that Thompson’s mother, June “Mama June” Shannon, resumed seeing her convicted sex offender ex-boyfriend Mark McDaniel, TLC canceled the series.
The couple’s reunion also led Shannon’s eldest daughter, 20-year-old Anna "Chickadee" Cardwell, to publicly report that McDaniel molested her when she was eight years old. (Though the alleged abuse was reported to the authorities at the time, McDaniel’s incarceration was the result of a guilty plea to another charge of aggravated child molestation. He served 10 years in prison for that conviction.)
The terms of McDaniel’s release apparently don’t prohibit him from being around children when other adults are present. That doesn’t mean it’s not a terrible idea to let your kid hang out near a convicted sex offender. Yet it has happened, according to a photo TMZ published from September that shows McDaniel with his hand on nine-year-old Alana. Mama June’s own mother, Sandra Hale, who helped Cardwell report her abuse to the authorities, says that Georgia Child Protective Services has been notified and is investigating any contact McDaniel has had with Thompson or her 14-year-old sister, Lauryn “Pumpkin” Shannon.
Whispers of child abuse circling celebrities, even the marginally famous, are hardly new. What’s made this case so different from other high-profile incidents is the almost universal public support for Cardwell. That’s a blessing: So often in stories where the accused are celebrities, they’re rife with victim blaming or abuser apologia, from R. Kelly (those girls were old enough to know better) to Woody Allen (his ex poisoned the kid against him).
But this embrace of the victim has an antipode: the widespread castigation of Mama June. Well deserved though it may be, the ire has been loaded with plenty of “no surprise—they’re hicks.” That’s disturbing on multiple levels.
First, Americans have long used poor white Southern folk as a source of entertainment and self-aggrandizement. Networks such as TLC have played to this by refining and peddling a specific redneck pathology, one so popular that it can’t only be consumed by the people it exploits.
As BuzzFeed recently observed about cable hits like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and MTV’s Buckwild, “The shows are cheap to produce and give a viewer an addictive mix of schadenfreude, existential horror, and anthropological fascination—a feeling of ‘I might have it bad right now, but at least I’m not a pregnant teenager crying in a Burger King parking lot in Georgia or a pageant mom hot-gluing rhinestones on my four-year-old in the lobby of an Alabama Hotel Marriott.’ ”
Every time a tabloid headline offers up tacky or criminal behavior on the part of redneck reality stars, it provides confirmation and comfort that we’re nothing like those yokels. June Shannon is a convenient receptacle for this superior attitude. She’s a spectacle of consumption and exhibition, a woman who rivals Kris Jenner in her willingness to pimp out her family for the cameras. You can even make a case that she’s done half the grooming work for predators already by allowing her youngest, Alana, to compete in pageants that sexualize toddlers.
Then there’s McDaniel, the vaguely creepy, middle-aged man who looks like the type Law & Order: Special Victims Unit would call up when casting for Perp #3 in a lineup. Together with Shannon, they reinforce some insidious ideas about what negligent parents and predators should look like.
“People do rely on certain visual stereotypes when they assess [the] risk of child sexual abuse,” says Lisa M. Jones, research professor of psychology at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “Some of the problems we have in identifying risky situations and intervening early is that people can get lulled into the idea that we would know someone is at risk just by how they look or where they come from.”
The notion that molestation is the mien of strictly “trashy” marginalized people is not only insulting to victims; it’s a dangerous fallacy that makes us lose perspective on the real risk that other kids face. Research shows that molestation of children is not specific to poor communities. “Although we know there are some risk factors for child sexual abuse that may correlate with situations of poverty, we know that it happens at absolutely every socioeconomic level,” says Jones.
Sexual abuse and assault of minors is a fairly widespread problem. A recent study from the Journal of Adolescent Health reported that 26.6 percent of 17-year-old girls had experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault in their lifetimes, with 5.1 percent of boys reporting the same. Those numbers are thought to be on the low end, as sexual abuse is highly underreported by children.
Not all children have an equal amount of risk though. For instance, kids from families that are in turbulent, stressful situations where there’s less supervision are particularly vulnerable. But all families go though their own crises, and few parents can possibly monitor their kids 24-7, especially single working moms.
That’s why it’s so risky to paint Mama June and her ilk as a sideshow when they represent a good chunk of America. Remember, there was a time when she was simply a working mother trying to make ends meet. As Anna Cardwell told People magazine, she reported the abuse to her mother by saying, “You were never there to see it. You were always at work." What employed parent, whether in the South Bronx or Orange County, hasn’t had to make some tough decisions about leaving their kid with a boyfriend or neighbor?
“What people don’t realize is that there are predatory men within the ranks of academia, high society, blue-collar policing—every system,” says Roger Canaff, a former special victims prosecutor and legal expert. “They look for victims differently based on the circumstances and the advantages that are around them.”
Pedophiles are also skilled at ingratiating themselves in families with the express purpose of getting access to the kids. “There are offenders who openly say, ‘I had no interest in the mom; she could have looked like Sophia Loren, but that’s not what I wanted,’ ” Canaff says. “They say, ‘I wanted the child, and I got to the child through the mom by making her feel special and meeting whatever emotional needs she had.’ ”
Tongue cluckers can label Mama June as a hideous parent with too many boyfriends and too many children by too many fathers. But holding her at arm's length out of disgust detracts from a conversation we should all have about how predatory offenders operate. “There has to be a focus on the fact that the vast majority of people who sexually molest children get into the child’s life by invitation, whether they’re priests or piano teachers,” says Canaff.
Ironically, this case may end up as one in which fame makes an awful family situation slightly less toxic. Without the attention of the TMZs of the world, who would be hounding Shannon’s family and stealthily shooting pics of McDaniel in the presence of kids?
The story may also offer insight into the dysfunctional reactions within many families when abuse is revealed. Here’s what Cardwell told People about disclosing the abuse to June Shannon: “A week or so after it happened, I talked to Mama and she was upset, crying and saying, ‘I don't believe you. I don't believe you. Why would you do this to me?’ ”
“That’s by far the most damaging and unfortunate response that a victim of child sex abuse can hear,” says Canaff. But Cardwell showed uncommon persistence in going to her grandmother, who took action. “Anna deserves a tremendous amount of credit and sympathy,” says Canaff.
June Shannon appears to merit little of either. But before we write her off as human garbage, don’t forget she’s also a mom who gave birth to two extraordinary girls. One commands the spotlight with outrageous quips and belly jiggles. The other shines it on her most intimate wounds to protect others. They’re both owed our empathy and protection.