Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Train-Wreck TV: "Toddlers and Tiaras"

Were she alive today, child pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey would be 18 years old. When she was murdered in 1996, the public was inundated with child pageant footage, which elicited a mass "What the !$#@?" JonBenet was a lovely kid, but the sight of her in heavy makeup and sequins always made my skin crawl, particularly after learning the particulars of her death. Inevitably, people in the "pageant community" felt that the press had given them a raw deal, as if it were perfectly normal to spackle a 6-year-old's face with foundation and blush and trot her out for judging.

More than a decade later, the world of child beauty pageants continues to fascinate/appall outsiders. And as TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" series proves, it makes for compelling, train-wreck TV viewing. We just got On Demand service, and against my better judgment, I watched two episodes of "TnT" over the weekend.

The show is pretty straightforward, with each episode focusing on a handful of pageant hopefuls with various levels of experience. What struck me immediately was that, in many cases, you can tell the parents don't have much money — yet, they're spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for their kids' highlights, spray-on tans, fake nails, hair extensions and God knows what else. And despite the shameless, relentless focus on their daughters' appearance and poise, many of the moms have let themselves go to hell. Whenever the dads are on camera, they seem vaguely mystified and resigned. They're proud of their little girls, but their wives are running the show. (I admit that there was one sweet moment when a girl's grandfather, a retired coal miner, helped her practice her "prissy" walk across the living room floor.)

As for the girls themselves, it's hard to tell what they think about being on the pageant circuit. Sure, it's fun to play dress up, win ribbons and have strangers tell you how pretty you are, but it seems like they'd be just as happy playing jump rope. I'm convinced that they'd be so much better off playing a sport than skipping across a stage in "casual wear." Maybe they're taking soccer lessons, too, but I'm skeptical.

At one point, my son took a break from saving the universe to see what I was looking at. When a girl who looked to be about four (his sister's age) began shimmying in a yellow, ruffled bikini, he put on his Serious Face and said, "Whoa, that is SO inappropriate!"

I don't have a problem with TLC for airing the show. Frankly, the child beauty pageant is an interesting, if bizarre, part of American culture, and the show is ripe for water-cooler analysis: Are pageants a harmless, fun way for girls to build their self confidence or an early, creepy introduction to sexual objectification? I know which one I'm going with.


Zil said...

What I don't get about the child beauty pageant thing is, why do they try to make them look like tiny adults? I mean, why can't they just go out there without all the make-up and in like normal little girl fancy easter dresses? It's all the fake tan and hair extensions and such that add the extra layer of creepy...

EDP said...

That is exactly what I asked my husband. Let them wear age-appropriate attire and look like little girls. The prosti-tot thing is just all kinds of wrong.

jen4 said...

Thank you for your intelligent discussion of this cultural phenomenon. I find the pageant circuit thing SO disturbing. Mostly for its excessive focus on the superficial and the obvious sexual implications. But I'm afraid the obsessive mother-managed child in the public eye syndrome extends well beyond pageants.

A couple of years ago there was an excellent NYT Magazine section cover story on the child star sub-culture. The Disney channel culture fuels a huge, parent-driven industry of kids living apart from their families, pissing away their K-12 educations, while their parents are pouring all the family's resources into the gamble that their kid is the next Demi Lovado.

EDP said...

That is so depressing. It's one thing if your kid wants to do something, but why not let them have a childhood before they go down that path? Everyone wants their kid to be the next Dakota Fanning, but that seems awfully rare.