I’ll admit it: I abuse my Netflix Instant subscription. Oh, sure, I watch Downton Abbey, thought-provoking documentaries and cinema classics. But sometimes, I also partake in some embarrassing Reality TV.
Toddlers & Tiaras is one of those shows. I’ll pause to allow you to judge me, but I find it to be a fascinating study on young girls in our society. Also, pageant moms are HILARIOUS. I was recently watching an old episode, and I actually found it particularly interesting because it was an earlier one, so there was lots of discussion from parents and pageant masters alike about society and the value of pageants.
The first thing that strikes me in these pageants is that there are HUGE cash prizes and scholarships at stake. This isn’t like my 4th grade basketball team, where everyone got a participation trophy even if they got a concussion from walking into the basketball pole while dancing during a break (ahem). These girls – and their mothers – mean BUSINESS. They practice for hours, spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars on lessons, spray tans, custom-made dresses, flippers for their daughters’ teeth, hotel rooms, and travel.
What interested me most about this episode is the actual diversity in the pageant moms – one seemed to be a stereotypical pageant mom (and is the one who introduces us to “flippers”, a retainer for kids to put over their teeth to hide the fact that have missing teeth since they’re, oh, I don’t know, kids), the other is one half of a lesbian couple, and one was very hesitant about letting her daughter do pageants but has now officially become a fan of pageantry.
The daughter of our “stereotypical” mom, Karlee, says that she wants to be a cheerleader, since “they show their belly, and that’s what I do.” She goes with her four year old friend (!) to get a spray-tan, and when she puts on all her makeup, her sister (who is more into softball than tiaras) says that Karlee doesn’t even look like herself, but that she “looks like a doll.” Her dad knows he can’t tell her “no makeup”, because when you go to these pageants, you need to wear makeup to be competitive. Karlee doesn’t win the crown, but she does place with enough of a prize to get a cow. Yeah, she really wanted a cow. She started going “cow! cow! cow!” once her mom said she could get one. Love it.
The two daughters, both in the pageant, of the lesbian couple, are constantly practicing their talent and walks in their front yard. The mothers openly admit that they are “not your typical pageant family”; but it feels pretty typical to me – they go to spend $500+ on custom-made dresses for the girls, and spend loads of time getting them ready. The “competitive” mom says that she thinks young girls should be as girly and prissy as possible during childhood, and puts a decent amount of pressure on her daughters to compete well. The other mother says that she wants to help one come out of their shell, and help the other learn to not be so hard on herself and take losing gracefully. For the most part, this happens – although the shy one has a bit where she just kind of wanders onto the stage, dead-eyed, and everyone in the audience is trying to stifle their laughter, and the mom is freaking out that she’s acting like a dead fish. It’s hysterical.
Lastly, the mother of Bella, an extremely energetic and slightly chubby little girl, is the one who was hesitant to enter her into pageants. Her mom grew fonder of them since they taught her to be a strong competitor and to have grace and poise, and feels that her weight hasn’t played an issue thus far – but the pageant coordinator says weight definitely plays an issue and that a skinnier girl has been known to win if the race is extremely tight. Nonetheless, Bella takes the second highest prize in the whole competition and adorably starts crying with happiness and says she wants to call her grandma to tell her she won, and the mom’s voiceover comes on saying that she’s so glad Bella had that reaction, because she wants Bella to know that “when you go after something and you get it, it feels good.” Even the pageant director added, “you may be beautiful, but if you’re not up there with confidence, forget about it.” And Bella had confidence – something I’m sure will suit her well later in life.
Now, these girls all actually had fairly level-headed mothers, and appeared as though they wanted to do these pageants. I’ve got my issues with beauty pageants in general – society does a good enough job telling us that all that matters is our looks. Do we really need not only beauty competitions, but one geared towards young girls ?! – but if the girls really and truly want to do it, then who am I to stop them? They’re not my children. And the pageant director said, “beauty is an advantage – you need to be beautiful to get a job, extra thin to be in Hollywood. It shouldn’t be that way, but society has made it that way.” She has a point – and is right – but as a feminist activist, I choose to try to change the world instead of accept it. But if you are someone who has chosen to accept that and try to give your girl an “edge”, then that is your prerogative.
But what really drove me totally insane nutballs was when they put babies in these pageants. BABIES. I’m betting you that they don’t consult with the babies about whether or not they want to do it. Are the parents in it for the money? Putting their babies on show? I just don’t get it. Also, there was a very creepy looking older man judging the competition. In his interview, he says he works in an office supply store and was picked to judge because he “looked professional”. Explain to me again why this older man is judging little girls in dresses on their beauty? To me, it just cemented the fact that these pageants are creepy. There are some seriously mixed messages happening here in terms of what you gain from pageants – a knowledge that beauty (unfortunately) matters? poise and confidence? – and what is considered beautiful – weight, confidence, and presentation all play such a huge, intertwined issue here.
What are your thoughts? Have you seen this episode? Share it below!
Edit 4/4/12: Slate has an interesting piece on whether or not hating the moms in Toddlers & Tiaras is classist. What are your thoughts?