I recently stumbled across “Toddlers and Tiaras”, a TLC reality TV show that follows the families involved in children’s beauty pageants. As an academic who prides herself on nuanced analyses, I have to admit that I had a pretty hard time finding the nuance in my reaction. I was horrified. Nothing in Little Miss Sunshine had quite prepared me for this. These young girls – and I mean young – parade around on stage in full makeup, flash eyelashes, hair extensions and sexy outfits. And the show focuses on the parents behind the scenes…especially the stage mothers who ‘coach’ their daughters on how to be their sexiest. It’s a very controversial show. Since it first aired last winter, about a dozen Facebook pages have popped up asking TLC to kill the show. The largest one, Help Ban the TLC show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras, has over 5,000 members. The mommy blogging world has condemned it 17 ways to Sunday. It isn’t hard to condemn. It seems pathetic. The mothers all seem to be chasing some Cinderella dream and a lot of cash through their daughters. The show doesn’t cast them in a particularly charming light. They are seen berating their daughters, for everything from messing up their hair before going on stage, to not having strutted their stuff well enough on stage. The mothers, at least the ones that the show seems to focus on, are all very large women. They seem to be chasing a dream of American beauty that now eludes them.
The more I thought about this show, the more deeply it troubled me. Not for the obvious reason of the forced sexualization of these young girls. It was the degree of hostility and venom in the mommy blogosphere that was disturbing. Now, anyone who has ever ventured into the mommy blogosphere would know that hostile judgment of other mothers parenting is better much what the sphere is about (that, and a lot of guilt and anxiety about one’s own parenting). But, there was something here that struck me as particularly unanimously over the top in the moral high ground that these moms claim.
Toddlers and Tiaras, like much reality television, is a performance of excess and borderline abjection. It is not kind to its participants. Like Supernanny or Wife Swap, or many other less successful shows, it seems to intentionally mock its participants, highlighting the competitiveness, their cruelty, their coldness, all in relation to their children. The mothers in this show are not presented as model mother citizens. They are the opposite. Their performance of motherhood is flawed to its core.
These kinds of reality TV shows are almost carnivalesque in their performance of some kind of excess – here the excess of femininity and youth, and the overzealous coach mother. Supernanny and Wife Swap perform the excess of families that have spiraled out of control on everything from diet to discipline. The viewer’s own moral high ground is reinforced – our families may not be the model of 1950s perfect, but at least we are not that. The viewers of Toddlers and Tiaras are doing the same thing At least we are not that.
And all the mommy bloggers can blame shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and its blatant excess, for the all the ills of America’s sexualization of children. The rest of us no longer have to take responsibility for putting their daughters in ballet or competitive gymnastics (and berating them when they lose). Or for giving them Barbies, or dressing them in overly sexualized clothes. Or the highly sexualized music videos directed to young girls. And on and on and on. The line is drawn from Toddlers and Tiaras to Roman Polanski, with no morally ambivalent ground in between.
I have to admit that I don’t find the show very morally ambivalent. But I worry just as much about what Toddlers and Tiaras, and the controversy around it, makes disappear.