Just when you think reality TV cannot come up with anything more outrageous than “The Real Housewives of Insert-city-here”, you turn the TV on to a TLC marathon of Toddlers and Tiaras, and gawp at your screen wondering how it is these people really exist in a modern world. A trailer for the new season shows a 2 minute long montage of Mackenzie, age 6, throwing tantrum after tantrum as her mother tells the camera “I think Mackenzie now realizes that she’s becoming famous”.
Toddlers and Tiaras not only documents the extensive preparations, money, and stress that goes into child beauty pageants, but has now also succeeded in giving 6-year olds mainstream media attention. The TLC show certainly does not idealize pageants, in fact quite the opposite: it showcases children who often seem unenthusiastic about spray tan and hair spray, and overbearing parents who spend thousands of dollars a year preparing their children for the events. Yet watching the pageant preparations is like watching a train wreck, and quickly becomes addictive while also upsetting. Many questions are raised while witnessing frantic parents and cranky children on stage, but above all one feels that these children are not only being objectified, but also robbed of their childhoods.
Many childhood activities can take up as much time and money as pageants, and if one becomes involved in any competitive sport parents often spend weekends carting children back and forth from games or practices. But pageants somehow seem to be in a different category- possibly because it seems so unnatural to dress one’s child as Lady Gaga, or because few children themselves take the initiative to enter pageants out of their own desire. When children as young as 6 months old are entered into pageants, I don’t think anyone can argue it is anything they actually asked to be involved in. Often, parents will admit outright that they don’t think their children actually enjoy dressing up and learning routines, but that the parents get some satisfaction out of seeing strangers praise their offspring. I can accept parents who encourage their children to participate in activities they actually enjoy, but I wonder what they get out of forcing their children to do things they clearly don’t want to.
Not only do pageant children spend much of their time preparing for the events, but they are also surrounded by adults who judge them based on an unreachable ideal. Appropriately named “glitz”, these pageants require children to wear fake hair, false eyelashes, foundation, and more makeup than most adult women. The fact that girls are judged on how perfectly curled their hair is and how flawless their complexion is can set them up for a life of believing they are never good enough, because they will never be the perfect doll-like image the judges are looking for. This objectification of such young girls is something that harks back to days of corsets and crinoline, not an ideal the millennium generation should be striving for.
If the end goal for parents is to win enough money to fund their child’s college education (an unlikely scenario for the majority of pageant-goers), it seems strange that the method of obtaining the money is a looks-based competition. Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras may not praise the pageant scene, but ultimately they are bringing more attention to it, and giving are giving girls like Mackenzie a platform where she is encouraged to act the diva part. If she can have a spread in People magazine at 6, what’s next, an embryo famous before even being born? Oh wait.