the “grand” finale: ending season 4 of toddlers & tiaras
In addition to guest posting at orgtheory this month, I also blog at The Huffington Post. Check out my latest over at HuffPo Culture on the TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras. This piece, in which I argue that this particular show should no longer be on the air, brings together some of my work on child beauty pageants, kids and reality television, and children’s rights. I also (hopefully) show that it’s a good thing for (academic) sociologists to watch television. I am not ashamed to watch TV, including reality shows!
You’ve seen the four-year-old dressed up as Dolly Parton (complete with “enhancements”), right? And, of course, you’ve seen the images of the three-year-old dressed up as Julia Roberts’ prostitute character from Pretty Woman, haven’t you?
Judging by the ratings for TLC’s fourth season of Toddlers & Tiaras, it seems you have. Each week over two million people tune in to watch the series. The show, which premiered almost three years ago in January 2009, has always been talked about. But over the past month it has shot into the stratosphere of pop culture. Not since the death of JonBenét Ramsey have child beauty pageants received so much media coverage. This week, for example, the cover of People features five-year-old Madisyn (aka Maddy) Verst — little “Dolly Parton” dolled up in her cupcake beauty pageant dress — and asks, “Gone Too Far?”
I’ve been studying child beauty pageants for over a decade and I do believe that shows like Toddlers & Tiaras have gone too far. Such young pageant contestants should not be featured on television.
As Wednesday night’s season finale of Toddlers & Tiaras made clear, pageant moms are acutely aware of the television cameras. One mother harshly whispered into her five-year-old daughter’s ear during an at-home practice session: “We are on camera. Don’t you dare tell me ‘no’ one more time. Do you hear me? We are on national TV. Everybody’s going to see this. Do you hear me?” After her daughter, Carley, said, “Yeah,” her mom immediately pasted a smile on her face and declared in a kinder tone, “Ok. We’re doing the Cruella de Vil run through. I want this…” But Carley cut her off declaring, “You are driving me crazy!”
Mommie Dearest-like scenes are decidedly uncomfortable to watch, though that doesn’t mean we should go to the extreme of banning child beauty pageants outright. Activists recently tried this approach in Australia after the introduction of “American-style” child beauty pageants in July. But they were unsuccessful and the pageant show went on.
Outlawing child beauty pageants in the United States is also not a serious option. As legal scholars, like Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, and historians, like Holly Brewer, have detailed, American families have long been free to pursue any activities in their own home that they deem suitable for their own children. The state is not likely to interfere with day-to-day parenting decisions, unless the child is placed in an environment that is clearly unsafe and abusive. The bar is set pretty high — physical abuse, neglect, and abandonment. While some may feel that spray-tanning a child, for example, is a form of abuse, it is not like hitting or binding a child. In general the government takes a hands-off approach to children’s activities. Even children’s boxing, deemed physically unsafe for thousands of young children by the American Association of Pediatrics earlier this month because of the risk of chronic and acute brain injuries, is legal in the United States.