Toddlers in Tiaras and Parenting

In between all the cleaning I did yesterday, I watched some episodes of Toddlers in Tiaras a documentary/reality show that was filmed for TLC about child beauty pageants. Documentary film interests me not only for the stated subject matter of the show, but also because of the semi-invisible hand of the film crews and the editor. Sometimes the film crews blatantly bait people to do things which show them in a bad light. That didn’t seem to be the case with Toddlers and Tiaras. The film crews attempted to record rather than provoke. This strategy seemed wise since there was plenty of provocative material to go around. Parents were shown coaching, cajoling, and coercing their children into extensive beauty preparations and stage routines. Some of the children really did seem cheerful and happy about the experience. Other times it was obviously the passion of the parent driving all the effort. The children were obviously trying to please and the parents were living out a dream through the child.

I have philosophical issues with the idea of child beauty pageants. I have issues with young children under the age of twelve in any sort of high pressure competition, but even more so with one that teaches young girls that beauty is in paint and hairpieces. My distaste would have led me to turn off the show quickly except that I was fascinated by the psychology on display. These families spent thousands of dollars setting up their kids for pageant appearances, when most of the prizes were much smaller. Some pageants had no cash prizes at all, just crowns. So I watched, trying to figure out where the rewards were that made up for all the costs in time, effort, and money. The only one I could consistently see was the same sorts of parental pride I see at your average playground when a mom watches her son dribble better than his peers.

As I watched, I began to be subtly disturbed, not by the priorities on display, but by the similarities I could see to things that I have done. I watched a mother talk her daughter into doing another pageant by counting her Eighty-seven crowns. Another mother used implications of shame to get her son to practice walking and looking at the judges. A third mother told her daughter that sometimes pain is necessary to be beautiful. I’ve never tried to deliver those particular messages, but I’ve had moments that were shaped exactly the same when I needed to talk a child into going to school, to get a vaccination, or to clean up after herself. I’ve used the same sorts of words, body language, and facial expressions. These pageant parents love their children and honestly believe that they are doing something good. From where I stand it looks like most of them are instead being driven by some internal need which is other than the good of the child. Then I must wonder and pay attention to my own choices, knowing that some of my choices will look values-skewed to someone viewing them from outside. It is my responsibility to double check myself, and make sure that the paths I am leading myself and my child along are good ones.

Predictably, this is television after all, the parents get more demanding as the series goes along. This is in part because the show moves to the higher-prize, higher-pressure pageants. I suspect it is also due to editing choices. The show sets out to expose a subculture, not to explain it. There is no second season, I suspect after the first one no one else would consent to be filmed.