“Toddlers and Tiaras” is a one of those reality programs that TLC specializes in. You know that type I mean. Covering some bizarre aspect of culture—The World’s Fattest Teen, A Man Who is a Tree, I eat 70,000 Calories a day—TLC sprays a thin documentary gloss over each program so that we feel like we’re being educated instead of just indulging our prurient cravings for freaks. It’s irresistible, of course, and I find myself watching it constantly.
My present favorite is “Toddlers and Tiaras.” On this show, tiny beauty pageant contestants and their families are documented as they prepare for, and then compete in beauty contests. In spite of the fact that there’s no narrative voice leading the audience to a particular trough from which to drink, “Toddlers and Tiraras” still comes off as kind of repellent for those of us not inculcated into the culture.
Recently, I settled in to watch an episode focusing on the “Chitlin’ Strut Pageant” in Southern Carolina. The pageant is presided over by Courtney Hightower, a chirpy brunette who has the gleaming eyes of a true believer. She tells us, giggling, that she is all for the contestants using fake eyelashes, as in her mind, it just goes to show how much they want to be beautiful.
The most compelling stories on this particular episode belong to Aubrey and Madison, two girls competing against one another in the 10- to 12-year-old category.
Aubrey, who is just as pretty as a beauty contestant is expected to be, is 10 years old, but looks several years older. She’s already competed in over 100 pageants, and hopes to one day become Miss America. As Aubrey gets prepped for the pageant, we watch as her eyebrows are groomed. This looks painful and unpleasant, and is executed under the joyless supervision of her mother. Next, Aubrey gets her entire body spray tanned. Wearing virtually nothing, the girl is held by two adults, as if about to undergo a terrifying medical procedure. The anxiety in her face is crystal clear, and when she gets sprayed in the face by an aerosol can, she screams, “it hurts!” No pain, no gain, I guess.
Aubrey’s mother, who presides like a Soviet official over her daughter’s training, is pretty and neurotic. She speaks quickly and without warmth, as if there’s some frantic core within her that’s seeking escape.
Sparing no expense in sculpting her daughter into a perfect vessel of American desire, she’s hired a team of specialists, including Coach Tara, who marches on the scene like a Rockette. A bleached blonde in a zebra print top, she shows Aubrey her dance routine, which she demonstrates in such a perky, over-the-top manner that it appears positively sarcastic. She applies fake eyelashes and stick-on nails to the girl, while another stylist instructs Aubrey to tell herself she’s having fun while competing. She doesn’t actually suggest that she should have fun, or that having fun is even possible, just that she should tell herself it’s fun. Creepy.
One of Aubrey’s competitors is Madison, who is 11. Her mother, staring into the camera, proudly proclaims that “Madison won Chitlin’ Strut last year, and she’s going to win it again, this year!” Of course, Madison was the only entrant in her age group last year, and had a pretty easy path to victory, but this year she must face the formidable Team Aubrey.
Kind of big-boned, and more mature looking than most 11 year-olds, Madison does not have the sort of look that’s typically rewarded in such competitions. Madison stomps through her living room practicing her walk, while her mother admonishes her not to look like a “working girl,” of which there is little risk.
Dad is a porcine looking man with thin, gelled hair and a goatee that looks like it was designed to capture barbeque sauce. He enumerates the financial sacrifices he’s made for his daughter in terms of the golf clubs he has had to put off purchasing.
The mother, speaking wearily, tells us of the second job she’s taken on in order to help pay for all the expenses. It’s ironic, this, because clearly the time she’s spending working to facilitate her daughter’s nascent pageant career, could actually be spent with her daughter— a sad illustration of somebody missing the bigger picture.
Madison and her mother head off to Cindy’s Hair Heaven to try on a variety of looks. Hitting on one that makes Madison smile, her mother shakes her head, and with a stern and judgmental look on her face, brusquely asks the hairstylist what option is next. Madison’s face falls. Fussing over the girl, the mother remarks, “”Baby, I wish we could get you some lips for Christmas.” This might be a perfectly innocent remark, a joke shared between the two, but as an outsider, all I could of was the pointless insecurity that was being planted in the young girls mind. She will probably always think she has wanting lips, no matter how many beauty pageants she enters in pursuit of validation.
When the “Chitlin’ Strut” begins, we see a parade of precocious children from infancy to about 12 years in age. In the crowd, mothers implore their daughters to smile and act out the entire choreography of their progeny’s dance routine, while beside them, husbands in baseball hats think of other things. We find out that one nine year-old “enjoys Chicken McNuggets and wants to find a cure to cancer.”
On stage, Aubrey kills. She flirts and prances about, telling the judges that” her one wish is for everybody else’s wish to come true.” It’s a slaughter and Aubrey wins every award available.
Madison, who told the judges that she enjoys “dancing, shopping and texting her friends,” finished fourth out of a field of four. On stage, she was awkward, moving robotically about with a look of fear carved into her face. As this was taking place, her parents sat unsmiling from the crowd.
The truth is that they looked kind of embarrassed, not because they were ashamed of their daughter, but because they had put in her in a position in which she simply couldn’t win. Together, they determined that next time they would spend more money and hire a team of coaches for her, like Aubrey’s family had for their glittering daughter. It didn’t seem to occur to them that maybe it was unfair to try and jam their square peg daughter into the round, unimaginative hole of the “Chitlin Strut” Beauty Pageant.
They didn’t think to spend more time with her themselves, or to simply let her be who she was, but decided to work harder at changing her, at sculpting her into another Aubrey, and Lord knows, the world has enough Aubrey’s and not nearly enough Madison’s. It was heartbreaking to watch these parents, who so clearly love their daughter, miss her very essence.
“Toddlers and Tiaras” presents us with a collection of pre-adolescent girls who are being introduced into a culture of judgment. The way the girl feels about herself is secondary, her primary goal being to please some standard the exists only in the perverse imagination of people who would have children act like infantilized women, rather than the children they actually are, and of course, this says way more about the parents than about the children.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.