Thursday, February 18, 2010

Toddlers, Tears and Terrors

What is there to say about the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras? So much, and yet nothing could be quite enough. It's the sort of program you might catch in passing as a guilty pleasure, ready to make light of the dumpy Southern moms imposing their own dashed dreams of childhood stardom on their reluctant, tearful daughters. After about ten minutes, though, you'll feel like making a call to Child Protective Services and naming names.

The series is only possible because apparently there are still remnants, in far-flung parts of these United States, of the pageant culture that still produces candidates who aspire to be Miss Americas, Miss USAs, and Miss Universerses. What's sad and shocking is that fodder for these competitions -- and the Miss Harvest Queen and Miss Apple Dumpling contests that make up the lowest rungs of the genre ladder -- is cultivated in tawdry Best Western conference rooms all across middle America. The show's cameras are careful not to pull back too far during these events for fear of fully revealing the underpopulated meeting rooms with their three or four rows of folding chairs, the beat-up staging or the moth-eaten skirting draping the tiny portable stages. It's like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? for the Romper Room set. And the contests aren't just for little girls -- babies still damp from the womb are propped up for viewing, their little heads lolling under the weight of their crowns and headdresses.

But those mothers. Nearly every one of them will insist they do the pageant circuit because little Brittany or Madison enjoys it so much, but it seems the majority of the children have already had enough of the dance rehearsals and hours of grooming and shellacking before the first note is emitted from the resident boom box. One mother was shown transforming her own hands into two opposing puppet characters, complete with differing raspy voices, in an effort to entice or shame her small daughter onto the stage -- the kind of life-scarring experience that girl will be recounting to her psychiatrist for years to come. I thought that was sinister enough, but then, when the same little girl had a pre-performance melt-down, her mother was heard hissing at her as she carried her to the corner of the room, "It's all on you now. All the work and all the money, it's all on you." So much for the reassurance that little Mindy just loves putting on her tap shoes for the good folks at the La Quintas Inn out on Highway 47.

Another aspect of pageant life the show never addresses head-on is the money involved, and how it feeds an industry that exists purely to capitalize on failed hopes of glory. Though some of the families profiled seem surprisingly affluent, living in suburban McMansions, most are of the Tobacco Road/trailer park variety and can ill afford the required entry fees -- usually hundreds of dollars each time -- and the costumes that constantly have to be swapped out for each event. One young mother reveals that she's spent "four or five thousand dollars" on just one competition whose top prize is itself only $5,000. But most wins will only get you a gawdy trophy that looks like a bowling award dressed up with gewgaws and sparkles.

When the girls finally calm down enough to agree to go onstage and do their routines, the camera captures their mothers in the back of the room, gyrating and prancing to the music to goad their kids on to victory, walking them through the exact steps and pouty faces they've practiced together. It's then that you really are sledgehammered with the reality of who these competitions serve.

It's been less than 15 years since child pageant queen Jon Benet Ramsey was murdered in her Colorado home under circumstances that have yet to be resolved. It's impossible to look at these little painted faces, distorted into shiny, dwarf-like 30-year-olds, and not remember that little girl and the fate she met because of her parents' need to showcase her in a way that is never appropriate and can never be justified.

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