In American society, a great emphasis has been placed on beauty and the outward appearance. This is shown in many facets of the media that we are exposed to daily, often times at the expense of women, objectifying them through the means of sexualized femininity. This positioning is nothing new for women or girls in our culture. While it may not have been the intent of Toddlers and Tiaras, the TLC show reinforces the societal pressures women face about the beauty standards of American culture, including the harsh, unrealistic body images the media portrays as being ideal. TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras takes this too far, sexually exposing children in the world of child beauty pageants, which produces and disseminates the idea of hegemonic gendering about girlhood and girl identity.
TLC’s Toddlers and Tiara’s first aired in January of 2009, but what began as just a one hour special on TLC that gave an exclusive look into the controversial world of child beauty pageants, quickly turned into a nationwide phenomenon. Howard Lee, Vice President of Production and Development for TLC weighs in on the creation and establishment of turning Toddlers and Tiaras into the huge hit series it’s become with, “We were so surprised at how fascinated people were by this world and so we realized there was an opportunity to go further…Doing one episode was not going to do it justice since there is such a wide spectrum of people to cover” (Connolly 32). TLC saw an opportunity to expose the mystery of the pageant world and decided to expose it, all of it for that matter—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The premise of the TLC’s show, Toddlers and Tiaras is to follow children around, primarily girls, as they take on the world of child beauty pageants. Each week, the episode highlights a different pageant in one of the fifty states. Each episode starts with introducing everything about the pageant that will be showcased that week (location, theme, etc.), and then viewers are introduced to three different families who have a child competing in the pageant that week, as well as the child that will be competing. With the narrative structure of the show comes the established formula of the three girls chosen to be on that week’s episode. The show usually includes the following, “one girl who is a seasoned pageant professional, one who is a pageant beginner, and one who has participated in a few pageants but has not won many titles yet. This is the formula. Occasionally they show three girls who have a lot of pageant experience on the same episode” (Connolly 32). After the introductions of the families, the girls, and the pageant itself, the audience is exposed to all the mayhem that comes with the process of preparing for a pageant.
TLC is simply trying to capture and provide audience viewers with access to behind the scenes footage of what really goes on in the lives of child pageant stars and the chaotic process leading up to it, without ever having to step foot out of their homes. However, what it takes to be a child pageant star and to compete in these competitions is raising troubling concerns about the child beauty pageant world, the sexualization, and hegemonic gendering that come along with it.
Organized beauty pageants have a long withstanding reputation within society as being a “prominent site for the display of ideal beauty” (Connolly 36). Connolly recognizes that pageants have been around since 1921 and have long served as a stage that displays and upholds what a particular culture or society deems as being the ideal image of beauty. Historically, when pageants were first getting their start and attempting to make their mark on society, they sought to find a place within American culture that would allow them to “properly define women’s roles within it” (Connolly 21). With this kind of power in regards to the role of women in society and the ability to define a standard for women’s beauty, pageants quickly became a social platform that advocated for and reinforced what ideal femininity in America was supposed to look like (Connolly 24). It is this reputation within society that allotted them the power to disperse and encourage these idealized views towards women’s body image and overall beauty.
The background of the beauty pageant becomes increasingly significant when looking at reality television, and the impact it is now making with the shows it’s producing. Pageants used to be one of the primary spaces for displaying and reinforcing the ideals of beauty and femininity in society, and while the pageants still have this reputation—reality television has become a new media outlet for disseminating cultural ideologies, including messages about the ideals of beauty and femininity in society. Thus, giving reality television and more specifically, TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras a whole new significance in the power they hold with reinforcing society’s stigmas towards beauty and gender, especially with such a young, impressionable age group. (Connolly 26).
Toddlers and Tiaras has faced much scrutiny surrounding the sexualization of young girls, making it a lightning rod for criticism from many angry viewers and concerned parents. The sexualization aspect is called to attention with many of the outfits the parents choose to dress the girls in for the various portions of the competition. These costumes are often times so sexual, they resemble that of adult role play—pair that with full makeup and you have two to four year old girls being represented as sexual objects on a stage (CNN News). This kind of sexualization and exploitation in child beauty pageants is becoming such a big issue in society that the atmosphere of the pageantry world and the costumes the girls often have to wear are now becoming prevalent issues in some custody cases. One mom in particular, Lindsay Jackson, mom to Toddlers and Tiaras star Madisyn Verst, fears that the custody she now has of her daughter is in jeopardy of getting turned over to the hands of her child’s father, Bill Verst—who is allegedly using Madisyns’ participation in pageants against Madisyn’s mother in their custody battle. Meaghan Murphy, a journalist for Fox News, obtained private documents from the psychologist brought into the case by the judge that said, “Children adorned with pageantry identities are not ‘playing’ or ‘pretending.' Instead, they are trained to closely resemble their adult counterparts. Their makeup transforms five or six year old faces to that of women in their twenties or thirties and is not something for playtime” (Fox News).
Many pageant parents try to argue that every little girl loves to play dress up and there is no harm in that. They don’t realize there is a difference between playing dress up at home in your mom’s high heels and big princess dresses that completely cover you and dressing up in costumes such as sexy police officers and outfits that resemble those that are seen in popular movies, such as the prostitute Julia Roberts played in “Pretty Woman” (I’m sorry, but there’s a fine line between playing dress up as a princess and dressing your child as a prostitute). According to Murphy, this raised a red flag and concern from Mark Sichel, a New-York based psychologist who released the following statement in regards to the Jackson’s custody case, “The sexy police officer costume) is reflective of adult sexuality and what some people might consider deviance, a lot of adult men, as a part of their sexual repertoire, will want their partners to dress up in specific ways” (Fox News). It is clear for one to see that what many believe to be harmless fun, dressing up and performing is actually quite exploitative and far from age appropriate (Apparently the days of dressing up in your mama’s pearls and high heels that didn’t fit you are outdated, and now dressing like you’re a twenty-something engaging in sexual role play is now in? Cute). It’s important to know that the toddler, Paisley who dressed as the hooker from “Pretty Woman” won that pageant, which seems like wearing a cut-out dress complete with over the knee boots is becoming the norm and standard for the bar set of what it takes to win the talent portion of the pageants. Charlotte Triggs, a Journalist for People Magazine, notes that other controversial outfits have included a Dolly Parton lookalike, complete with fake boobs and lots of padding to make her butt appear larger (People Magazine) (Maybe I can ask Paisley’s mama where she got the hooker boots for Paisley’s outfits? I’m sure it was probably the Children’s Place or something. Right?).
The sexualization of the toddlers on Toddlers and Tiaras isn’t the only problem taking center stage with talk surrounding the controversy of the show. The show is also facing much criticism for the way in which they reinforce society’s ideas of hegemonic gendering and distribute messages accordingly about girlhood and the idea of girl identity. This kind of hegemonic gendering is displayed in the drastic beauty measures the girls must go through in order to prepare to look their best on the day of their pageant. Charlotte Triggs obtained a comment from Mark Sichel about the extreme measures these young girls go through, “Little girls are supposed to play with dolls, not be dolls—using padding, fake hair, flippers (faux teeth) and spray tans –causes the children tremendous confusion, wondering why they are not okay without those things” (People Magazine). Most two to four year olds shouldn’t be worried about makeup, how tan they look, or having perfect teeth. They should be able to enjoy the age they’re at and be able to actively act and look the age that they are.
In one of the episodes that aired back in 2011, a mother took her daughter to a salon to get her eyebrows waxed. The little girl was absolutely terrified and did not want to get her eyebrows waxed at all. However, it became quite clear that the daughter didn’t have a choice—her mother had made it for her, and it was to get her eyebrows waxed (“Business Insider”)(I’m sorry, but honestly eye-brow waxing at such a young age? Shame on the mother and shame on the salon for going through with it, even when the little girl was hysterical during the process). Connolly shows the importance of these beauty measures when she says, “appearance is articulated as the most important component in establishing an appropriate female identity. From an early age, girls are socialized to believe that in order to be feminine they must abide by certain beauty norms that pertain to how they look and how they dress” (Connolly 35). When girls are socialized to believe these ideals about beauty and its connection to feminine identity, they all come together seamlessly to establish a larger ideology about the ideal womanhood. These ideals are a part of the larger beauty culture and societal stigma we have towards what makes a woman beautiful. It is because of these ideologies that hegemonic notions of femininity are able to remain in existence, saturating the culture and society we live in (Connolly 35).
In conclusion, shows like TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras may appear to provide viewers with an exciting look into the controversial world of child beauty pageants—but in reality, these shows are far from innocent with their sexualization of children and the emphasis they place on beauty and appearance in regards to hegemonic identity. Pageants have long served as a place in society to promote cultural ideals in regards to beauty and femininity, and now reality television has become a medium to do the same, which can be seen starting at a young age on Toddlers and Tiaras. The sexualization has gone too far with many of the costumes for the vast portions of the pageants representing that of adult role-play and the beauty measures taken to achieve society’s stigma of what’s beautiful. TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras serves as a center stage on television to reinforce America’s beauty ideals, all while functioning ideologically to uphold notions of idealized and hegemonic girlhood and girl identity.
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