Critical Analysis of Toddlers and Tiaras

3 Nov

Are beauty pageants too sexually suggestive for our little girls?

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The latest fad to take over popular culture is reality television. Since the start of the 21st century, reality TV has become more and more popular, leaving narrative driven shows in the dust. This new form of entertainment however, has long term damaging effects on our society. When flipping through various television networks, such as ‘E!’ or ‘MTV’, it is almost inevitable to see a girl in a too small, or too tight dress, paired with a face covered in makeup, trying to strut her stuff for the camera. It’s no secret that sex sells, so television representatives take full advantage of this to push their production, even if it’s at the expense of children. TLC’s, Toddlers and Tiaras (2009) is a prime example of this. This show features 6 year olds parading around in bikinis with spray tans and hair extensions, all for a beauty pageant whose reward is $1000 and a trophy. The idea of putting children on display at such a young age reinforces the vicious cycle of low self-esteem, self-objectification, and conformity into socially constructed beauty norms; both factors perpetuated by the over-sexualization of these young girls.

Reality television is like a parasite. It has sunk its teeth into the fabric of our society and is embedded in so deep, that most viewers don’t even realize they’ve been brainwashed by the messages presented in these shows. One of the first reality TV shows to air on television was MTV’s The Real World in 1992 (Pozner 9). This fairly liberal unscripted television show paved the way for similar reality based shows to rise in popularity. In 2000, FOX network executive Mike Darnell changed reality television forever with the launch of his show Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? (9). This show consisted of beautiful women putting themselves on display for a man whom they have never seen, very similar to a Miss America pageant, as he decides which one is worthy of becoming his bride on national television. This show eventually flopped because the “great catch” turned out to be an abusive psychopath, and the dream marriage was annulled days after the honeymoon (10). Despite this shows dangerous finish, not only objectifying and sexualizing women, but this contestant had a violent past that went undetected, which could have caused a lot of harm to the trophy he married; nonetheless, the viewers loved it! The idea of a budding “fairytale romance” between two strangers captivated American viewers, thus paving the way for the colossal rise in the popularity of reality television (10).

In the first season opener of TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras in 2009, (which was quite horrific to watch, I might add) young girls paraded around like little divas, looking much older than what they are, and I do mean much older, while participating in a beauty pageant. To top it all off, the mothers of these children are participating in the pageant too, competing against their daughters! However absurd this might sound, this is a National pageant in Texas that gets a lot of family and community support. One of the featured mom’s appeared to be more of a “momster,” which is a derogatory name awarded to overly pushy or mean pageant moms (Orenstein 75). This mom, Phyllis, has a competing 9 year old daughter, Meaghan, who has won practically every beauty pageant in Texas. She admits to, “taking pageants very serious” and claims to be, “a very competitive mom.” Through her persistence, she has encouraged her daughter to compete and win at all costs. Phyllis goes on to say, “You know, there’s got to be a winner, and there’s got to be a loser. I wouldn’t put her in it, if I wasn’t in it, to win it! I am definitely in it to win.” This type of mentality is not healthy to teach a child. These ideas teach Meaghan and other children like her that a person can never lose, encouraging a sore loser attitude, promoting selfishness and instilling the fear that you have to be perfect in order to succeed. This mindset can cause long term damage to a child, because if that child feels inadequate in any aspect of their impressionable childhood, this child could grow up to have low self-esteem and develop an unnecessary fear of failure. Instead of uplifting her child, no matter what, Phyllis constantly shames and antagonizes Meaghan’s every blunder. This superiority complex Meaghan is being taught to mimic, is going to negatively affect her once she gets older; and it will affect her self-esteem, especially if she feels she cannot keep up with the impossible standards imposed by her mother.

The sexually suggestive nature of the pageant itself, also has damaging effects on young girls. It’s hard enough trying to get away from sexualized images, because the media is constantly bombarding us with the messages they want to promote. So why is it considered acceptable for a child’s own parents to throw it in their faces too, as they do in these beauty pageants. It is a known fact that sex sales, but it’s the parents’ choice whether or not they want their child immersed in it. The parents on Toddlers and Tiaras see nothing wrong with allowing their 2 year old to vivaciously parade around in a swim suit for the judges. How can viewers look at this and not see something wrong? The pageant director later says in defense of the swim suit competition, “I’m a bit old school. So I like the swimsuits to be one piece. I don’t want the kids to be so sexy, especially with the little kids.” And yet these children are awarded cash and prizes for sashaying around like mini burlesque dancers, blowing kisses at the judges and audience. I suppose the meaning of the term “sexy” for a 2 year old is not a universal norm. The concept of pageantry is a big contradiction in itself, in teaching young girls to sexualize themselves for money, but since it’s potentially for their college education, it’s acceptable. Pageant moms justify this behavior by claiming that it builds up their self-esteem, gives them social skills, and teaches them interview etiquette for jobs they will be getting much later on in their lives, this has yet to be proven by experts (Orenstein 79). Psychologists claim that the participation in these sexualized pageants is linked with the later development of, “eating disorders, depression, low self-esteem, (and) impaired academic performance” in former pageant participants (76). The sexualized canon instituted in these pageants does nothing but promote hyper sexuality, which has become a “must have” in reality television (Pozner 62).

Reality television aids in the development of the beauty norm for women. The sexualization of our culture has had major effects on today’s society, including the increase of pornography and prostitution, and more recently, America’s vice, reality television (Freedman 259). The commercialization of women’s sexuality has forced its way into our lives and is now seen as a form of “identity” for young people, therefore codifying the female body and promoting negative body images for young girls (274). This false idea, or beauty myth promotes the idea that life is one big beauty contest (Pozner 61-2). In order to fit into this norm and be considered beautiful, a woman must be, “young; white, western; skinny, often unhealthy so; surgically altered; and hyper-sexualized” (62). Fitting into this very strict mold is nearly impossible for most women! Young girls are growing up watching, and absorbing these false beliefs. Girls are afraid of being called, “the Scarlet F,” which is being called Fat (65). Being “fat” is just unacceptable in the world of reality TV, and therefore in life; or that’s how young girls see it. You have shows like, Americas Next Top Model, which encourage its participants to strive to be a size 00. In contrast, you have news broadcasters who are required to be young and busty in order to tell the news, thus gaining the title, “The Bodacious Babes of Broadcast” (64). All of these false ideas of beauty are ultimately ruining the developing youth culture. Young girls are watching reality television, and although they know the shows are scripted, it is still hard to remove the aspects of reality that are still shown, such as fictitious ideas about race, gender and class that are made normative.

Sexually suggestive media correspondence is now made to appeal to teenagers and young children! They are plastered all over the internet, television and even at your local K-Mart, Walmart and Target. When browsing through the toy isle of your favorite store, it is nearly impossible to see Barbie dolls that aren’t in skimpy club attire; and let’s not forget the excessive make up, waistline the size of Dita Von Teeses’ and the bust line of a playboy model. Now, most princess costumes come equipped with high heels and makeup. The list just gets longer with other toys contributing to the gender stereotypes society throws at women on a daily basis. This new norm not only adds to the high expectation that women are actually supposed to look like Barbie dolls, but the dangers of these unrealistic expectations can lead to mental diseases, including eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and self-image issues (Ata 1). This portrayal puts women in a box, giving them beauty standards they must adhere to, and if they don’t fit in, they are seen as ugly. Due to the over consumption of media outlets now, teenagers are internalizing the images they see splattered across every magazine, television show, etc. These altered images of people are leading teenagers and young adults to hate their bodies. This is dangerous because this self-hate and pressure to be perfect leads to teasing from other kids, eating disorders, depression and a number of other disorders (3). These are largely due to the pressure to live up to the beauty standard proposed by the media, including but not limited to reality television (4).

It is very clear that the effects of the media can be seen directly and indirectly in the lives of children. Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras expose children at an early age to the idea that they need to be “beautiful” in order to get recognized and praised by others. And in order to be recognized as beautiful, children are taught that they must do whatever it takes to win that title. Even if its starvation, tanning, wearing tons of makeup, or even body modification in some cases. This cannot be farther from the truth. The idea of self-objectification has become so normative that young girls are growing up thinking that it’s okay. And it is not. Children must learn to be children longer, living life in the fast lane has no benefits, and unfortunately things like reality TV promote the complete opposite.

 

 

Sources:

Ata, Rheanna. “The Effects of Gender and Family, Friend, and Media Influences on Eating Behaviors and Body Image During Adolescence.” The Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2007): 1024-1037. Print.

Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.

Pozner, Jennifer. Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010. Print.

Toddlers and Tiaras: Universal Royalty National Pageant. Dirs. Dena Salman, Tom Rogan and Suzanne Pate. 2009. DVD.

 

 

 

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