“I’m Burping Up My Chicken Biscuits”:
Gender and Class in TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras
Beauty pageants—both child and adult—have long held Western societal interest and fascination. The concept of beauty pageantry has an extensive history which pre-dates television. Showman P.T. Barnum was the first to recognize “beauty as a spectacle,” and as an addendum to his sideshow curiosities, Barnum hosted many beauty contests, some of them involving babies (Cohen et. al 3). The year 1921, however, was when beauty pageants began to amass the greatest following, when the owner of the Atlantic City Hotel proposed beauty pageants as a means to boost tourism and revenue (Riverol 22). Since that time, beauty pageants have continued to collect a large and impressive cultural following. Specifically, the child beauty pageant remains quite a lucrative business, annually amassing $20 million dollars worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of contestants participating. A great deal of fascination in child beauty pageants was also morbidly revived by the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year old child beauty contestant who was murdered in Boulder, Colorado (Thomas and Davis 92). In recent years, with the introduction of them in reality television, there has been a great resuscitation of the public’s fascination with the child beauty pageant.
Reality television’s documentation of these pageants grants their viewers the opportunity to experience their controversial world from an entirely new, unscripted perspective. TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras (2008-2013) capitalizes on the fascination with the child beauty pageant and their contestants, namely the high-stakes environments associated with competing in them. Much of the interest in these programs stems from the pressures within the world of child beauty pageants, including all that must be done in order to even compete within them, much less win. Many of the child contestants in Toddlers and Tiaras are placed in situations where their emotional, financial and physical limits are tested—purely for the sake of their audience’s entertainment. Invariably, the child contestants in Toddlers and Tiaras are forced to perform rituals of hyper-femininity, act out sexualized roles, and perform various other competitive and consumptive behaviors to vie for the judges’ attentions. The end goal of the child beauty pageants is to “win”—not merely a title or prestige, but often a large financial sum. Toddlers and Tiaras and its televised successors provoke a curiosity about this subculture and the lengths child beauty pageant participants are willing to go to “win” these pageants.
Ultimately, child beauty pageants and their competitive environments place children in situations where cutthroat competition over physical appearances, capitalist consumption, sexual objectification and exploitation of poor contestants is not only valued, but encouraged. The medium of reality television itself—its recording of deeply intimate and outrageous moments for the sake of entertainment—works in conjunction with the ideals of child beauty pageants to produce a certain type of voyeurism. While Toddlers and Tiaras often implies that the adult parents—namely the mothers—in these pageants are reprehensible people, there is nothing done to stop their behaviors. Likewise, there is nothing done to protect the non-consenting children contestants from the values encouraged within this subculture. Instead, Toddlers and Tiaras abandons any moral intervention, instead focusing purely on the entertainment of its audience. In doing so, Toddlers and Tiaras and its reality television format eagerly displays the commodification of children and the exploitation of the lower class.
The History of Beauty Pageants
Beauty pageants are defined by Sarah Banet-Weisner in her book The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity: “Female contestants enter a competitive event, where they are judged based on beauty, personality, talent, and the ever so elusive ‘poise.’ A panel of judges evaluates each contestant, and the woman who garners the most points in the various events of the pageant—often including swimsuit, evening gown, talent, and the interview competitions—wins and is crowned ‘queen’” (31). Beauty pageants have a long history and enmeshment within American culture. In his book Live From Atlantic City: The History of the Miss America Pageant Before, After and in Spite of Television, Armando Riveral writes of the beauty pageant’s 1921 conception, when Conrad Eckholm, the “proprietor of the Monticello Hotel in Atlantic City” was credited with inventing them as a means to boost tourism and revenue for the Monticello Hotel (12). The Atlantic City pageants continued to operate from 1922 to 1927, and “with each progressive year, the pageants increased in number of activities” and by 1922, the overall revenue inspired “had risen from the 1921 cost of $27,000 to $50,000” (12) which speaks to the financial popularity of beauty pageants. Due to the high costs associated with pageantry—the money that goes into all the makeup, hair and accessories and their entry fees—pageants are not merely a passive form of entertainment. They are also a form of business and consumerism.
Since their creation, beauty pageants have only continued to amass great popularity, and in 1961, the child equivalent of the adult beauty pageant was created. In her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, Hilary Leven Friedman writes of how the oldest child beauty pageant within the United States began in 1961 and was modeled upon the adult Miss American Pageant, with much emphasis placed upon physical appearances and “poise” (31). Since their conception in 1961, child beauty pageants around the country began “mushrooming at an unbelievably fast rate” (31). According to Henry A. Giroux in his article, “Stealing Innocence: The Politics of Child Beauty Pageants,” there are 3,000 American pageants with over 100,000 children—all under the age of 12—competing in them annually (271). Child beauty pageants also generate profit for many other industries, “including costume designers, grooming consultants, interview coaches, photographers, and publishers, not to mention the cosmetics, weight-reduction, and other beauty aid industries” (271-72). The parents of the contestants often spend between an average of $800 to have their children compete within these pageants (271). This demonstrates that the average cost of competing within a pageant is relatively high, making child beauty pageants a recreation which often belongs to the middle and upper class of American society.
Reality Television, Beauty Pageants and Inauthenticity
In recent years, the popularity of the child beauty pageant has skyrocketed due to the large amount of reality television programs which center on the documentation of various pageants around the country. This includes the recording of the pageants themselves and a focus on their contestants, often the more unusual contestants. All the time, energy and financial costs associated with competing within child beauty pageants are a familiar narrative depicted in Toddlers and Tiaras, the reality television show focusing on child beauty pageants which has garnered the most attention.
“The Learning Channel,” abbreviated TLC, is an American basic cable and satellite network owned by Discovery Communications. Although TLC originally began as an educational channel, by 2001, the channel had begun to focus more primarily on reality series that involved “unusual” lifestyles or families (Brooks and Marsh 778). Since 2001, The Learning Channel has been comprised mostly of reality television shows and series. Although the concept of American beauty pageants has existed for a long time pre-television, Toddlers and Tiaras is the first series in the medium of reality television to showcase the subculture of the child beauty pageant.
Reality television, as a genre, focuses on the portrayal of allegedly real-life, unscripted and unaltered situations. Reality television pretends to present only what is “real,” merely recording the images that are placed in front of its cameras. The focal point of much reality television are the trials of ordinary people and their interpersonal narratives (Jemyn and Holmes 113). Yet reality television’s proclamation that its recorded sequences are “real” is problematic when one understands the actual creative process of reality television. Reality television is often scripted, undergoing long processes of editing, cutting and enhancement. Therefore, much of the criticism of reality television centers on its false portrayal of “real life” situations, questioning the ways in which reality television claims to portray authentic or “normal” human experiences.
In their essay, “Female Police Officers and Reality Television: Analyzing the Presentation of Police Work in Popular Culture,” Todd M. Callais and Melissa Szozda write of the ways in which reality television presents a false narrative and history of events: “Throughout the last 15 years reality television has blurred the lines between entertainment and authenticity by allowing individuals to consume edited packages of non-rehearsed and non-scripted social interaction. The presentation of these ‘real’ situations creates the illusion that people are consuming an authentic human experience” (133). By presenting an inauthentic sequence of events as authentic human experience, reality television unabashedly lies to its consumers. Reality television focuses on heavily-edited personal conflicts, drama and outrageous situations over the education of its audience. It ultimately sacrifices the documentary of actual events for more compelling, interesting and exploitative television—television that will always keep its audience coming back for more.
Reality television’s portrayal of inauthentic experiences works especially well when it is used to document the child beauty pageant, because both reality television and child beauty pageants are false portrayals of real-life. In Toddlers and Tiaras, the false portrayal lies in its encouragement of images related to an unattainable hyper-femininity. Toddlers and Tiaras shows the contestants of child beauty pageants regularly consuming beauty products and their participation in rituals which confer idealized images of feminine beauty. The general subculture of child beauty pageants encourage excessive and consumptive behaviors in the efforts to attain unattainable images of femininity, and the girl who best conforms to these images will take home the title of “winner.” The goal of the child beauty pageant is indoctrination, teaching little girls from early on that success occurs when one conforms to traditional, patriarchal roles of gender. Toddlers and Tiaras explores this theme quite often, but it does not take a moral stance against non-consenting children conforming to the gender roles expected of them. Despite Toddlers and Tiaras presenting many of the pageant contestants’ rituals as unconventional, garish and outrageous, it ultimately does little to reinforce the idea that these behaviors are damaging to impressionable children. In fact, Toddlers and Tiaras is so morally lukewarm, its camera posits that it is merely a passive observer of these sequences. Yet it is not. The real problem of Toddlers and Tiaras is that is broadcasts these exaggerated images as entertainment, and the presentation of these sequences is where Toddlers and Tiaras is the most reprehensible. Toddlers and Tiaras does not defend pageants—it explicitly mocks the subculture—but by treating the contestants and their behaviors as entertainment, denying any moral opposition to these behaviors, it implicitly encourages them. And by doing these things, Toddlers and Tiaras becomes rife with exploitation.
Toddlers and Tiaras and Gender Conformity
Toddlers and Tiaras focuses on the lengths the contestants of these various pageants are willing to go in order to participate and, ideally, win—taking the title and prestige of winner, material possessions such as a fake crown, and a significant financial sum. Many of the contestants in the show are forced to undergo various time-consuming beauty rituals, including the significant alteration of their natural physical appearance. In her essay, “The Lolita Spectacle & The Aberrant Mother: Exploring the Production and Performance of Manufactured Femininity in Toddlers and Tiaras,” Leandra H. Hernandez details some of the grueling beautification processes the contestants must undergo: “The pageant queens regularly resist participation in the pageants and are forced to endure hours upon hours of training to perfect their smiles, stage walks, and their talent to ensure that they will be the most beautiful, feminine girl at the pageant” (163). Each episode of Toddlers and Tiaras devotes a significant portion of time detailing the contestants undergoing various cosmetic procedures in order to change their physical appearances and perfect their performances. In most episodes, the contestants are shown donning a great amount of makeup, or, in the case of the season one, episode two, “Miss Georgia Spirit,” fake eyelashes, nails, huge wigs and spray tans—all incurring large monetary expenses. In every episode, the amount of work put into the looks of each pageant contestant is contrasted by their “before” look—showing the girls without any makeup—and then their appearance “after,” where the alterations are most noticeable … and the most shocking. It is evident that Toddlers and Tiaras is trying to show how far the contestants are willing to go for beauty, and to make a mockery of these unnatural performances.
These sorts of beautifying rituals encouraged within each pageant and detailed through every episode of Toddlers and Tiaras are those of an exaggerated femininity, one which greatly relies upon consumptive behaviors to maintain. As Hernandez notes, the performances, rituals and dances undergone by every girl in the show are “an identity performance that the young beauty pageant contestants must constantly practice, perfect, maintain and regulate” (163). In many instances in Toddlers and Tiaras, the children contestants dance in sexually provocative and suggestive ways. For example, in the Season 5 episode, “Out Of This World,” one child contestant, Jaela, is instructed by her mother to just “make things up” before she goes on stage: “If you forget something—it’s okay, just don’t have that ‘I messed up’ look on your face” (“Out of This World”). Jaela is then shown made-up and dressed suggestively in a sailor suit comprised of a tiny skirt and bra. Her mother notes her daughter’s discomfort before the performance, with the little girl hiding behind the stage curtain with wobbly knees: “I can see her over there doin’ somethin’… like wiggling… She does not look happy” (“Out of This World”). Despite her palpable anxiety, Jaela then puts on an exaggerated performance in which she dances and shimmies, and then, in a moment of terror, runs from the stage. It is obvious that Jaela’s discomfort is produce by the high-stakes environment, where the winners of the pageant are the ones who grab the judges’ attentions by performing the most suggestive and choreographed of dances. There is a lot of pressure put upon these young girls—girls under the age of 12—to be sexy and sexually-alluring in their performances. Hernandez further argues that those in favor of these beauty pageants often encourage the performances as the construction of a “new definition of femininity,” one which resonates with “contemporary ideologies about the celebration of the body” and the “extreme attention to personal appearance” and “transformation” (164). This sort of narcissistic self-obsession with appearance is ultimately exploitive and damaging, especially to the child contestants, as it reinforces the idea that a woman is only valuable within our culture if she is feminine and physically attractive. Pageants encourage little girls from an early age that they must submit to a lifetime of consumption—especially the consuming of material goods—for the sake of their physical appearance and the performance of femininity, both deemed the most valuable traits and gifts in life. As Toddlers and Tiaras puts these exploitative performances of femininity out for all to see—and consume—by watching reality television, and then making no overt moral objection to them, the children contestants in the show are ultimately consumed and exploited as well.
Not every child contestant in Toddlers and Tiaras seems particularly enthusiastic having to undergo these rituals, however. This brings up moral concerns over consent. Many of the children contestants in the show are only there because their parents enrolled them in the pageant, and some—literally—have to be dragged to participate in the pageants, as seen in the episode, “Glitter Girls Bollywood,” where a girl barely past toddler-age is shown screaming “No! No!” before being taken to compete (“Glitter Girls Bollywood”). Questions over consent are problematic issues within child pageants, considering the sexually suggestive environments and objectification frequently seen in the pageant atmosphere. Others—often older contestants—appear bored or restless during the beautification processes. As one mother says in the season two episode, “Queens and Kings of America”: “Getting Tootie ready for a pageant… sometimes, can be a hassle, depending on what mood she’s in. Sometimes she can be … sassy.” The camera then cuts to the extravagant process that Tootie undergoes before the competition, including the application of fake nails and a heavy-looking wig. Tootie’s expression is particularly bored and is followed by her mother’s casual proclamation, “We came here a little bit late, and then I had to tan some girls before super model” (“Queens and Kings of America”). In another episode, the season three episode, “Mardi Gras,” a pageant contestant, Brenna, is shown having makeup applied to her by her mother as she struggles to keep herself awake. Brenna then details some of the great anxiety she feels thinking about having to compete in the pageants, crying and saying, “I’m having the worst time of my life … because I can’t sleep!” (“Mardi Gras”). The camera then cuts to Brenna experiencing an anxiety attack, running from the cameras and screaming, “Get away from me!” as the pressure associated with performance draws closer. Brenna’s mother then explains Brenna’s anxiety away by saying, “She’s gettin’ a little tired, a little frustrated … she’s got a little stimulation going on, and that’s understandable, she needs time to breathe … She has to have herself mentally prepared to go on stage” (“Mardi Gras”). This again demonstrates that Toddlers and Tiaras enjoys gleefully displaying these harmful practices—but again takes no moral stance and makes no moral objection. This demonstrated harm is all for entertainment’s sake.
Other girls who appear to resist the pressures of performing are detailed in Kristen Pike’s essay “Freaky Five-Year-Olds and Mental Mommies”: “Toddlers and Tiaras regularly highlights disruptive moments. Especially pleasurable to watch are the rambunctious contestants and offbeat parents who flout convention by rejecting pageant norms” (343). Pike argues that every instance of rebellion throughout the series are ultimately negated by each episode’s “broader narrative framework, which highlights the benefits of conformity. Indeed, at the end of every episode, the contestant who best performs traditional gender roles walks away with the coolest crown, tallest trophy, and biggest stash of cash” (343). Every resistance throughout Toddlers and Tiaras—rebellion by the girls against the various pressures of the pageants—are eventually forced to give in to the pageant’s demands and rituals, often by their mothers, and resume the role of “proper feminine behavior” (348). This is seen in the case of Brenna and her mother in the “Mardi Gras” episode. In the “Glitter Girls Bollywood” episode, another girl in the show, Ma’Leeh, frequently makes disruptions, and, when settled down by her parents, assures them that she knows how to win the pageant by belly-dancing suggestively: “I know what I have to do” (“Glitter Girls Bollywood”).
The portrayal of mothers throughout Toddlers and Tiaras is another issue of gender conformity in the show. Many of the mothers in Toddlers and Tiaras are portrayed as outrageous or unruly, the purveyors of their daughter’s performances, and often implicitly demonized for such behaviors. As Pike notes, there is “no shortage of unruly moms on Toddlers and Tiaras” and “their antics seem to escalate within each new season—a clue, no doubt, to the carefully constructed nature of the program’s winning formula” (348). Leandra Hernandez further notes in her article “The Lolita Spectacle” that most of the mothers in the show are often there, encouraging their daughters to submit to various damaging post-feminist ideals, such as the “extreme attention to physical appearance” (164). Often, Hernandez writes, the mothers in the show are the ones who most encourage their daughters to embrace these “postfeminist identity performance(s),” ones that are “almost always forced upon the young girls by their mothers who, in the process, relive their pageantry days of the past and seek national fame for their daughters’ successful performances” (164). The portrayal of mothers as being so callous as to objectify their unwilling daughters—some as young as eight-months old—in efforts to re-live their youth is a way in which Toddlers and Tiaras both seeks to tantalize and outrage its audience, and exploit its featured contestants. Ultimately, as Pike notes, the unruliness of these mothers is interesting to watch because these pageant moms “push the limits of acceptable feminine behavior” (343). The women who step outside of the realm of behavior that is considered “proper” in Toddlers and Tiaras are ultimately demonized, portrayed unsympathetically, and exploited.
In contrast to these slave-driving mothers, many of the fathers on the show are portrayed as bright and even saintly, offering a view of “patriarchal authority” being “legitimated” (343). Take, for example, the “Mardi Gras” episode with Brenna and the ways in which her parents are portrayed. Brenna’s mother is shown cruelly explaining away her daughter’s anxiety and panic on simple terms, yelling “She has to prepare for the stage!” She is just one of the many moms frequently vilified throughout the series. In contrast, “Mardi Gras” also documents Brenna’s father warmly consoling her and helping her return to a state of composure, the “proper feminine behavior” (343) that is so frequently idealized within the child beauty pageant. The message behind this sequence is that it takes a man—either a father figure or someone with patriarchal authority—to console the hysterics of women and return them to their “proper states,” often states that are submissive or quiet. There are many examples of this throughout the show, as highlighted by Pike. Take, for example, the frequent juxtaposing of the “unflattering image of pageant mom(s)” with images of their “calmer, quieter and more reasonable husbands” (343). In one episode, the Season 2 episode “Universal Royalty Pageant,” a father is shown in a talking head looking sad-eyed and calmly explaining that he worries over his daughters competing in the pageant, subtly criticizing both his wife and daughters for their participation. It speaks to the nature of these pageants and the greater messages behind Toddlers and Tiaras that women are often criticized for behaviors that are both disruptive and unconventional. The portrayal of the fathers as calm and rational and the mothers as hysterical is another way in which Toddlers and Tiaras seeks to re-instill traditional notions of gender.
Class Warfare in Toddlers and Tiaras
A repeated issue observed throughout Toddlers and Tiaras is the treatment of the competitors who come from the lower class. Child beauty pageants are a recreation that is available to those who can expend the time, money and energy required to compete within them. While some of the contestants on the show seem to come from middle-class or even lower-class walks of life, the implication is that those who can afford the greater expenses—more money spent on better clothes and makeup, for example—are the ones who will win. Many of the performances in the show include glitz and displays of wealth. Take, for example, the scene from the season six episode “If I Were A Rich Girl,” in which one child contestant’s homemade dress conveniently pulls away during her performance to reveal that she is harboring a bedazzled credit card. The women and children who compete within these child pageants do so in efforts to win a “prize” at the end. Most of their incentive for competing in these pageants lies in the promise of receiving a monetary reward.
The pageants in Toddlers and Tiaras—all that must be purchased in order to compete within them—are far from easily affordable. As one competitive mom points out in “Glitter Girls Bollywood”: “Most parents for glitz pageants probably spend $3,000 to $4,000 or more,” but marvels at her thriftiness for only spending “$300” on the accessories for her daughter. The mother of this girl is also portrayed by the cameras as uncouth by burping and saying, “I’m burping up my chicken biscuits,” and happily proclaiming her daughter a “glitzy hillbilly” by the end of the episode, with the implication being that “hillbilly” connects to those who come from a lower strata. Throughout the episode, and in the mother’s own words, it is implied that they both belong to the lower class, and are ultimately satisfied at being able to outsmart the wealthier contestants by only spending $300 total on the accessories and still winning. $300, however, is still $300. The financial ability to compete in pageants—including all the costs of travel, makeup/clothing/accessories—is easily available to an upper-class subset within our society. The type of class that is able to compete in these pageants, the people who Toddlers and Tiaras displays, are often stay-at-home moms with disposable income. In addition to disposable income, they have the time to invest in these pageants when many other mothers do not. Therefore, pageants are often a form of peacocking, or expressing one’s social status within our society, with the mothers subtly displaying their wealth and ability through their daughter’s physical appearances, costumes and dance routines.
While pageants are often the sport of the elite class, that does not bar those from the lower class from competing within them, and being mocked for their poorness through the medium of reality television. Perhaps the greatest example of the exploitation of the lower class in these shows comes from Toddlers and Tiaras’ portrayal of the Thompsons, the subjects of Toddlers and Tiaras’ eventual spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (2012-2014). Honey Boo Boo and the Toddlers and Tiaras’ season five episode, “Precious Moments Pageant” follow the antics of six year-old Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and her family, comprised of “Mama June” Shannon, Alana’s father Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson and Alana’s three sisters—Lauryn “Pumpkin” Shannon, Jessica “Chubbs” Shannon and Anna “Chickadee” Shannon. The family lived in the southern town of McIntyre, Georgia, where “Mama June” was portrayed as unemployed, and “Sugar Bear” worked as a chalk miner.
During the “Precious Moments Pageant” episode, the family is introduced and portrayed as disgustingly uncouth. The first scene, for example, shows them throwing toilet paper at one another and screaming. June proclaims herself “the coupon queen,” implying that she is thrifty. Alana proclaims at one point in the episode: “I want to win big … because I want to win MONEY! … A dollar make me holler!” (“Precious Moments Pageant”). Much of the content of Honey Boo Boo would eventually go on to exploit these people and make their lifestyle a mockery, capitalizing on their poverty through unnecessary subtitling of their Southern accents to the documentation of their eating habits to the portrayal of the Thompsons frolicking in the mud—proclaiming it the “Redneck Olympics”—in a season one episode. At one point in the series’ run, there was even a “Scratch N’ Sniff” promotion, which allowed viewers to “release scents correlating with specific scenes” (Bricklin). The portrayal of the Thompsons and the mockery of their poverty and lifestyle on Toddlers and Tiaras is another way in which the show is morally removed and exploitative.
Pageants encourage a certain kind of cutthroat avarice with their promise of a monetary reward. Much of the allure of Toddlers and Tiaras, a common theme that permeates the narrative, comes from the portrayal of the lengths the moms are willing to undergo themselves—or put their children through—in efforts to attain that money. Take Brenna’s proclamation in the episode “Around the World Pageant”: “I definitely hope I’m gonna win. ‘Cuz I work real hard girl. Like real hard” (“Around the World Pageant”). While these lengths are often amusedly showcased in Toddlers and Tiaras for entertainment’s sake, the implicit takeaway is that this nasty transformation of the mothers is a microcosm of our society’s capitalist obsession with money, or “winning.” At this point, pageants encourage the greed of their contestants, not the talent they frequently proclaim they do.
TLC and reality television and child beauty pageants were made to exploit the poor. The Thompsons and other lower-class families who compete within child beauty pageants do so in the hopes of winning, but it is a difficult gambling decision, as the money is eventually wasted if the family does not take home a prize great enough to compensate for all the money put into the contestant’s appearance and performance.
From the messages of gender conformity which are reinforced by the child beauty pageant, and all of the money, effort and time put into them, child beauty pageants ultimately exploit everyone—both the winners and the losers. There is no true “winning” here. Toddlers and Tiaras is ultimately exploitative as well. The entire nature of reality television is exploitive, because it tells us that it is merely recording these events—unabashedly lying to its consumer. Toddlers and Tiaras passive presentation of the child beauty pageant is reprehensible as it treats these damaging practices as fun entertainment—something to be made a mockery of—and takes no moral stance against them.
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