For the past number of years, I have successfully avoided watching reality shows. But now I have a confession to make. I am drawn to "Toddlers and Tiaras" like a gawker to a bad car accident.
The show is about little girls and competitive beauty (and talent?) contests where little children vie for the highest crown or tiara in the contest. This involves a strange sexualization and objectification of little girls who are made up like miniature Dolly Partons. Their mums (and occasionally dads) train them to shake their bums in an obviously indelicate and rude manner at judges and cameras.
This is so perverse that I find myself watching it and wondering what will be the future of these girls when they reach adulthood.
One night when I was watching the show, a mother asked her daughter, "And who does the tiara belong to?" The kid responded, "You!" "And who is going to win it for me?" to which the kid replied, "Me." If there were ever a message that love was conditional and that the necessary condition was beauty (as artifice or contrived through makeup, false hair and strange and provocative clothes), this is it.
Other values observed here: compete with other girls based not upon some skillset or accomplished talent but based solely upon a particular, falsely created notion of beauty. If you think that this is just an exaggerated version of what most little girls are taught as part of normal sex role socialization, as I do, you get some understanding about the challenge that many girls have with personal identity and personal self-esteem as they mature.
Nor are the messages given to boys about girls much better. Shallow, vain, self-absorbed, narcissistic, artificial and generally immobile are the values projected here. The immobility is an artifact of the rest — you can’t maintain the highly stylized physical presentation because it is, at best, precariously maintained.
A child who moves too quickly, runs or jumps will cause havoc with the carefully created but extremely fragile appearance. As Dolly Parton once said of her own appearance, "it takes a lot of money to look this cheap."
The consequence of all of this is a girl-child who is moody, cranky, unhappy and unsatisfied except for the very transitory period in which she is crowned. And, of course, not all of them win crowns. Often, many of these moments are accompanied by tears; tears of joy or tears of disappointment, of humiliation and of failure.
Mothers on the show are frequently heard to say (with seeming pride), "she is such a diva."
Now the term "diva" comes from 19th century Italian opera where operatic "goddesses" had talent that seemingly justified unreasonable and demanding behaviour. So, it is highly problematic first to believe that a three-year-old is talented by virtue of how she is made up. Secondly, it is dangerous to let your child believe that she is exhibiting some positive virtue when she is having a temper tantrum. Finally, it is more likely that the child is reacting normally (i.e. crying or yelling) to an abnormal environment — one in which she is forced to wear false eyelashes and wigs and to bat those eyelashes at strangers for crowns.
So, what’s the big deal here? Little girls like to dress up. Yes, but generally they do not do this on international television with clothes designed specifically for them to wear and be evaluated on. They are usually not told by parents that they are proud of them when they succeed in looking like little seductresses and that they have failed their parents when they "didn’t smile at the judges enough."
In this country, there has been a lot of discussion about what we do to little boys when we encourage them to be too aggressive in team sports and too competitive more generally. These are important matters.
It is also important to think about what we do to little girls when we encourage them to evaluate their worth as human beings solely on the basis of a contrived and artificial sense of being beautiful.
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.