You've seen the four-year-old dressed up as Dolly Parton (complete with "enhancements"), right? And, of course, you've seen the images of the three-year-old dressed up as Julia Roberts' prostitute character from Pretty Woman, haven't you?
Judging by the ratings for TLC's fourth season of Toddlers & Tiaras, it seems you have. Each week over two million people tune in to watch the series. The show, which premiered almost three years ago in January 2009, has always been talked about. But over the past month it has shot into the stratosphere of pop culture. Not since the death of JonBenét Ramsey have child beauty pageants received so much media coverage. This week, for example, the cover of People features five-year-old Madisyn (aka Maddy) Verst -- little "Dolly Parton" dolled up in her cupcake beauty pageant dress -- and asks, "Gone Too Far?"
I've been studying child beauty pageants for over a decade and I do believe that shows like Toddlers & Tiaras have gone too far. Such young pageant contestants should not be featured on television.
As Wednesday night's season finale of Toddlers & Tiaras made clear, pageant moms are acutely aware of the television cameras. One mother harshly whispered into her five-year-old daughter's ear during an at-home practice session: "We are on camera. Don't you dare tell me 'no' one more time. Do you hear me? We are on national TV. Everybody's going to see this. Do you hear me?" After her daughter, Carley, said, "Yeah," her mom immediately pasted a smile on her face and declared in a kinder tone, "Ok. We're doing the Cruella de Vil run through. I want this..." But Carley cut her off declaring, "You are driving me crazy!"
Mommie Dearest-like scenes are decidedly uncomfortable to watch, though that doesn't mean we should go to the extreme of banning child beauty pageants outright. Activists recently tried this approach in Australia after the introduction of "American-style" child beauty pageants in July. But they were unsuccessful and the pageant show went on.
Outlawing child beauty pageants in the United States is also not a serious option. As legal scholars, like Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, and historians, like Holly Brewer, have detailed, American families have long been free to pursue any activities in their own home that they deem suitable for their own children. The state is not likely to interfere with day-to-day parenting decisions, unless the child is placed in an environment that is clearly unsafe and abusive. The bar is set pretty high -- physical abuse, neglect, and abandonment. While some may feel that spray-tanning a child, for example, is a form of abuse, it is not like hitting or binding a child. In general the government takes a hands-off approach to children's activities. Even children's boxing, deemed physically unsafe for thousands of young children by the American Association of Pediatrics earlier this month because of the risk of chronic and acute brain injuries, is legal in the United States.
Instead of pushing for a general ban on child beauty pageants, opponents push for an airwaves ban. The Parents Television Council, for example, released a statement demanding that TLC cancel its hit show: "Such brazen and wanton material should qualify as child exploitation or abuse."
The critics are right. Shows featuring young pageant girls -- especially those who have not yet even started school -- are becoming more and more inappropriate. With competition for limited airtime on reality televisions shows, participants resort to outrageous antics to get on the air (see: Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of Jersey Shore). Whatever you may think of the ridiculous, self-serving behavior of willing adults, it is wrong for parents to use their children to advance themselves.
Images of these children are more permanent than ever thanks to the Internet. Memories live on in concrete form that future classmates will be able to access. We don't have hard data on specific long-term effects of children's appearances on reality television, but it's hard to imagine that there won't be serious consequences when it comes to friendships, romantic relationships, and assessments of self-worth.
Because of outrageous antics staged to augment fifteen minutes of fame, real accomplishments are overshadowed. In the past week a sixteen-year-old girl became the youngest women to win an LPGA tournament, a fifteen-year-old girl was named to the gymnastics team that will represent the United States at the World Championships in Tokyo next month, and another fifteen-year-old girl won a math tournament at MIT. I'd rather see any of these girls, who have worked hard to develop a talent, on the cover of People, or featured in a reality television show.
I'm sure pageant queen Carley spoke for millions of concerned adults during the season finale of Toddlers & Tiaras. Let's hope she and her child pageant friends won't be driven crazy on camera for much longer.
Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a Harvard sociologist and writer who studies American childhood, particularly competitive afterschool activities -- including child beauty pageants.