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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Pageant Tiara

It's Wednesday-- one of my favorite TV nights. But, alas, no new episode of Toddlers & Tiaras tonight.  This post is in honor of the conclusion of the third season of the TLC hit.

Everyone who has been making money off of child beauty pageants, like TLC, owes a huge debt of gratitude to JonBenét Ramsey.  As morbid as it sounds, without her tragic death, it's unlikely the media coverage would have exploded the way it has over the past decade.  I've often said that if JonBenét had been a competitive cheerleader, cheer would have been vilified for many of the same reasons-- its hyper-sexualization and focus on physical appearance/beauty. (Check out this interesting piece on young girls who do competitive cheer that ESPN The Magazine ran last month. A coach is quoted: "For parents who wouldn't want their daughter to do a very unisex sport and miss out on the girliness of other activities, like pageants, this is a good balance.") Ditto for baton twirling, rhythmic gymnastics, and the like.

But JonBenét did do pageants, so when the talented Peggy Orenstein decided to take on today's princess-industrial complex, she naturally turned to the much-maligned activity. In her latest bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein visited a child beauty pageant with Taralyn Eschberger, a two-time star of Toddlers & Tiaras (if you want to follow Taralyn's pageant career, you can via Twitter or Facebook).  While Orenstein only described her attendance at a particular pageant, she presents a more nuanced view of the participants' families and her own reactions than any other account I've read-- consistent with some of my own work and writing on pageants. 

I consider myself a child beauty pageant expert because: 1) I've attended 19 child beauty pageants and formally interviewed over 40 pageant moms; 2) I've seen, and own, almost every child beauty pageant documentary made (one gap in my library is Little Miss Perfect, because I don't get We); and, 3) I grew up around the pageant world, though I never competed (Why? Click here and here for more info).

And, Orenstein gets it mostly right. (One notable exception-- on page 93 she says Taralyn stands with her feet in "third position." Any good child beauty pageant expert knows that is called "pretty feet!" Or, if you kick it old-school pageant style, "model stance." I know she would have picked up the lingo if she'd gone to other pageants!) She not only presents a more complete view of the Eschberger family, making visible her older brother who is developmentally disabled and clearly an important part of the family despite his invisibility in the TLC coverage, but Orenstein also shows how a mom can get "sucked into" this world. She writes that while at the pageant she couldn't help but think that her own daughter, Daisy, could do this. Orenstein also talks about being impressed by some of the contestants' ability to mimic their parents, which is quite developmentally mature given their ages.  Being simultaneously attracted yet repulsed by the magnetic and complex world of child beauty pageants is normal if you spend longer than a few hours critiquing them on television.  It's easy to forget that every contestant's family has a story-- though perhaps not as dramatic as the Eschbergers'-- and many of those familial tales are ignored or edited for effect for media consumption.

For this, and many other reasons (like it's funny, well-written, thoughtful, honest, and informative, using a lot of relevant social science research), you should check out Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  You should also check out TLC's latest take on sometimes-disturbing parenting techniques, and princess culture.  Tune in Mondays at 9:30 for the new series Outrageous Kid Parties (last week's Princess episode was truly over the top). I'm sure the backstories of many of these families are also complicated, but, let's face it, complicated doesn't always sell well on TV. We need writers to present the messier reality of growing up today.

Monday, February 28, 2011

T(w)een Idols

Are your fingers ready? Voting starts for American Idol this week (with a new option to vote via Facebook, in addition to calling in or voting by texting) and the Top 24 seems to be full of talent.

It also happens to be one of the youngest groups yet.  Thanks to John Kubicek's calculations we know that this is a slightly younger Top 24, on average, at 21.25.  The eldest contestants are 26, so there is a decade between the babes and their older competitors.

AI made headlines this summer when it announced they were lowering the age limit and 15-year-olds could audition.  One of those 15-year-olds is Thia Megia, part of the Top 24 (though she has turned 16 since her initial audition).  Lauren Alaina is also 16, and considered an early frontrunner.

American Idol isn't the only reality show on television with increasingly younger contestants who are top competitors.  Former Idol judge Paul Abdul's recent show, Live to Dance-- which rather quickly came and went-- awarded first prize to 10- and 11-year-old ballroom dancers Amanda and D'Angelo (who are amazing and adorable, check them out).  The first runner-up was 11-year-old Kendall Glover.  They beat out an 83-year-old dancer, along with many professional dancers in their 20s and 30s.

And this year the oldest competitive reality show of them all, the Miss America Pageant, crowned a 17-year-old.  While in the early days of the Pageant there were younger winners, since the introduction of age limits in 1938, Teresa Scanlan is the youngest to take the crown. On one of the beauty pageant message boards I read, posters refer to the current Miss America as "the fetus."

Americans have loved precocious performing children since the days of vaudeville. Historian Gary Cross has written about two different types of kids adults love-- the cute and the cool.  Today's performing kids manage to capture both sentiments.

Given the historical record I'm reluctant to say that young performers, and winners, are a new trend.  What I can say is that these recent success stories are linked to children's tendency to specialize at an early age.  Part of the appeal of Amanda and D'Angelo is that it is rare to see ballroom dancers with such fantastic ballroom and dance technique at age ten.  They didn't get to this level by playing soccer and piano afterschool in addition to their dance classes.  Moreover, this isn't Thia Megia's first time on a reality show; at 14 she competed on America's Got Talent.  I'm guessing she didn't spend her time learning tennis or the violin in between appearing on two of the most popular talent competitions-- she's been singing.  Finally, Miss America Teresa Scanlan was homeschooled until she was 16, which allowed her to devote her time to pageant prep (she started competing at age 13) and develop her musical talent on the piano.  Early specialization, which means more hours of instruction and practice earlier in life, allowed all of these t(w)eens to become better younger.

All of these young people are definitely talented and they have worked for their successes.  Hopefully they won't regret all those years of practice for a singular goal when they are 29-- like another t(w)een idol, Britney Spears.  I'm guessing neither Thia nor Lauren will be singing "...Baby One More Time" on Wednesday night's Idol show.  Will you be voting for either of them?

[PS. I've written elsewhere about the labor laws that protect child performers, and how those laws need to be tightened for kids on reality TV shows, which is very relevant here. If you are interested check out my USA Today piece or my Contexts piece.]