I don’t know why, exactly, I watch TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, but I cannot look away. There is a part of me that wants to boycott the show, to make sure that beauty pageants get not a cent more of my money or a second more of my time; there is also a part of me that acknowledges that these little girls (and occasionally, boys) are our future, and feels responsible for them. There are moments on Toddlers & Tiaras that make me certain I will never procreate. But sometimes, when a five-year-old girl gazes sadly at her newly made-up reflection, or screams as a curling iron brushes her skin, I can’t help but think, “I know, girlfriend.” Though I was never a pageant girl, I grew out of my childhood temper and into womanhood with my fair share of meltdowns and poor wardrobe choices, and consider myself blessed to not have any of it documented by television cameras. Last night’s episode in particular sums up my complicated feelings about Toddlers & Tiaras: when a child dons fake boobs and a padded butt to portray Dolly Parton, is it awful or…kind of hilarious?
Four year-old Maddy is following in her mother’s pageant footsteps, wearing the very same costume that mom Lindsay wore years ago when she did a Dolly Parton routine. While many of the routines shown on Toddlers & Tiaras feature “mature” (that is to say, inappropriately sexy) dance moves or costumes, Maddy’s act showed off a figure way, way beyond her years. Maddy’s tribute to Dolly Parton included a blond wig, of course, as well as a tight pink jumpsuit stuffed with a padded bra and what could best be described as a baby Booty Pop.
Maddy didn’t win the pageant, but she did go home with the “Best Fashion” award, leaving me to wonder if her preternatural ability to fill out a costume had anything to do with it. I’m an ardent Dolly Parton fan, and I wanted to find the whole thing hysterical and wonderful and tell everyone to calm down, but it just didn’t sit right with me (and obviously, judging by the amount of press this episode has received, I'm not alone). I think it’s because Maddy didn’t seem aware of the humor. Four-year-olds don’t exactly understand satire, and all Maddy seemed concerned about was if the judges though she was pretty. Also--and with this sentence, I may doom myself to an eternity of judgment--the fake breasts weren’t…BIG enough to really drive the joke home. In fact, they were just the right size to make me super uncomfortable. And then I wondered, would I be more comfortable seeing a child with balloons strapped to her chest for the sake of the joke? Is a four-year-old with giant fake boobs ever actually funny? Maddy's mom defended the costume on the Today show:
When I was five years old, my family dressed as Batman characters for Halloween. My mom, serious costume designer that she was, asked me if I wanted boobs put in my Batgirl costume. “Ew!” I replied, my face scrunched up in disgust. “Boobies are gross!” I would go on to change my mind about that, of course. Kids don’t always know whether or not they’re being exploited for reality television ratings, but they do know what they like. At the end of every Toddlers & Tiaras episode, I can’t help but wonder what’s next for these little girls, and I wait for the next episode with a mix of guilt and curiosity.
What do you think about Maddy’s routine? Also, what do you think about the way TLC handles pageants and the way pageant families are portrayed?