- Age Drag
In 2009, TLC debuted an instant—and instantly controversial—hit when it aired the reality television show Toddlers & Tiaras. The show, which has aired six seasons, totaling over one hundred episodes, features children across the country competing in local, regional, and national beauty pageants. An episode typically follows the child and her family (and perhaps a pageant coach or two) and depicts pageants and the preparation they entail. Preparation includes practicing routines, purchasing expensive custom-made dresses, and making sure the appropriate—and costly—“beauty work” (Kwan and Trautner 2009, 50) has been done in the time leading up to pageant day. Toddlers & Tiaras features mainly “high glitz” pageants, which are a “sub-genre of child beauty pageant[s] characterized by extravagant costumes, hairstyles, and makeup” (Anderson 2009, 14), as well as spray tans, flippers (false teeth), and for some even hair removal. While competition schedules vary, a typical pageant has at least two parts: a beauty routine, where competitors walk across the stage and strike particular poses in their high-glitz look, and a talent routine, which is prepared in advance and is often meant to tie in with the pageant’s theme. Families featured in the show candidly admit that participating in just one glitz pageant can cost several thousand dollars.
Critics claim that Toddlers & Tiaras participates in a larger cultural project to sexualize girls at a young age. In 2011, Melissa Henson, a director at the Parents Television Council, an organization that monitors media content in order to “promote and restore responsibility and decency to the entertainment industry” (Parents Television Council 2013), penned a scathing critique of the show for CNN. She asserts that no matter what one [End Page 115] thinks about beauty pageants as they are portrayed on the show, “everyone should agree that sexualizing a 3-year-old little girl is wrong”; the “greedy entertainment industry” is just interested in making a buck off “sexed up toddlers” (Henson 2011). Her critique relies on what she contends is the normative interpretation of the children in these pageants—“everyone” should read a child beauty pageant participant as sexual, and “everyone should agree” on what that means. Implicit in her critique is that “sexualizing a 3-year-old little girl is wrong because a 3-year-old little girl is not sexual.” Absent from her critique is naming who exactly is doing this alleged sexualizing—is it viewers, parents, or some unnamed other? Are all pageant viewers complicit in sexualizing these girls, are participants’ parents responsible, or is there an agreed understanding that someone, somewhere (else) will sexualize these girls? Is viewing itself sexualization, and if not, what exactly constitutes sexualizing?
The American Psychological Association (APA) shares a similar ambiguous view. In 2004, they assembled a Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls; in their 2007 report on the task force’s findings, they state, “Parents can also contribute to the sexualization of their daughters in very direct and concrete ways—for example, by entering their 5-year-old daughter in a beauty pageant” (2007, 15). They acknowledge that while “relatively few girls actually participate in such pageants” (15), the recent proliferation of media coverage on child beauty pageants is making “the participation of a few … contribute to the sexualization of many” (15). Fascinatingly, this so-called Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls has little to no data on girls to back up its claims; in the report’s introduction, the authors write that “much of the research reviewed in this report concerns the sexualization of women (college age and older) rather than girls” (3) because of lack of empirical research on childhood sexuality. They quickly argue that since girls grow into college-aged women, these findings are reliable and generalizable. That their report makes claims about the sexualization of girlhood without actually studying sexuality as it is experienced, perceived, and interpreted by girls reveals that institutions invested with authority are susceptible to—or perhaps even reliant upon—passing off cultural narratives as reality. In both Henson and the APA’s reading, the child’s voice is notably silent—or silenced. Furthermore, both critiques hinge on an assumption that participation in...