I make no excuse in regard to my love for the reality TV show, “Toddlers and Tiaras.” On some level I know I am watching the exploitation of young girls turned into commercial entertainment. The show is an hour long orgy of mothers forcing grotesque standards of beauty on their often pre-school aged daughters in the form of fake teeth and spray tanning. Every episode features countless toddlers wrestling on the floor in piles of taffeta while their mothers’ own aspirations and need for attention are satisfied. I know this is wrong. But I can’t stop watching.
I think I like the show because it’s absurd and the presentation doesn’t lend itself to critical analysis of what it is we’re watching. It’s how I can get away with not thinking about what happens to the little girls who don’t win or the long term prospects of those who do.
I have often joked that the reason I am not famous is that my own mother wasn’t a good enough stage mom. I tried acting as a kid but if on a Saturday morning I decided that I’d rather stay home and watch cartoons than attend an audition, she’d let me do just that. I didn’t want to drive you anyway, she’d say. I joke that her lack of pressure was what separates me from Lindsay Lohan, the joke of course being that in reality my well-adjusted obscurity is enviable in comparison to Lindsay’s out of control celebrity life. On the stage mom front, the mothers of the pageant circuit take the cake. They would have dragged their children to who know where in the pursuit of fame; a few dark alleys come to mind.
The subject of my fascination, however, are not the ladies who daughters are primped, plucked and pimped in service of good television, but the children themselves. Young girls who are being endlessly prepared to flirt with the middle aged female judges, with the occasional odd male judge thrown in, as part of their pageant training. The bikini wearing three year olds freak me out. The kisses being blown and the winking makes me sick, which in turn keeps me glued to the TV. How can this be happening, I think, people are so weird, is this legal? The exacting ideas of what is beautiful is based on who knows what dark thoughts, but my former roommate used to say that he felt uncomfortable watching the show and wouldn’t admit to friends or coworkers that he had. If you weren’t in the room with me, he’d say, it would instantly classify me as creepy.
I’ve also joked that ballet school with its’ punitive discipline and anxiety producing body fixation is the launch pad for a million stripper careers. It takes strength and flexibility to work the pole and the dexterity and grace displayed on so many strip clubs has to be learned somewhere. Maybe that’s where all the girls who get too curvy for ballet go. So many girls study dance and there are so few professional ballerinas. In that vein I believe the pageant world must be another feeder source for the exotic dance community. For girls whose self-esteem and sense of self-worth was attached at such young ages to bodies used for the entertainment, judgment and enjoyment of other, it seems an easy leap. Those girls already have so much practice preening to other’s specifications, and so many beauty skills. By age ten they are already well versed in make up and hair. Why it’s the same curling irons and tan in a can on the counters of pageant queens and strippers alike; the same fixed smiles attached to their faces.
I have been racking my brain as to why they might have gone this route despite its inherent complications. And there are so many… The two worst parts of the movie wouldn’t have been an issue if the girls had just gone to Mexico. Instead they tackle a hotbed of intercultural misunderstanding and tension. I hear that the Middle East is the last holdout of the exotic in the American mind but what a can of worms gets opened… Sometimes it’s hard to watch.
In the first cringe inducing scene, they find themselves at a kareoke show in Abu Dhabi replete with bellydancing girls shimmying to the tunes. The girls themselves notice that the bellydancers are in contrast to the veiled women they see outside. It’s explained away as a patriarchial loophole- okay. SATC commenting on Arab social culture I can follow that (vaguely), but then they procede to take over the stage themselves and sing a rendition of a seventies pro-woman folk song! They warble ” I am woman… hear me roar” which outside of dating them terribly- especially for a younger audience that didn’t know the song themselves- is a weird choice to sing in Abu Dhabi, like why shove it in their faces how liberated you are- its was super strange song choice wise. Still can’t decipher what they were trying to say with that one. They make it past there, wear some rather hideous fashion and then gets stuck again in the same mire of western sexuality/feminism meets foreign culture= disaster.
The second disastrous moment occurs later in the movie when Samantha, in short shorts gets confronted by a male mob in the souk. First off, I don’t believe a woman, as smart as that character is supposed to be, would be dumb enough to make her feminist stand in that situation, with that behavior. She is world traveled, she should have some basic sense of cultural sensitivity and personal safety guidelines. I have traveled in muslim countries and would never have dressed that way- because it’s not safe or respectful to do so. She would know better. It only gets worse when they are rescued by local women and put in burkas to disguise themselves and sneak away. They pop out from their hiding places, one veiled head atop the other in a shot that could be out of a fifties movie in terms of ignorance- look at us wearing these silly outfits- it felt like Scooby Doo or The Three Muskateers do Arabia. It made me feel guilty just to have seen it.Complicit. Any thought that Abu Dhabi had sponsored this went out the window- if anything this movie would encourage terrorism… and I can’t support anything that makes America any less safe. I am a patriot afterall… The small saving graces came with the honesty of them getting unceremoniously kicked out of the country, which really would happen if those kind of ladies tried all that over there. That and the line “Lawrence of my labia”, which is pure genius.