Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pushed to My Limits: Toddlers, Tiaras, and Judgment

I have a pretty firm rule about tolerating other people's decisions. I generally think that we're all just trying to get by the best that we can. While I welcome debate, I don't appreciate people snidely dismissing my carefully made choices, and I want to extend that same courtesy to other people. 

This is doubly true for other parents. The "mommy wars" are ridiculous. Tearing each other down over different parenting practices distracts from larger discussions and blocks overall progress. On top of that, it's just mean. I make decisions based on love, context, and research. I try to give everyone I meet the benefit of the doubt that they do, too. So if you use formula, work from home, work out of the home, baby wear, co-sleep, have two under two, eat sushi while pregnant, use cry-it-out, feed solids at 4 months, breastfeed, use crib bumpers, have an only child, (fill in the blank with whatever people are judging today), then I'm going to assume that decision is the right one for you. If it's not, I'm going to assume that you will seek out information on how to make a choice that fits better in the future. My advocacy is for options and opportunities, not overseeing individual decisions. 

So why, then, did reading this article from SPARK on Toddlers & Tiaras flip all of my judgment switches?

Of course, I'd heard of the show before. I gave it the same eye roll I give most of the shows in that category (Jon and Kate Plus 8, Little People Big World, The Half-Ton Man). They all just seem like modernized versions of circus sideshows, opportunities to gawk at people we perceive as "different" under the guise of entertainment. We get to fulfill our desire for spectacle while ignoring the guilt of exploitation--surely they wouldn't put themselves on stage if they didn't want to be viewed, right?

I hadn't watched the show, so I hadn't really thought too much of it. Then I read on the SPARK article that one woman had dressed her child up in the "hooker" costume from Pretty Woman and then defended that decision by saying:
I thought it was real cute to do Julia. She's 3, if she was ten I never would have considered this. But as young as she is, I thought it was very comical.
So, wait. She admits that sexualization of a little girl (say, a ten-year-old) is wrong, but that when it's with an even younger child (in this case, a toddler), it's "comical." 

The article goes on to talk about the fake tans, hair, teeth, and make-up. I knew these things (and the sexualization they implied) were happening on the show, and I watched and enjoyed the Little Miss Sunshine parody of it all.

Still, my non-judgment philosophy made me shy away from saying that these women (and a few men) were wrong to put their children in these shows. would never make that decision, but it's too easy to stand on a pedestal and tell others that they are raising their children wrong. So I shouldn't do it. Right? 

 Season 2 of Toddlers & Tiaras is on Netflix instant watch. I started watching. 

I made it 6 minutes and 47 seconds into Episode 1. I am literally sick to my stomach. 

The scene I stopped on is of a mother and daughter looking at some pictures from a previous competition as they prepare for an upcoming pageant. Both the mother and daughter are competing in the pageant, meaning that they'll be competing against one another for the grand prize. The mother points to a picture with a face of teasing disgust "Look how bowed your legs are!" The daughter (age 9) points to another picture "Look at your face!" Watching this interaction makes my heart ache. Here are a mother and daughter in a moment that seems to be legitimate bonding. They are friendly and laugh at one another. They spend a lot of time together. But their entire interaction is based on competition, appearance, and tearing one another down. 

In the other six minutes, I watched children disappear behind make-up, wigs, and glittery dresses. Little girls talked about how important a win was and which of their beauty crowns were their favorites. Moms talked about how they would be the "best pageant mom" and how important it was to win. 

I know that this is a small cross-section of the population, and I know that very few people would go through such lengths to enter their children into competitions, but what does the commercial success of this show say about our society? There are several articles teasing out some of the complexities and disturbing elements of the show (like this one from Vivian Diller on coaching children toward competition, or this one  condemning pageant moms for using their toddlers as living Barbie dolls, or this one by Leona Salazar who ends by calling the show "a pedophile's wet dream"). Like me, many of these writers tried to watch an episode in order to better critique the phenomenon and couldn't get through it or vowed to never watch again. 

So, my question is not whether Toddlers & Tiaras is okay--I feel pretty strongly that it's not. On a macro-level, the show adds to the sexualization of girls (some as young as infants), promotes stereotypical standards of beauty that are often racially charged, sends the message that beauty is superior to all other qualities, glorifies competition and egoism to the point that children and mothers are tearing down each other, and generally makes my skin crawl. 

No, my question is, how do we deal with the micro-level decisions of the people in this show? While I am a strong advocate for individual freedoms (especially the freedom of expression), I cannot help but judge these parents. Barring illegal/neglectful actions (like giving a child cocaine), I try to be non-judgmental of other parenting decisions. I normally try to see them through multiple perspectives, but there are not lenses that make this make sense to me. I hate to tell another mother that she's doing it wrong, but in this case, if the cheap, plastic crown and beaded sequin bikini fits . . . 

What do you think? How do you handle judgment when it creeps up? Are there times that it's justified?

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