Mark Shultz’s play, “The Gingerbread House,” operates off the absurd and repulsive assumption that when kids start to become a burden one option is to treat them like a commodity and simply sell them. In this case, Stacy and Brian, a young married couple, want to start their lives over, free of the endless time, money and responsibilities that are part of rearing their two young children. As Brian puts it, “We can start our lives again…. We can have it back. All of it.” In order to act on their quest for personal happiness, they decide to traffic their children for the right price to an Albanian couple, freeing themselves to indulge their private aims, joys, desires and goals. While Shultz is clearly making a critical statement about the selfish, market-driven values that shape our highly individualized and self-seeking commodified age, he has hit upon a repellent conceit that finds everyday expression in the dreadful emergence and popularity of child beauty pageants.
Beauty pageants gain legitimacy within what might be called the myth of innocence in which children are often portrayed as inhabiting a world that is untainted, magical and utterly protected from the harshness of adult life. Innocence in this scenario not only erases the complexities of childhood and the range of experiences different children encounter, but it also offers an excuse for adults to evade responsibility for how children are firmly connected to and shaped by the social, economic and cultural institutions run largely by adults. Innocence in this instance makes children invisible except as projections of adult fantasies – fantasies that allow adults to believe that children do not suffer from their greed, recklessness, perversions of will and spirit, and that they are, in the final analysis, unaccountable. Childhood innocence is also, as Thomas Cook points out, “something of a privilege, a bourgeois privilege,” one that is not only “a scarce resource” for many children, but also a construct that hides the web of subordination to adults that many kids can’t wait to escape from.
The child beauty pageant is an exemplary site for examining critically how the discourse of innocence mystifies the appropriation of children’s bodies in a society that increasingly sexualizes and commodifies them. Not only do child beauty pageants function as a pedagogical site where children learn about pleasure, desire and the roles they might assume in an adult society, they also rationalize and uphold commercial and ideological values within the larger society that play an important role in marketing children as objects of pleasure, desire and sexuality. Rather than viewing child beauty pageants as rituals of innocence, it is crucial to reconsider the role they play as part of a broader cultural practice in which children are reified and objectified. This is not meant to suggest that all child beauty pageants engage in a form of child abuse. Pageants vary in both the way they are constructed and how they interact with local and national audiences. Moreover, their outcomes are variable and contingent. But as sites of representation, identity formation, consumption and regulation, the dominant and assigned meanings attached to these events have to be understood in terms of how they align with other cultural sites engaged in offering mostly young girls regressive notions of desire, femininity, sexuality, beauty and self-esteem.
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Sometimes there are flash points in a culture that signal that children are in danger. This seems to have been the case during the blitz of media coverage following the brutal murder at home of six-year old JonBenet Ramsey on December 26, 1996. On one level, JonBenet’s case attracted national attention because it fed into the frenzy and moral panic Americans were experiencing over the threat of child abuse – fueled by horrific crimes like the kidnap and murder of Polly Klaas in California. Similarly, it resonated with the highly charged public campaigns by various legislators and citizen groups calling for the death penalty for sex offenders such as Jesse Timmendequas, the child molester who killed seven-year-old Megan Kanka. On another level, it opened to public scrutiny another high-profile example of a child succeeding at the make-believe game of becoming an adult, but in terms that made visible a dark and seamy element in the culture – one that seemed to belie the assumption that the voyeuristic fascination with the sexualized child was confined to the margins of society, inhabited largely by freaks, pedophiles and psychopaths. The endless replay of images of JonBenet and other young children strutting and preening onstage and the perceived sexualization both intrigued and shocked the American public. What the JonBenet Ramsey case made visible across the wide landscape of the culture was the recognition that images of six-year-olds cosmetically transformed into sultry, Lolita-like waifs were difficult to watch. Such images stroked at the heart of a culture beset by a deep disturbance in its alleged respect for children and decency. Whereas the blame for the often-violent consequences associated with this eroticized costuming has been usually placed on young women, the JonBenet Ramsey affair made it difficult to blame kids for this type of objectification and commodification.
For many, the images of JonBenet tapes dressed up like a 25-year-old, moving suggestively across the stage, amounted to nothing less than kiddie porn. Frank Rich wrote a courageous piece in The New York Times in which he argued that the “strange world of kids’ pageantry is not a ‘subculture’ – it’s our culture. But as long as we call it a subculture, it can remain a problem for somebody else.” Richard Goldstein followed up Rich’s insights with a three-part series in The Village Voice in which he argued that the marketing of the sexual child has a long history in the United States and that the JonBenet case “brings to the surface both our horror at how effectively a child can be constructed as a sexual being and our guilt at the pleasure we take in such a sight.” For Goldstein, the JonBenet case challenged the American public to confront the actual nature of child abuse, which is all too often a part of family life and further legitimated in the hateful practices of a culture willing to capitalize on children as an all-too-valuable source for the production of pleasure, profits and commodification. After the JonBenet Ramsey case, it became more difficult to portray child beauty pageants as American as apple pie, embraced uncritically as simply good, clean family entertainment and defended for their civic value to the community. Even Hollywood took aim at this myth with its Oscar-winning film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which deftly satirized parents more than willing to dress up children as young as 4 years old like Barbie dolls. More than willing to provide them with bleached and lacquered hair, fake eye lashes, flamboyant costumes and garish jewelry – “painted and pompadoured to look like mini-hookers” as they teach them to suggestively bump and grind their way to winning a plastic tiara and, if lucky, some prize money.
For a short time, it seemed that the American public finally recognized that these glitz child beauty pageants were both shocking and exploitative, and, in some cases symptomatic of something very wrong with the broadening influence of corporate power and the ever-growing commercialization of children. But if the popularity of child beauty pageants took a nose dive after the JonBenet Ramsey affair, it has not only withstood the satire of an Oscar-winning film, but has increasingly gained in popularity over the last decade. More than 5,000 child beauty pageants are held in the United States each year, representing a $5 billion industry and a source of rich profits for corporate sponsors of everything from beauty products, makeup experts and pageant coaches to child fashion magazines. And as Frank Rich points out, “Today the merchandising of children as sexual commodities is ubiquitous and big business – not just in beauty contests for toddlers … but everywhere – from the increased garishness of Barbie displays at the local mall to the use of Sally Mann-esque child models in home-furnishing magazines.” Moreover, the costs of these pageants are often prohibitive, including hundreds of dollars in entrance fees, dresses that can cost thousands of dollars, and thousands more for hotel rooms, travel, and in some cases professional training. As such, child beauty pageants represent places where the rituals of small-town America combine with the ideology of mass consumer culture.
Unfortunately, the ghost of JonBenet with its disparaging foregrounding of children as commodities, reduced to sexualized ornaments in fake tans, capped teeth, and over-the-top makeup has returned with a vengeance with a slew of shows like “Little Miss Perfect,” “Little Beauties” and the wildly popular reality-based docudrama, “Toddlers & Tiaras,” which is being shown with no irony intended on The Learning Channel. “Toddlers & Tiaras” takes its audiences backstage at child beauty pageants from all over the country, offering up to viewers a spectacularized snapshot of what kids as young as a few months old have to go through as they and their moms (and some dads) prepare them to compete in the pageants. The first episode highlighted three girls who were 2, 6 and 9 years old. We follow each of the three families from South Carolina to Austin, Texas, as they coach, cajole and prepare their kids for the ordeal of becoming a reigning pint-sized beauty queen. The images of these kids dressed up like little adults with the moms insisting that they be spray tanned, adorn fake nails and eyelashes, and wear more makeup on their faces than the late Tammy Faye Baker once used is harder to watch than even the cheesy dance routines in which they learn to swing their hips and flip their hair back in a shameful, highly eroticised manner. Watching a two-year old parade around the stage in a velcro rip-away outfit in stripper-like fashion induces more than repulsion; it also raises questions about the limits of subjecting kids to such pornographic practices and the distorted values these pageants provide for them.
The entertainment value of shows such as “Toddlers & Tiaras” seems to be measured in how high their freak quotient can go. Dressing young children in hideous fashions barely suitable for 30-year-olds is both disturbing and fodder for reality-TV voyeurism. Similarly, the parents of these kids also supply much of the disturbing entertainment. One mom who is putting her daughter, Rebecca, a six-year-old, through her pre-pageant tanning insists that the tanning is necessary to hide any imperfections. Providing cosmetic corrections for kids that range from toddlers to 12-year-olds, in spite of the damage it inflicts on children, seems to attract large viewing audiences. Another self-proclaimed super-pageant dad named David makes all of his two-year-old daughter’s pageant costumes and also serves as her makeup artist. He readily admits on national television that when he and his wife found out they were having a girl, they started signing her up for pageants, which oddly enough indicates she started competing when she was in the womb. In another episode, a mother tells her four-year old daughter as she is putting false eyelashes on her in preparation for the pageant competition, “You have a receding hairline.” One mother of two little boys, ages two and three, glibly proclaims on one episode that “I always wanted to have girls, so I’m turning my boys into girls by putting them into pageants and modeling.”
Most of the parents, when asked why they do this to their children, fall back upon the tired cliche that it promotes self-esteem. As if defining children largely by what they lack and celebrating utterly regressive sexist standards of aesthetic perfection promotes self-esteem. Some parents often respond to criticisms of child abuse by claiming that their kids are doing exactly what they want to do and that they enjoy being in the pageants. This argument appears strained when parents enter into pageants children who are as young as eight months old, or when parents decide that their four-year-old child needs a talent agent in order to insure that she made the right connections outside of the beauty pageants. In both of these responses, little is heard from either the children subjected to such practices or from prestigious organizations such as the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which issued a report indicating a strong connection between young girls who have to endure a premature emphasis on sex and appearance and “three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.” Other child psychologists insists that the intense competition at pageants, coupled with the nomadic lifestyle of traveling from one hotel to another when school is not in session, makes it difficult for young children to make friends, putting them at risk for developing a number of problems in their social interactions with other children. Moreover, some child specialists argue that it is as developmentally inappropriate to “teach a six-year-old to pose like a twenty-year-old model as it is to allow her to drive [and] drink alcohol.” Of course, there is also the stress of competition and the danger of undermining a child’s self-confidence, especially when she loses, if the message she receives is that how she looks is the most important aspect of who she is.
Renowned psychologist David Elkind argues that parents used to be concerned with the ethical behavior of kids. A few decades ago, when kids got home from school their parents asked them if they were good. Now, because of the new economic realities of downsizing and major economic recession, parents are fearful that their kids will be losers. “Toddlers & Tiaras” models a type of economic Darwinism that is at the heart of much of reality TV, in which the greatest fear that parents have is that their kids will join the ranks of the losers. The question kids get when they come home in the new millennium is no longer “Have you been good?” but “Did you win?” One pageant director tells viewers that “They’re all here to win and it’ll be a fight to the finish, I promise.” Clearly, this model of market-driven competition which celebrates the increasingly devalued notion that life is largely reduced to a “war of all against all” is what provides part of the motivation, if not legitimation, for parents to teach their kids how to perform booty-shaking dance routines in order to get the edge needed to win. Another criticism worth mentioning is that the money spent on child pageants by parents – up to $10,000 per child a year in some cases – could be invested in more productive ways for kids, not the least of which could be a savings plan established to help young people alleviate the cost of a college education.
Rather than being an aberration in American society, child beauty pageants are symptomatic of the tragic disconnect between those public values essential to a democracy and the well-being of children and the market-driven commercial values that turn everything, even young kids, into a commodity. Most disturbing about such pageants is what they tell us about what we have become as a society, how ready we are to sell our kids on the beauty block, and how much in politics and everyday life we are willing to disconnect who we are and how we live, work and engage public life from ethical considerations. Child beauty pageants are just one reminder of how in the last thirty years we have factored out of both politics and everyday life issues of morality, social responsibility and the importance of the common good.
In the run up to the 2008 election, John Edwards reminded us that there were two Americas, divided by wealth and poverty and growing forms of inequality. This model might be useful for talking about the two Americas for children, one for which the Obama family serves as the contemporary exemplar – a family that refuses to commodify its own children. That is, a stable, caring, functioning family headed by loving parents who are invested in their children’s lives while providing for them models of intellectual and moral integrity. To be sure, they have the material wealth and extended family support necessary to sustain such commitment – conditions not all working parents are fortunate enough to secure. But for such families, childhood innocence is not assumed as a given, but a special estate that must be carefully protected; they understand their responsibility as one that supports socially investing in children’s future. The other America is the at times glitzy, often gaudy (and indeed in the case of most child beauty pageants outright obscene) world of rampant commodification and sexualization. In this world, innocence is less a thing to be protected than a pretext for all forms of exploitation by adult hands – from multinational corporations whose quest for profit is packaged under the mantel of innocence and purity to the often seedy netherland of child beauty pageants – a world in which children have no rights, no say and no adult advocates for their well-being and security. Too many children are trapped in this world of exploitation, and while pageants provide one shocking glimpse of this often-ignored world, it far exceeds the limited world of pageants and plastic tiaras and points to a society that has lost its ability to both question itself and protect its most vulnerable and precious asset – its children.
1 Charles Isherwood, “Chaotic Household? Sell the Kids,” The New York Times (April 22, 2009), p. C1.
2 For an insightful analysis of the myth of innocence, see Marina Warmer, “Six Myths of Our Time” (New York: Vintage, 1995), esp. chap. 30. Of course, the concept of childhood innocence as a historical invention has been pointed out by a number of theorists. See, for example, Philip Aries, “Centuries of Childhood” (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979); Lloyd deMause, ed. “The Evolution of Childhood” (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1974). I take up this issue in Henry A. Giroux, “America on the Edge” (New York: Palgrave, 2006).
3 Daniel Thomas Cook, “When a Child Is Not a Child, and Other conceptual Hazards of Childhood Studies,” Childhood 16:5 (2009), p. 8.
4 Frank Rich, “Let Me Entertain You,” New York Times, 18 January 1997), Section 1, 23.
5 Richard Goldstein, “The Girl in the Fun Bubble: The Mystery of JonBenet,” The Village Voice (June 10, 1997): 41.
6 Jane Treays, “The Child Beauty-Pageant Queens Who Grew Up,” The Sunday Times Online (May 25, 2008). Online: https://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/article3997487.ece.
7 Ibid,. Frank Rich, “Let Me Entertain You.”
8 Stacy Weiner, “Goodbye to Girlhood,” The Washington Post (February 20, 2007), P. HE01.
9 This paragraph relies heavily on comments by pediatric psychologists cited in Rebecca A. Eder, Ann Digirolamo and Suzanne Thompson, “Is Winning a Pageant Worth a Lost Childhood?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 February 1997, 7B.
10 David Elkind, “The Family in the Postmodern World,” National Forum 75 (summer 1995): 24-28.
11 I take this issue up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “Stealing Innocence: Corporate Culture’s War on Children” (New York: Palgrave, 2001), Henry A. Giroux, “The Abandoned Generation” (New York: Palgrave, 2004), and Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).