The show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a rich vein from which to mine some essential social insights into our own contemporary historical period.’Toddlers and Tiaras’ is a well enough known cultural phenomenon that I think it will suffice to summarize it as a reality television program which chronicles the pitfalls of families in the child beauty pageant circuit.
Beauty Pageants are a sociocultural phenomenon with their origins in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the ‘Roaring ‘20s’of the 20th Century, a period which also saw the beginning of Hollywood and reckless capitalist speculation on Wall Street and the sowing of seeds a priori for an imminent decade of financial ruin in the 1930’s and the Great Depression.
The cultural period of the 1920’s mirrors the socioeconomic dynamics of the early 2000’s, a contemporary period which informs our current financial collapse and media saturated social landscape. The forces of media and deregulated capital, which spawned the Great Depression, Hollywood and cultural rituals such as beauty pageants are the same forces which have informed the reckless financial speculation and narcissistic ‘me first’ culture of the first decade of the 21st Century, exacerbated by a conservative political streak and the collapse of the news cycle into the fabric of every day existence.
The models of feminine valuation created in the former have found themselves as one of the few remaining means by which an eviscerated post-industrial American subclass can offer a large swath of its children the promise of redemptive meaning; in the absence of the explosion of the 20th Century Fordist growth which informed American greatness (itself a media creation) why not simply place your child on the altar of glittering fame and hope for the best? However with no productive sequence of achievement, it is only the simulacra of accomplishment presented through the manipulation of the symbolic structure of the reflective media imagery of womanhood. Beauty pageants are a huge financial sub-industry which feeds off of the aspirations and insecurities of lower-middle class Americans and offer, through the watered-down fashion idioms of democratic upward mobility, redemption of the world as it exists through the only means that Capitalism is able to offer which is spectacle and commodification.
This sort of endless cycle of social redemption-through-debasement of self to the demands of capital and fame-for-its-own-sake is an end in and of itself, there is no ‘end’ to the pageantry because the presentation is the point, and the stripping of the thin veneer of respectability and intellectual curiosity from beauty pageants (which used to offer scholarships and other trappings of respectability) and its subsequent secondary role to scandal, political posturing and blatant artifice and narcissistic vacuity reveals itself as a manifested correlation to the complete divorce of fame from accomplishment in contemporary American celebrity media culture.
The heightened, almost garish caricature of femininity on display on ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ too has a simultaneous divorce from the realities of the child and the realities of womanhood - rather than ‘enhancing beauty’ in a naturalistically elegant sense these girls are made up more like Dolly Parton or a drag queen - each element of their assemblage costume is a self contained iteration; the lips are ‘hyper-lips’ the teeth are porcelain and flawless and the skin a perfect rubbed in umber stain, as banal and inoffensive as a San Diego strip mall. It is the lowest common denominator turned up to five thousand watts.
Rather than these elements of beauty adding up to a cohesive ‘image’ of that which is beautiful, however, the disparate iconography of makeup, jewelry and clothing remain isolated components, each sign a maximal bastardization of beauty competing against all the others to say as much as possible for the judges, always the judges. Each girl remains an assemblage iteration of clothes and makeup representative of no-woman manufactured like a doll on an assembly line with an algorithm - an embalmed expressionistic image of beauty with a hollow center reflected down the endless hall of mirrors of advertising spreads and Hollywood films finding at its apex only a shiny cheap trinket trophy that is in the end a referent symbol of nothing but itself, an ouroboros of immolation of self-worth for the sake of the manufacture of perpetual capitalist desire. The endless ritual of ‘show’ itself is the redemption which leads to nothing greater; the shiny empty tin toy circus is all you are left with after it has wound down.
The worst part is that this image of the no-woman is a product of the male gaze. The vein from Madison Avenue and the Atlantic City pageants, with their intrinsic symbolic patriarchal power structures, is deep and pervasive - as men tell women how they should show value within themselves we can see those very dynamics as if under a microscope in the hyper-real marginal microcosm of ‘Toddlers & Tiaras.’ These mothers are fulfilling the wish of a patriarchy unconsciously on their own children and thus perpetuating the image and cycle of displaced self-value that informed this distorted relationship with themselves and thus ultimately with their own child.
It is no coincidence that the mothers of the young girls on this show, with some exceptions, share the same personality types and issues. They are usually withdrawn with self-image issues and more often than not overweight if not morbidly obese with social anxiety and severe self-esteem issues sprung from the very advertising and media-based gender representative matrices they impose on their own children. These mothers are commonly in very strained marriages and devote themselves entirely to the pageant circuit, often spending outrageous sums of money to outfit their children into the image of everything they were ever taught to desire to be themselves but never were. Rather than develop as fully cohesive people, they have spent their lives (and developed the emotional basis of their relationship with their children) around the manifestation of this archetype of nothing, seeking self-fulfillment and validation through the mechanisms handed to them by the very forces which took it away in the first place, like some lobotomized poodle jumping through a hoop in an endless .gif.
Their relationships with their daughters are often strained if not outright hostile or violent - the girls often seem like they do not even want to be participating in these pageants, and their resentment at having to be a conduit for the psychological inversion of their parents’ insecurity ends up turning back on the mothers anyway, further driving them down into self-loathing and perpetuating the cycle because of this displacement of a direct and emotionally healthy relationship with their children and the larger society by a mediation of money, symbol and spectacle for their own subconscious wish-fulfillment fantasy.
The reason ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ is important as a cultural object is because when examined in something as maximally dynamic as the hyperreal contained universe of child pageants we see in microcosm the psychosocial dynamics at play on perhaps a smaller or more diluted scale in our daily lives. Who among us doesn’t know someone living out the wishes of their parent or from the insecurities placed on them by advertising and media? Stage moms bring us our pop divas and starlets to consume, who crash and burn in the public eye. Identity is assembled through a construct of brand symbols in a capitalist society, just ask the queens of ‘Paris is Burning’ who knew this intrinsically in their being; and every morning we make identity-assemblage choices in our clothes and hair, and yes money makes us value each other in painful ways. Our lives are this pageant on a larger scale, and the hollow center of this television show points to the larger emptiness in contemporary American life.
There is no escape beyond the pageant, the spectacle; which leads to nothing greater than its own self-revelation. It is a spinning wheel-of-fortune of repeated symbol assemblage and an aggressively nihilistic cycle of the perpetual novelty of materialism, designed to have no end and thus no threat of the cessation of pleasure but consequently no catharsis; ensuring its own institutionalization by its intrinsic lack of ablution.
The idea of the Beauty Queen, the idea that there is one final ‘winner’ in our ruthless society is a drag-race to the death toward the un-achievable end fantasy of happiness as somewhere ‘other’ than where we already are, imposed on us by the gilded cages of our own making; it is a perpetual horizon like the American Dream itself, but then it is said the horizon is something that recedes further the closer you get to it.