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Rethinking 'Toddlers and Tiaras'

By marylweimer |

Tiara I’ll admit it: I have a morbid fascination with Toddlers and Tiaras. The hair, the makeup, the epic temper tantrums…it’s a guilty pleasure that I love to hate.

I even know the characters by name: there’s Little Lady Gaga, Laci; Paisley the “prosti-tot”; and who could forget Alana, a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo child?

Not me.

Let’s be clear: I’m totally opposed to exploiting kids in this way, and the parenting that’s depicted is deplorable. Horrendous. Atrocious.

(Did I state that clearly enough?)

Yet still I watch. I sit on the throne of parental superiority, judgmental and smug from the sofa in my family room. While you won’t hear me talking smack about my fellow PTA moms I’ll readily pass judgment on the pageant mom in the bedazzled velour track suit.

I’ve considered the ugly side of watching the show and others like it (Dance Moms, anyone?). The sexualization of young girls. The stage moms and spray tans and sugar-fueled baby booty dancing.

Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that even on a bad day, I can watch Toddlers and Tiaras and feel like Mother of the Year. But yesterday, Emily Shire of Slate stopped me in my tracks when she suggested that my smugness toward the pageant moms comes from a much more uncomfortable place: elitism.

I’m well aware that my judging the pageant moms is hypocritical. After all, I watch the show. But is it classist?

To me, a former social worker, classism is a particularly sensitive subject. To my core, I understand that every life has a context, a set of circumstances encircling it. Members of what some crassly call “the lower class” have less access to fewer resources and, as a result, sometimes make choices that others find objectionable. My personal belief is that the overwhelming majority of us are doing the best for our families with what we have.

My social work training has shaped the way I see the world, but it’s also personal. I live in West Virginia, one of the most impoverished states in the country. I’ve defended my neighbors who make “bad” choices. I’ve gone to bat for clients who were living with the results of the “bad choices” they made.

According to Shire, Toddlers and Tiaras provides “a classist subtext to the media’s judgment of parenting” through its depiction of the pageant moms as “white trash.”

The depressed, often southern areas that serve as the backdrop for many episodes.

The thick accents and often overweight mothers.

The subtle clues that paint a picture of the pageant world as being set apart from the cozy family room couches where the smug viewers sit with their jaws dropped.

Viewers like me.

What’s my take? I can certainly see Shire’s point. I have to admit that I watched last night’s season premiere. I have to admit that I gasped audibly when I watched as a beautiful child described having to wear a girdle. Little Paisley made a repeat appearance (this time, thankfully, leaving the Pretty Woman costume at home), as did, of course, Paisley’s mom.

But last night, instead of sitting in judgement, I put on my social worker hat. These moms, I’ve decided, want the best for their children but have a warped way of loving them. Their daughters are themselves made “perfect”: perfectly coiffed, talented, poised. It’s just sad to me that they don’t seem to understand that their daughters have been perfect all along.

They’re taking the real risk of sending their daughters the message that they need make up and costumes and crowns and Grand Supreme titles to be “perfect.”

And those of us watching? We’re risking that too.

Top photo credit: Robynlou8/Flickr

Mary Lauren Weimer is a social worker turned mother turned writer. Her blog, My 3 Little Birds, encourages moms to put down the baby books for a moment and tell their own stories. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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About marylweimer



Mary Lauren Weimer is a freelance writer and blogger. Her work has appeared in such places as Spirituality & Health and The Huffington Post, and she’s known for her thoughtful and introspective writing about all aspects of motherhood and the parent-child relationship.

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12 thoughts on “Rethinking 'Toddlers and Tiaras'

  1. Lydia Meyers says:

    You bring up some very valid points. These moms may have felt less than perfect as children, or may not have gotten any attention from their moms. This could just be their way of projecting onto their children the perfect childhood that they wished they could have had. But watching the show — that’s like gawking at an accident by the side of the road.

  2. Amie says:

    I feel exactly the same. I cannot stop watching it and even my children to love to watch. We watch and shake our heads in disbelief. I never thought about feeling superior but honestly maybe that’s what I am feeling.

  3. Amanda Austin says:

    Great points, a lot to think about. I watch all these shows and do my fair share of making fun of them, but fact is, I’m still watching them, ya know?

  4. Ado says:

    I think this is the first post I’ve read on the topic of Toddlers & Tiaras that’s balanced, and I appreciate that. Your quote, “These moms, I’ve decided, want the best for their children but have a warped way of loving them” is so empathetic and truly gets to the root of these moms’ issues, how they project perfection on their children. I also appreciated your view of yourself (or all of us judgey moms sitting on our couches at home) as being so judgemental about them – and asking yourself what purpose that judgementalist serves? Maybe it’s because you are a social worker turned writer/mom but I very much appreciated your balanced view-point.

  5. I suppose I will be the politically incorrect commenter, but here goes. I don’t watch this show and I do judge people who do, and I think rightly so.

    This “program” exists for the financial profit of adults who exploit and, I’ll say it, abuse children. Children are precious, and the way this show manipulates them while America watches, glued and entertained, makes me sick.

    There is an evil genius in the way the producers have engaged the mothers. As long as a parent, especially a mother, is willingly putting her own child through this, producers can claim what you do here, they are just doing the best for their kids. EVEN IF THAT IS TRUE IN THE PARENT’S EYES, it is still unethical and disturbing.

    Ask yourself if you would hand over money and sit to watch this live. There is not much difference.

    I have tremendous respect for this writer, but I think in this case the “balance” offered to the situation is not earned or deserved. Turn off the demand, and the traffic will stop. I say listen to your gut, and stop defending the indefensible.

  6. Nkem says:

    I also watch the show and like you I am mortified at what these little girls and sometimes little boys (gasp) have to put up with in the pageants. Againm just like you, I can’t seem to stop watching the show! I would agree with you that I am probably on some high horse because I tell myself that I could NEVER do that to my children, plus I believe it is a completely pointless activity.

  7. Barbara says:

    I’ve never seen the show because it seems like something that would make my skin crawl. I can’t do it. But, I enjoyed reading this perspective of the show. It made me think about the mothers of these young girls in a completely different way. I still think the whole concept of these types of reality shows is gross. I still find the sexualization of little girls to be deplorable. But, I can see that there is perhaps a side of these mothers that means well, without knowing the potential harm they are causing. Thank you for the different point of view.

  8. Jenny says:

    Wow. This post spoke to me. Because, yeah, I *very very occasionally* indulge in a few minutes of gawking at Toddlers and Tiaras (a show I find to be absolutely atrocious but also strangely alluring)…and I’m judging the whole time. Bad moms, self-centered divas in training, it’s hard NOT to judge. But I do see where there could be classist issue here. In certain parts of the country these pageants are the norm, and certainly the mothers involved are not typically the ones shopping farmers markets for organic produce or encouraging their kids to play with gender neutral wooden blocks. Does my judgement (and like you say, it’s an easy way to feel like Mother of the Year!) stem from feeling superior to these moms who are painted as “lower class” than I am? Ugh. Maybe. I hope not. Definitely something to think about, and I think you’re right to remind us that a more empathetic approach to these pageant moms might help some of us get off our high horses.

  9. I don’t think there is much evidence that opposing this behavior is class-based. I have friends from a wide range of circumstances who feel the same way many people do here. Certainly feeling superior to other parents can be attractive to anyone. There is a thinkly veiled sex-violence psychological formula in this show that is the foundation of every “addictive” television show. Pretty pretty prancing girls followed by screaming and crying, repeat. The brain has an ancient wiring the lights up to sex and to violence (separately), it’s basic neuro-arousal that you cannot control. TV producers ping these arousal centers over and over again to keep you from being able to resist without tremendous conscious effort. I say the effort is worth it.

    1. marylweimer says:

      Opposing the behavior isn’t class-based…my point is that it’s easier to comfortably hate the pageant moms because they’re different. Think about the “Tiger Mom.” No one hates her. She’s not vilified in the same way. But moms of a different social class? We’re “allowed” to hate them and revel in their humiliation. It’s like the guests on the Jerry Springer Show. (I’m not saying that you’re guilty of any of these things, Elizabeth…it’s more of a cultural issue.)

  10. January says:

    I have utmost respect for you, Mary Lauren, but I disagree with your view. I’ve never watched the show because the entire premise makes me ill. And might I admit (sorry to all that watch the show, I have friends that do and I still love them but…) I have passed judgement on Mothers who watch Toddlers and Tiaras. I have to side with Elizabeth here…that watching this show is, in a way, supporting some sort of abuse (though I’m not entirely sure what abuse this would be considered, it’s deplorable to me regardless) toward innocent children. I may be guilty for watching less than stellar reality based shows (like The Bachelor – ahem – I know I’ve been judged for watching this too) but at least the contestants are old enough to make the decision on their own to degrade themselves. I think empathy is a wonderful thing to have but when it comes down to exploiting children…my empathy turns right off. And possibly this is ‘what they do’ is some states but maybe if attention is turned instead, to the fact that this is not okay or healthy…that it’s destroying these little girls self esteem and precious spirits, then the cycle of this weird and wrong extracurricular ‘activity’ can be stopped. It’s more than a little scary to me that these little girls will grow up into Mothers who will continue this ‘tradition’ with their little girls.

  11. Nancy says:

    I have to whole-heartedly disagree with the idea that any disdain or otherwise for this show by other parents is “class-based”. I have watched this show many times and seen wealthy women spend five figures plus on these pageants. Most of these parents are definitely a class level up from where I am. In fact, the ones that garner the least judgement from me are the ones that DON’T have the funds to spend on all of the costs associated with these pageants. They seem to actually have a level head on their shoulders and understand the cost/benefit analysis to participating in a pageant as well as how to involve their daughters in a much less traumatizing way. The bad mommy types are generally the ones spending tens of thousands of dollars on a dress and jet-setting across the country. Most of the time, the winnings from the pageants don’t pay for a fraction of what they cost.

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