Photo Credit: TLC; John M. Heller/Getty Images
TLC keeps renewing Toddlers & Tiaras, which will soon embark on its sixth season. People like it. Roughly 1.5 million viewers have made it one of the network's highest-rated shows.
"It's my guilty pleasure," Miss America, Mallory Hagan, told The New York Post this week. “I absolutely loved doing pageants when I was little."
Of course, no one would expect the nation's most visible pageant contestant to knock a show about pageants! But it's worth noting her reason for giving the show a thumbs up. “I think a hobby is a hobby,” she said. “If a child wants to do it, that is their prerogative."
In a bizarre coincidence, a very different high profile celebrity was outed as a T&T fan this week: Nelson Mandela. "You'll be interested to know that he lovesToddlers & Tiaras," his granddaughter, Swati Dlaminij, told Britain's The Guardian during her press tour to promote her own reality series. His reason for liking the show? "Because of the kids!" she said. "He just loves children."
But let's be honest here. Most viewers aren't like Miss America, who watches the show to see little girls empowered by practicing a hobby. And they're not like the 94-year-old South African leader, who just likes kids. Most people tune in to see the spectacular train wreck that results from the combination of pushy, deluded stage moms, their spoiled/exploited progeny, and a nationwide system of beauty competitions that keeps them chasing after trophies.
When pageant mom Lana nonchalantly tells us that she's been spray-tanning her two-year-old, Bella, since she was six months old, that's good TV. When Bella throws a fit and tells her mama to shut up, that's even better.
"A beauty pageant's about being beautiful," says another mother in the show's recent season 5 finale. "We'll stop at nothing to win. She's gonna have to step up her game."Her daughter Katlyn disagrees, and the moment makes for…yes, very compelling TV.
But obviously, good TV can be bad for you. People may disagree over whether dressing little girls like drag queens is sexualizing them -- some people just think it's cute. But there's no denying that these moms are putting a premium on physical beauty and outward grace (the right pose, the right smile), to the exclusion of deeper qualities (such as kindness or intellectual curiosity).
Miss America called the show a "guilty pleasure," but she'snot actually guilty of watching the show for its exploitative elements. She genuinely sees it through the eyes of one whose positive pageant experiences culminated in the happiest of endings: She got to be Miss America. For the vast majority of the little girls on this show, this happy ending is not in the cards.