LAWRENCE — “Toddlers and Tiaras,” a TLC reality television show and guilty pleasure for many, sends confusing and damaging messages to its pint-sized participants, new research finds.
Christina Hodel, a doctoral student in film and media studies at the University of Kansas, analyzed nearly 40 episodes of the cable television show that profiles young girls as they compete in beauty pageants. Hodel’s research is detailed in the article “Performing the Ultimate Grand Supreme: Approval, Gender and Identity in Toddlers and Tiaras,” which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Girlhood Studies.
Wearing layers of makeup, sparkling Shirley Temple dresses, spray tans, faux teeth and elaborate hair styles, the young girls on the show are being taught to act and dress in a hyperfeminized way, Hodel said. Girls wear padded bras and are told by their mothers to dance "sexy’" on stage. For the costume portion of the competition, the show has profiled girls who have dressed as the Julia Roberts prostitute character in “Pretty Woman," a Las Vegas showgirl and Dolly Parton.
The more hyperfeminized the girls are, the more likely they are to win, Hodel said.
“And, winning means approval that they are not only beautiful, but that they did everything right. So we are telling the girls that if you want to succeed, you really have to be someone who looks like a sexy adult female,” Hodel said.
With many of the girls looking alike on stage, the contestants are often judged on their personality and presentation. And contestants know to win, they have to find a way to standout and be unique.
However, girls can only stand out so much. For example, during the talent portion of competition, girls could sing or tell a joke. Yet, those routines are far less likely to win than those that focus on pro-am modeling, a pageant staple that mixes dancing, gymnastics and modeling.
“The message is confusing to girls,” Hodel said. “They are being told you have to conform to pageant conventions, but you need to be unique.”
Similar to other popular reality TV makeover shows, such as “The Biggest Loser,” and “What Not To Wear,” “Toddlers and Tiaras” highlights the participants’ transformation from average little girl to glitzy, beauty queen. Parents and the host of experts who have been hired to help prepare the girl for competition shame her into making the changes. During each episode, there is a moment where images of the girl pre- and post-pageant makeover are shown side-by-side.
“They are implying that the new version of the girl, which looks nothing like a girl but more like a doll or a drag queen, is the more appropriate version,” Hodel said.
In the end, Hodel said, the girls are receiving conflicting messages: In order to win, the girls must show a unique personality, but they must also act and dress in a hyperfeminine manner and conform to the pageant world’s ideal standard of beauty and narrow set of conventions.
“It’s telling the girl, you don’t know anything. Listen to the people around you. If you conform and do what you are told, that is how you are going to succeed in life,” Hodel said.
Having attended pageants, Hodel acknowledges that “Toddlers and Tiaras” portrays an extreme version of the pageant world, which is why so many enjoy its voyeuristic qualities.
“I’m not saying what we see on 'Toddlers and Tiaras' doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t happen as often as we think it does,” Hodel said.