The Dissimilarities Between Honey Boo Boo and Malala Yousafzai

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about the ways in which Alana Thompson (aka "Honey Boo Boo") and Malala Yousafzai are similar. My, how times have changed. Malala is now a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Alana Thompson's show has been axed and her safety is in question as her mother dates a child molester, who shockingly was convicted of molesting one of Alana's older sisters while another older sister was in the room. Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 15 2012

In some ways, what I wrote in October 2012 still applies. For instance, "Alana's life, like Malala's, is no longer private. While Alana's fans don't hate her the way the Taliban hate Malala, Honey Boo Boo's safety is in question." Although I meant safety in a bigger sense since it always seemed like Alana was safe at home: "Clearly there are serious safety concerns about placing real children -- who are not characters, like child performers -- in the public eye. If we are complicit in these children's fame, and their compromised safety, by watching and reaching about their lives, we must be willing to change the underlying social problems that they represent."

Perhaps even more relevant and significant today is this line I wrote, "Honey Boo Boo reveals deep social inequality in American society that, while not as life-threatening as that in Pakistan, is quite serious." Unfortunately crime is one dimension of inequality today. Of course there were plenty of warning signs that something was amiss. First, June always refused to legally wed Honey Boo Boo's father, Sugar Bear. They had a commitment ceremony with camo dresses, but never sealed the deal. Now we know why-- Shannon was waiting for convicted felon McDaniel. That June, in her early thirties and already a grandmother, had four daughters from four different men might also raise some warning flags. But most significantly it was know that the eldest, Anna, who was pregnant during the first season, had basically been raised by her grandmother. Well, now we know the real reason why.

That said, while I was often disgusted by the family (I wrote in another Huffington Post piece that, "However, the failure of Eden's World to garner a large number of viewers, especially when compared to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, indicates that it may indeed be much better to be your real self -- fat, flatulence, filth and all -- than to pretend to be something you aren't."), my impression was always that the family genuinely loved one another. That has now disintegrated.

I also have always given Shannon credit for protecting the children's money-- including her granddaughter-- especially because other reality show parents have made very different choices. While it's great that the five girls will get funds when they turn 21, the current situation makes me think she knew this could come out and at least she would have done something concrete to help the future of her offpsring. It was almost like they were milking it for all it was worth, not unlike families like the Robertsons or the Karsashians, but they also knew what could happen a la the Gosselins but much worse with the law involved.

There's no question the show is kaput and I'll be curious if TLC ever addresses the entrance of an America's Most Wanted Element to the reality soup of the family. The family will now take on a new kind of infamy. I just hope they can heal their private dynamics and stay safe.

I'm guessing we haven't heard the last word from Honey Boo Boo or Malala. Let's hope the latter can bring some peace to the life of the former...

Move Over Child Beauty Pageants: Another Summer of Dance (on TV)

Last year I proclaimed my love for the summer of dance-- and it's true again this year! It's also been a summer full of "morning" sickness for me, which means less time to write and more time prostrate in bed trying not to move. But one of the perks of being in bed so much is watching various TV shows and movies, which explains how I've been able to watch all these shows and movies... Seems like dance is really taking over our screens. Even Alana Thompson, aka Honey Boo Boo, has moved on from pageants to dancing (as seen on a recent episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, though thankfully NOT the scratch and sniff one...).

At this point I feel like Lifetime's Dance Moms bring much more crazy than Toddlers & Tiaras. I swear, the show has become so ridiculous (especially with Candy Apples nonsense) that if I didn't feel like I *had* to watch it for my work, I wouldn't (I know I'll feel the same way when Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition returns in the fall). You have to assume these moms are under strict contracts, getting insane amounts of money, or it's all scripted for them to allow their children to be in these situations.

So I didn't have high hopes for TLC's contribution to kids and dance, Dance Kids ATL. But, actually I was pleasantly surprised! Sure, there was some suggested momma drama, but I liked that the focus was more on families and on the kids (as the name implies). The style of the coach/choreagrapher reminded me more of the failed Dance Moms Miami and less of Abby Lee Miller. I also appreciated that it showed competitive hip hop (both in a cypher and in a competition-- though I'd love to see the kids at an actual hip hop competition and not just at a general dance competition) and a dance demographic not always recognized as serious in its own right by those who are "trained." This shows how the kids do learn counts, stretching, etc. I hope this gets picked up as a full series; I much prefer it to TLC's closest version, Cheer Perfection.

My other favorite reality dance series, Breaking Pointe, returned and it's interesting to get the updates on those featured last year-- especially the men with injuries. However, I had read that this season would have less personal drama, and that is definitely NOT the case thus far. So, please, more dancing and explanations of how companies work and less romantic entanglements! (FYI- that article I linked to is also interesting for the discussion of how being miked impacted friendships and how not all dancers in the company were happy to participate-- though I imagine the show has done wonders for Ballet West's ticket sales.)

During the worst of my sickness I rejoined Netflix and got to watch a ballet documentary that was similar in some ways to what Breaking Pointe does. The 2006 documentary Ballerina, about the Vaganova Ballet Academy and the company that performs at the Mariinsky was fascinating, showing different stages of a dancer's career-- and how much harsher teaching is in Russia! The women are absolutely beautiful in every way, so it's worth it for the clips of their practices and performances. It was strange to see the 10-year-old girls try-out for the Academy topless (surely cringe-worthy for a Western viewer), but interesting nonetheless. Here's the trailer:

(Of course I am DYING to get my hands on episodes of Australia's fictional version of their own national ballet academy, Dance Academy Season 3. If you love dance, you will become ADDICTED to this great series, and warning you will cry a LOT in Season 2!)

With all this dance on TV I still watch the old stalwart of So You Think You Can Dance, though not as obsessively as in other summers. My favorite guy is Tucker Knox (can't figure out why the judges don't like him more, but they also didn't like Danny Tidwell, one of my all-time faves, so...). Tucker Knox, SYTYCD

My fave girl is Amy Yakima (a fellow Michigander, it turns out!):

Amy Yakima, SYTYCD

It's been fun watching for SYTYCD alums Allison Holker and Courtney Galliano on VH1's new show, Hit the Floor, this summer too. Here's an interesting interview with them. Sadly, we lost another dance-based scripted show this summer, as ABC Family's Bunhead's was just canceled (and I love me some Sutton Foster).

Despite that cancellation, the world of dance on TV has rarely looked brighter-- despite the upcoming Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition, of course.

Are Beauty Pageants about an Ideal or Diversity?: Thoughts on three recent pageant programs

I'm pretty sure I've seen almost every documentary, movie, or TV series about beauty pageants (well, at least those that appear in the English language). Want evidence? Click here. In the past week I've seen three new documentaries/TV specials that raise some interesting questions about whether beauty pageants are about an ideal ("There she is, your ideal...") or if they might actually be about diversity.

1) Miss You Can Do It-  Without a doubt one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent memory, particularly about children's activities (it's up there with Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom for me right now!). I would love this even if it wasn't about pageants, and full disclosure I cried during almost all of its 74 minutes. The subject is an annual pageant held in Illinois started by Abbey Curran, who was Miss Iowa USA 2008. Curran also happens to have cerebral palsy and she was the first woman with a disability to compete in the Miss USA system (note that Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995, was the first winner with a disability [hearing loss] and this year Miss Iowa America 2013 Nichole Kelly is missing part of her left arm-- so the Miss America Program is no stranger to championing contestants with disabilities). Curran believed she needed to share her gifts and dreams with others, which led her to start the Miss You Can Do It Pageant ten years ago. When the pageant is held later this month, fifty young girls will compete for the title-- but everyone will leave with a prize. As the documentary shows, every girl gets her hair and make-up done and gets the chance to feel special for the whole weekend, and while on stage. To see the transformation among these young people, and the positive impact it has on their families, is truly something. I can imagine this program turning into something like the Special Olympics, which focuses on sports for those with special needs. Thumbs up to both Miss You Can Do Its-- the pageant and the documentary about it!

2) There She Is- This short documentary (less than 20 minutes and viewable in its entirety via the link provided) is another interesting contribution to pageant documentaries and makes you think about how we define beauty-- particularly relevant this week in light of the Dustin Hoffman Tootsie clip that's been making its way around the Internet. It focuses on two women competing in a plus-sized beauty pageant. In this case I actually wanted to know more about both women and the pageants themselves (Is there a minimum size or weight requirement? Does anyone try to get around this? Does it help to be bigger or smaller? What are the age limits for these events? How many of these women did more traditional pageants before?). I loved that the filmmakers followed up a year later, but I still had questions (Were the two women still friends? Do they recommend that other women like them do pageants? Do they think there should be plus-sized pageants for kids?). The short film raises more questions that it answers-- particularly when one of the women talks about never going to the grocery store in sweats because she doesn't want strangers to think she's a slob-- but it's a good start.

3) Crown Chasers- Sadly, this show is getting the most press, even though it's the least worthwhile contribution here. It's on TLC and the show is basically a grown up version of Toddlers & Tiaras. Five women are featured (ranging in age from 30 to 52) as they compete in a Mrs. beauty pageant in Colorado. The women, predictably, behave poorly, fighting and swearing. One woman can barely go three sentences without breaking down into tears about menopause. They're catty and not very fun, but this special was clearly a test run for a possible future series. I hope it doesn't happen (note that I participated in a HuffPost Live segment with two of the crown chasers, around 14:45, and the women seem far more likeable in this format). While they emphasize that pageants give them a chance to retain some non-mom identities, as a new mom I know there are better ways than this to do so...

So between pageants for those with disabilities, those who are overweight, and those who are older, it seems as if pageantry isn't just about a blonde, thin ideal. Actually this shouldn't be tremendously surprising given that prisons often hold pageants for inmates and there has even been a Miss Holocaust pageant recently. And, let's face it, the child beauty pageant contestant who is currently most well-known is Alana Thompson of Honey Boo Boo fame, and she doesn't exactly conform to the norm of what a child beauty pageant contestant looks like either...

Increasingly we will see more diverse types of contestants, and contests. Case in point: This week in South Carolina Analouisa Valencia is one of 103(!) women vying for the title of Miss South Carolina, and ultimately Miss America 2014. Valencia stands out for two reasons: 1) She is openly gay, and 2) She is bilingual. Miss America has never had a national or state winner who was either.

Analouisa Valencia

So as the "ideal" changes, so do those who aspire for recognition in small and larger ways. I for one think this is a good thing!

Unleashing Momsters: It's a Small World of Pageant Reality (originally published on Huffington Post Celebrity)

CLICK HERE TO READ ON THE HUFFINGTON POST CELEBRITY! When Season 6 of TLC's controversial hit Toddlers & Tiaras premieres on June 5 many of its usual cast of crazy characters will be absent. Some of the tiny tots made famous by the reality show have since "retired," including Paisley Dickey, Isabella Barrett and Eden Wood.

Before Alana Thompson (aka "Honey Boo Boo") came along, Eden Wood was the breakout star of the reality show. Her former manager, Heather Ryan, claims that after becoming the "bump girl" (the girl used in series ads) for Season 2 in 2010, Eden was the "poster child for American Beauty Pageants."

Ryan says a whole lot more in her new tell-all book, Unleashing a Momster: A Peek Behind the Curtain at the Tragic Life of America's Most Successful Child Pageant Star. The book--filled with angry language, typos, and grammatical errors -- is accurately described by its author as a "Labor of Loath."

Unleashing a Momster Amazon cover

The focus of Unleashing a Momster is Ryan's relationship with the Woods, young Eden and the "momster" Mickie. Ryan draws on three years with the Woods, relying on over 2500 emails, two-and-a-half years of Facebook posts, Tweets and YouTube videos to make her case. The headline is that the book reveals Mickie's abuse of Eden (including too much caffeine, working while sick and illiteracy), a condition Ryan dubs "Mikie-Chousen by Proxy."

But none of these claims will terribly shock anyone who has seen an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras or the Logo show that starred Ryan and the Woods, Eden's World; they certainly didn't shock me as someone who has studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, long before they went the way of reality television.

Ryan discusses the link between child beauty pageants and reality TV, writing, "Reality Television and crazy ass pageants were destined to go hand in hand -- and I was there from the very beginning, when the two began to intermingle." According to Ryan the first intermingling was in 2005 for a show on Bravo called Party/Party, though the television audience's first taste of American beauty pageants in a standard recurring reality series format was Bravo's 2004 Showbiz Moms & Dads.

Ryan's tendency to insert herself into a grander entertainment narrative occurs throughout the self-published book, which while poorly written does make for strangely compelling reading. She claims to be the first to create a Facebook fan page for a child pageant star (imitators followed within weeks, of course), the first to make a pageant girl mainstream famous (though lots and lots of Hollywood starlets, including Britney Spears, got their start on the Southern child beauty pageant circuit), and the first to manage 34 beauty pageant clients (including Maddy Verst, of Dolly Parton fake boobs and custody battle fame). It's true that Ryan has just the right amount of moxie to take advantage of all the fame new media allows -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, talk show circuit, online tabloids, and the seemingly endless cycle of reality shows. She's so ahead of the game with all this that she rightly refers to the moms who are so desperate to get their daughters on the TLC series as "Toddlers Chasers."

But Ryan was particularly impressed by one Toddlers Chaser family, the Barretts, who figure prominently both in the book and in more recent child beauty pageant news. Susanna Barrett, mom to Isabella, contacted Ryan and tried to link up to the "Eden Train," pushing for joint appearances and the creation of a toy line. Ryan wrote of Barrett, "Any stage mom who has so much dedication to the cause to lie on such a grand scale about her daughter's experience in pageants, just to get a little name recognition, is a mom that I will entertain!" While Barrett and Ryan eventually split (and Barrett when on to become infamous for calling Paisley Dickey, a toddler competitor, a prostitute), about a year later in spring 2013 Barrett went on Good Morning America to reveal that her daughter is now a millionaire. Isabella is now is a star in Germany because of her own reality show, but she nonetheless no longer does the pageants that made her famous because they are too toxic.

If it worries you that a six-year-old can become a millionaire based on her participation in child pageants, you're not alone. In the end Ryan not only stopped managing Wood, but stopped being a pageant manger all together because, "Eden was a child and it felt like we were betraying her by brazenly treating her as a commodity." Ryan does write that she deposited some of Eden's earnings into a Coogan account, a hopeful sign for a future, but it likely won't be enough to make up for Eden's lack of a formal education during childhood.

In the end the rise to fame of young girls like Eden Wood and Isabella Barrett, along with adults like Heather Ryan, illustrate the new nature of celebrity, not just in America but also in Germany and Australia. "Be yourself" in a contrived way on social media and reality shows and fame and fortune may come. The new self-styled celeb mantra could be: If you build the Facebook page (and pay for ads), the fans will come.

However, the failure of Eden's World to garner a large number of viewers, especially when compared to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, indicates that it may indeed be much better to be your real self -- fat, flatulence, filth and all -- than to pretend to be something you aren't. Reality princess wanna-bes in Toddlers & Tiaras Season 6, take note, especially now that Heather Ryan is no longer around to guide you.

The Similarities Between Honey Boo Boo and Malala Yousafzai (originally posted on The Huffington Post World)

CLICK HERE TO SEE MY THOUGHTS ON THE CONSEQUENCES OF PLACING CHILDREN IN THE PUBLIC EYE, AS THEY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE HUFFINGTON POST! Alana Thompson and Malala Yousafzai are two seemingly vastly different young women who made headlines this past week. Yousafzai is a 15-year-old Pakistani activist who is recovering from an assassination attempt. Thompson is a seven-year-old American reality television star/child beauty pageant contestant featured on TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. But these girls are more alike than you think.

Malala Yousafzai started blogging for the BBC Urdu in 2008 when she was 11-years-old. The BBC was looking for a novel way to describe the growing influence of the Taliban in Pakistan. They came up with the idea of having a schoolgirl discuss her life, highlighting the fact that she could no longer pursue an education under Taliban rule. Given the danger of speaking out, the BBC knew the girl would need to remain anonymous -- but the girl's father allowed her to give speeches and Malala increasingly took on a public, activist role. On October 9 the BBC's worst fears were confirmed when Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban group while waiting at a bus stop.

Alana Thompson stepped into the spotlight this past January when she was featured on an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras. Viewers fell in love with the sassy, free-spirited, chubby girl. With her pregnant teenage sister, extreme couponing-mom, and blended family structure it seemed the Thompson-Shannon clan was tailor-made for TLC reality family stardom. "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" premiered in August and it quickly became must-see-TV. (Its fourth episode, which aired during the Republican National Convention, garnered more viewers on cable in the coveted 18-49 demographic).

Recently Alana and her mom, June Shannon, have been in Hollywood promoting their show. On the October 23 episode of Dr. Drew on HLN an exhausted-looking Alana appeared next to June. Alana was clearly fed up with all of their media appearances, pretending to sleep and snore, and swatting at Dr. Drew's face. The most disturbing part of her appearance is when she declares that she doesn't like being on television because "fans come up to me and I hate it!"

Alana's life, like Malala's, is no longer private. While Alana's fans don't hate her the way the Taliban hate Malala, Honey Boo Boo's safety is in question. It's been reported that the Thompson-Shannon family now has difficulty eating in restaurants and shopping. Other reality TV kids, like the Gosselins, have had to resort to hiring private security based on threats to their physical safety.

Clearly there are serious safety concerns about placing real children -- who are not characters, like child performers -- in the public eye. If we are complicit in these children's fame, and their compromised safety, by watching and reaching about their lives, we must be willing to change the underlying social problems that they represent.

Honey Boo Boo reveals deep social inequality in American society that, while not as life-threatening as that in Pakistan, is quite serious. There is a reason Mama June's dining room is filled with toilet paper she got through couponing; there is a reason she makes 'sketti (pasta made with microwaved ketchup and butter); there is a reason she calls the local dump their "department store" where they "buy" clothes. In America, particularly in rural areas like the Georgia county that the family calls home, children still go hungry and they receive an inferior education to that of their wealthier peers. No one is going to assassinate Alana for showing the reality of American families like hers, but in becoming the poster child for that inequality Alana's personal safety has been compromised.

If Alana reflects continued inequality in America, Malala reflects continued inequality in the world. The irony is that Alana and her family are now financially benefiting from their previously impoverished family life. It's been reported that they will now earn five-figures per episode.

Meanwhile Malala is recovering in a hospital in Birmingham, England. The hospital posts status updates about her condition on their website. Clearly we're still reading about and watching Malala and Alana. Hopefully both of their families will end up in better financial positions, but at what cost?