Catching Up on TV, Part 1: The Summer of the Stage Parents

Yes, it's October, I know. But between reading, writing, and childcare I'm still working my way through my DVR from August (DVR may be this mom's favorite technological innovation, behind the iPad which helps me AND Carston). In previous summers I have done a wrap-up of stage moms and dance shows, but this year there were so many shows (either a good thing, or a scary thing, I can't decide), I'm breaking up the post into two parts. So, look for my thoughts on dance next week.

In the meantime, I'm talking about three shows I've previously written about:

1) Bet on Your Baby- I was actually surprised when ABC brought this show back for a second season. Not only did I find it pretty abhorrent, but I didn't think it got great ratings. Then again no Saturday night show is expected to draw a lot of eyes and this was probably pretty cheap for them to produce (you can tell from the hostess' wardrobe that they tape many in a single day). Actually this season had even more sponsors ("Walmart With Every Little Step Babydome" and "Luvs Baby Bio"), but there was also more diversity in the contestants this season. For instance, there was a grandma and a mom and not just male/female couples. It also seemed like there was fewer psychology games/experiments and more "fun" games. Still, when a parent bet AGAINST their child it was pretty painful, especially when the child pulled through. In one case it ended ok because the family won fun college tuition at the end, but I still worry the little girl will think her dad doesn't believe in her. One of the lines on the show seems especially true: "Where the stakes are huge and the competitors are miniature." I still find the show in bad taste, though less so than before, and hope it isn't back for season 3.

2) (Jon and) Kate Plus 8- This show came back for many more than three seasons and over the summer a one-off special ran updating people on the family's progress. What was most talked about though occurred on the media tour for the special when Kate had a very awkward live appearance with her eldest twins on The Today Show. In this case the show may have helped protect the kids somewhat by having other adults around, and at least they are getting some more income. But the Kate popularity train has basically left the station completely and it's all train wreck from here on out. Some day, one of them will write some tell-all. Nonetheless, I expect some sort of holiday special...

3) Kim of Queens- This show is still on, airing episodes from its second season, so I'm not completely tardy. And I actually like the show even more this season. The main reason why is that Kim Gravel remains the anti-Abby Lee Miller. In fact, she's so anti-Abby she asks one of her paying clients to leave because she can't deal with her mom, Angie. Angie and Marah still have appearances on the show (likely contractual), but even after Kim's sister tries coaching Marah it's clear Angie's style just doesn't gel with The Pageant Place. Good for them for standing their ground, and still being compassionate to Marah, while not worrying about the dollar and drama. I also love that Kim is aware it's not about winning any one specific pageant, but about the process to eventually win a big pageant, like Miss Georgia or Miss America. I especially loved when one mom realized she likes her tomboy daughter better, and Kim agrees that for two girls pageants aren't helping them. She knows they aren't a panacea, however you look, and she comes across as caring-- and funny. Someday I want to watch Miss America or Miss USA with HER!

Not all extreme parents shown on TV are stage parents, but believe me, quite a few are... Stay tuned for dance moms and dads next week for proof.

The Summer of the Stage Mothers

This has certainly been the summer of stage mothers-- at least on television.

We have the Dance Moms on Lifetime, who continue to bring the crazy. If anything, it's ramping up as the Abby Lee Dance Company prepares for its big "nationals" in Tahoe. Stay tuned for a smackdown with Crazy Cathy from Candy Apples... I can't wait! In the meantime, the moms have moved on from sniping at one another to fighting with the dance teacher. In the latest episode (Episode 9: From Ballerinas to Showgirls) mom Christi confronts dance teacher Abby about her favoritism and not treating her daughter Chloe like "a human being." Mom Kelly has a meltdown over solo costumes, gets into a huge fight with teacher Abby, and pulls her daughter Paige's number from the competition. You can watch this, and more, by clicking here.

While Dance Moms has certainly produced some cringe-worthy stage mom moments this summer, they still can't approach TLC-levels of stage mother craziness.  So, not surprisingly, Toddlers & Tiaras moms still win the crown (though some of the mothers from TLC's Outrageous Kid Parties *almost* take the cake-- pun intended). From the mother reliving her own child beauty pageant days by putting her four-year-old in her old Dolly Parton costume, complete with "enhancements" of the bust and bottom, to the mother dressing her three-year-old as Julia Roberts' prostitute character in Pretty Woman, what can you say?

Good for this pageant mom speaking out against the Pretty Woman costume in "Celebrity Wear" in a very articulate way, acknowledging existing criticisms of child beauty pageants. Notice her daughter is dressed in an age-appropriate Shirley Temple costume, so at least she walks the walk. That said, part of me wonders if some women are being more outrageous to try to get their children media attention. The Pretty Woman mom has made numerous national media appearances in the past week. Sure, she's being strongly criticized, but perhaps that was her plan all along? We know that much of Dance Moms is also staged for the cameras and people are now so savvy about "reality" television that you have to wonder; or maybe I'm just being too hopeful.

While there is always at least a kernel of reality in our reality programming, there is no better exhibit than Kate Gosselin to illustrate just how packaged these shows have become. Kate is perhaps the greatest "stage mother" of our era-- not just for pushing her own kids to be on camera as themselves (a twist to the traditional Momma Rose narrative, since they aren't really "performers)-- but also for presenting herself as the world's greatest "mother."  The change in her own appearance from frumpy frau to yummy mummy is evidence enough of her willingness and ability to literally transform in front of the cameras.  Tomorrow is the series finale for TLC's Kate Plus 8, and it's possible it's not a moment too soon if these children will have a chance at a non-reality/reality-filled life. You only have to read the People Magazine cover story this week to start to comprehend the deep psychological, psychosocial, and sociological effects that growing up in front of the cameras has had on the Gosselin eight, not to mention how they relate to money and view financial stability for their family. These kids have had to work as themselves basically since they were in utero, so hopefully they can eventually make the transition to a non-reality reality.  Then again, twin Mady wants to be a Disney pop star, and Kate seems bully on the idea... And we know how well that usually turns out! (Check out this great Yahoo article on the end of the show, featuring comments by yours truly on the financial repercussions for the Gosselin eight!)

While the end of the Gosselin reality show is the end of an era in many ways, I can't help but wonder if this is just the start of seeing more and more stage mothers on TV doing outrageous things with their kids on camera in the pursuit of celebrity and some fleeting fifteen minutes of fame. What do you think-- is this the apex or the nadir of this trend?

Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants

Over the weekend I was contacted by the group Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants.  I have been reading about their protests of a child beauty pageant that will be held in Melbourne in July for a few weeks now.

Basically a US pageant system, Universal Royalty (which I write a bit more about below), is hosting a pageant and bringing over Eden Wood, who has been featured several times on Toddlers & Tiaras (her mom thinks of her as a star in the child beauty pageant world-- I've written about her before here).  A group of Australians, upset over this development, have formed a protest group that is circulating an online petition and planning a rally. Others have have counter-organized, supporting the pageants in Australia, and Eden Wood.

[After watching Kate Gosselin and her eight in Australia for the past two weeks on TLC, I can't help but wonder if the producers of these popular TLC reality shows featuring kids have some sort of relationship with/affinity for Australia?! Don't get be wrong, Australia is definitely on my bucket list of places I must see in my lifetime, but it seems like a strange publicity coincidence.]

One of the organizations members sent me a thoughtful email, which you can read by clicking HERE.  Below is part of my response. Note that I can't say if Australia should or should not allow this event to be held, but I do not believe that by US law child beauty pageants are illegal or child abuse. Do people do things around child beauty pageants that could be considered illegal and or/child abuse? Sure. But I've seen the same things around soccer clubs and chess tournaments.


Thanks for contacting me and asking the questions you ask.  I really appreciate you pointing out that it is difficult to discern my exact stance on child beauty pageants! When I was doing this research as an academic  I went out of my way to be objective.  The purpose of my academic work on child beauty pageants was not to judge, but to really try to understand how and why people get started with child beauty pageants.  In this message I want to share some research with you, and also offer (part of) my opinion on child beauty pageants.
Essentially, Eden Wood's manager is correct. We do not have good data on the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This is also true for many childhood activities, like football, gymnastics, soccer, chess, dance, etc! The main problem, which I have written about a bit before, is that it is very difficult to get truly randomized experiments involving children, so it is then very difficult to figure out what the selection effects are and the omitted variables (essentially, we don't know if someone who participates in child beauty pageants might have lower self-esteem as an adult because they had lower self-esteem going into the pageants, perhaps because of an overbearing mother, so the cause and effect are all mixed up). Child beauty pageants are particularly tricky when it comes to "research" for another reason-- we simply don't know what the full population of all participants in child beauty pageants looks like.  You can go to a pageant and talk to all of the contestants and their families, but you are really only talking to people who participate in that pageant.  Because child beauty pageants don't have a national organization that regulates the events, or keeps track of participants, we don't know how many families participate, what they look like, etc. This also makes it near to impossible to track participants over time.
That being said, I know of one piece of peer-reviewed academic research that looks at the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This 2005 article in Eating Disorders finds that a small sample of women seem to have higher body dissatisfaction in young adulthood, but not more serious problems like eating disorders and depression. This result does not surprise me as I believe child beauty pageants can be problematic, but that they also can have positive effects on children.
What might those positive effects be? I think the biggest one is learning how to be confident in front of an audience.  When children start young, they never learn to be nervous.  While many moms do have aspirations that their daughters will end up as entertainers (about half of those in my sample who had ambitions announced at a pageant), this skill can also apply to other careers. One mom told me, "No matter what profession or role my child chooses she will more than likely, at some point, need to be able to speak and conduct herself confidently in front of others – whether it be on the PTA, as a stay-at-home mom, or in front of a Board of Directors of a large corporation."  Another mom explained, "Having done [pageants] as a child, you get the feeling that the audience is not the bad guy. They are your friend."  I believe that some children will never take to being in front of a crowd, but for many others participation in activities like child beauty pageants can help they overcome shyness and help develop skills that can help later in life.
Now, do you need to wear fake teeth (aka "flippers"), hair extensions, and false eyelashes to do this? No. Are there potential negative effects in wearing them? Yes. Do we know for sure? No. However, based on what we know about psychological development I can suggest two potential problems.  The first to think about is: what happens when a child (especially a young one) looks in the mirror and doesn't recognize herself? This could be confusing, and even psychologically traumatizing. Second, and a related point: what happens when a girl is constantly told how beautiful she is when she is wearing make-up, sporting a fake tan, hair and clothes done to the nines? When she does not wear those things, even if she is told that she is pretty, does she really believe this? Is it possible to believe "natural" beauty is acceptable when you win a prize for enhanced beauty?  And, of course, there are potential physical consequences to using make-up, hair products, fake-tans, etc. at a young age.
I want to emphasize an important point.  Despite tears (which you will always see if you are around kids this age), child beauty pageants can be fun.  It can be fun to get "all dolled up" for some kids. It can be fun to make new friends from different parts of your state and the country.  In the US one of the biggest parts of most child beauty pageants is getting to go swimming in the hotel pool. The girls are often more excited about swimming in January with their friends than doing the pageant.  But if you only watch television shows about child beauty pageants, instead of attending, you would miss this.  Plus, the pageants the shows focus on are, not surprisingly, the most extreme.  I call these high glitz pageants, but there are also hobby glitz and natural pageants. Not all child beauty pageants are created equally.
Of course, like most things in life, anything taken to an extreme is bad. I have met wonderful people who are involved with child beauty pageants and I have met some pretty nasty people. It is usually the moms who cause problems, not the kids, and that often takes place on the Internet after an event (also something only glossed over in most of the recent child pageant shows).
Now, as for child beauty pageants coming to Australia it's worth pointing out that, historically, the precursors to child beauty pageants were exported to the US from the UK back in the 19th century. So blame your fellow Commonwealth country! :-) No question though that since the mid-twentieth century the home of child beauty pageants has been the US. And, clearly, Universal Royalty is a US-based pageant. I have never been to a Universal Royalty event, but I can say that even before the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras, Universal Royalty's director went out of her way to be featured in the media. One example is an old A&E series called The Competition, which featured an Austin, Texas pageant in 2001. I mention this because I believe that while Universal Royalty isn't the "glitziest" on the pageant circuit, it does have a media focus that many others don't. I'm guessing your group might feel a little bit different if it was a more natural, and low-key, pageant system like Cinderella, proposing an event in Australia?