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?

Cinderella Ate My Pageant Tiara

It's Wednesday-- one of my favorite TV nights. But, alas, no new episode of Toddlers & Tiaras tonight.  This post is in honor of the conclusion of the third season of the TLC hit.

Everyone who has been making money off of child beauty pageants, like TLC, owes a huge debt of gratitude to JonBenét Ramsey.  As morbid as it sounds, without her tragic death, it's unlikely the media coverage would have exploded the way it has over the past decade.  I've often said that if JonBenét had been a competitive cheerleader, cheer would have been vilified for many of the same reasons-- its hyper-sexualization and focus on physical appearance/beauty. (Check out this interesting piece on young girls who do competitive cheer that ESPN The Magazine ran last month. A coach is quoted: "For parents who wouldn't want their daughter to do a very unisex sport and miss out on the girliness of other activities, like pageants, this is a good balance.") Ditto for baton twirling, rhythmic gymnastics, and the like.

But JonBenét did do pageants, so when the talented Peggy Orenstein decided to take on today's princess-industrial complex, she naturally turned to the much-maligned activity. In her latest bestseller, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein visited a child beauty pageant with Taralyn Eschberger, a two-time star of Toddlers & Tiaras (if you want to follow Taralyn's pageant career, you can via Twitter or Facebook).  While Orenstein only described her attendance at a particular pageant, she presents a more nuanced view of the participants' families and her own reactions than any other account I've read-- consistent with some of my own work and writing on pageants. 

I consider myself a child beauty pageant expert because: 1) I've attended 19 child beauty pageants and formally interviewed over 40 pageant moms; 2) I've seen, and own, almost every child beauty pageant documentary made (one gap in my library is Little Miss Perfect, because I don't get We); and, 3) I grew up around the pageant world, though I never competed (Why? Click here and here for more info).

And, Orenstein gets it mostly right. (One notable exception-- on page 93 she says Taralyn stands with her feet in "third position." Any good child beauty pageant expert knows that is called "pretty feet!" Or, if you kick it old-school pageant style, "model stance." I know she would have picked up the lingo if she'd gone to other pageants!) She not only presents a more complete view of the Eschberger family, making visible her older brother who is developmentally disabled and clearly an important part of the family despite his invisibility in the TLC coverage, but Orenstein also shows how a mom can get "sucked into" this world. She writes that while at the pageant she couldn't help but think that her own daughter, Daisy, could do this. Orenstein also talks about being impressed by some of the contestants' ability to mimic their parents, which is quite developmentally mature given their ages.  Being simultaneously attracted yet repulsed by the magnetic and complex world of child beauty pageants is normal if you spend longer than a few hours critiquing them on television.  It's easy to forget that every contestant's family has a story-- though perhaps not as dramatic as the Eschbergers'-- and many of those familial tales are ignored or edited for effect for media consumption.

For this, and many other reasons (like it's funny, well-written, thoughtful, honest, and informative, using a lot of relevant social science research), you should check out Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  You should also check out TLC's latest take on sometimes-disturbing parenting techniques, and princess culture.  Tune in Mondays at 9:30 for the new series Outrageous Kid Parties (last week's Princess episode was truly over the top). I'm sure the backstories of many of these families are also complicated, but, let's face it, complicated doesn't always sell well on TV. We need writers to present the messier reality of growing up today.