Updated Toddlers & Tiaras Drama

After a three year hiatus, my (least) favorite show is back: TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras. Season 7 is slightly revamped and for better or for worse, it more accurately portrays some key aspects of the child beauty pageant community. toddlerslogoNow, I've gone on record before that I think Toddlers & Tiaras is pretty damaging to the kids, the families involved, and the pageant world. I still think that's true, but I can appreciate that this iteration is a bit more honest about some of the behind-the-scenes real-life aspects of child pageantry, and not just completely edited for a TV audience. Although I can't help but point out that this is a show ABOUT kids, but not FOR kids as many episodes have a TV14 rating due to raunchy language (a combination of real life and trumped up behavior for cameras). In one of the more disturbing things I've ever heard, a grown woman on this show yells, "Go have another baby with another man to get a cute kid!"

More than the first six seasons, this one shows the drama not only between moms but also between moms and coaches and coaching groups. These group dynamics are actually quite important to understanding the pageant world. The main focus is Cambrie's Court, but other coaching groups (The Sassy Supremes and Top Models) also rotate through the show. It's nice to show some continuity across episodes and see how rivalries intensify or dissipate.

The show also sheds some light on the Internet dynamics at play. In an early episode this season the Sassy Supreme moms discuss what moms have been writing on Facebook, for example. While some anonymous pageant message boards still exist, much of what is said now is "public" and identifiable on social media-- though that sadly doesn't seem to have lessened extreme things parents say about other parents...

Finally, unlike in other seasons, the COI ("conflict of interest," which used to be abbreviated as COI on those old anonymous boards) is front and center. For example, when the Sassy Supremes compete at a pageant run by the coach's mom! It's also alluded to among vendors, like when a H&M artist ("hair and make-up") refuses to do some children's hair and make-up because they are with a different coaching group.

The exorbitant amounts of money spent (sometimes-- scratch that, almost always-- by those who don't have it), the artificial enhancements to young girls (one of the enduring images of this season will be seeing a 7-year-old pop out her "flipper" [fake teeth] and peel off her eyelashes while in an interview), and the screaming are the same. One screaming fight really bothered me because it centered around a young girl with special needs who received extra coaching while on stage. If the other mother hadn't attacked it could have been a positive experience even if she didn't "win." But with cameras rolling, it turned into something almost certainly damaging. Sweet girl, get yourself to a Miss You Can Do It Pageant instead! But TLC likely wouldn't show that as it's not extreme enough...

But thanks to Season 7 you get to guffaw while reading DanThat'sCool!'s recaps!

Friday Night Tykes: The Male Version of Toddlers & Tiaras

I've often said that in many ways the hyper-masculinity of youth (tackle) football-- especially in the South-- is the analog to the hyper-femininity of child beauty pageants. Esquire TV's controversial series Friday Night Tykes proves it. The 10-episode series, plus a review and discussion show called Tackling Tykes that does a great job summarizing the season and discussing the serious issues it raised, follows five teams of 8-9-year-old boys in Texas. The boys are taught to swear, to injure others, to work so hard they vomit. We see disturbing images of kids unconscious on the field. These children are clearly susceptible to both long-term physical and psychological damage. Much more damage than what a spray tan causes I might add (not that I'm condoning that, just pointing out the reality). Friday Night Tykes

The show has rightly caused a firestorm, which already resulted in the suspension of two coaches, one of whom was suspended for a whole season. That coach, Charles Chavarria, is one of the most disturbing people portrayed on the show-- and basically that I've seen who works with kids. I think the man actually thinks he is coaching an NFL team. He sacrificed his family (and sometimes it seemed his sanity and happiness) to coach kids who he thought were "losers." This man is one reason why those who work with children need to be certified.

Chavarria accuses TYFA (the league that organizes competition for independently owned and operated football clubs) of not offering enough coach training. I was surprised how many of the head and assistant coaches were parents because in my research I found that many serious pay-to-play leagues have moved away from this model to avoid conflict of interest and establish some credibility with respect to coaching and training methods. It's unclear, but seems to be the case, that these are actually volunteer positions-- which makes Chavarria, who doesn't even have kids this age playing, all the more dumbfounding. Parents are clearly getting involved in the hopes of encouraging coaches to play their own child more, explicitly the case with the momager of Chavarria's team, basically the only women in any position of "authority" shown on the program.

Many of the issues that are highlighted in the show are ones I discuss in Playing to Win, especially in Chapter 5 on the business of competitive afterschool activities. These include parents/coaches lying about the age of children leading to verification sessions, recruiting violations by coaches, and disputes over participation trophies. Even statements made by parents and coaches on the show echo direct quotes from the book-- like if you want to raise kids to be winners or losers. So if you want more on how and why we got to this system, please read the book.

The best episode was by far the reunion, mainly because (and I say this as someone who watches every reality show and doc on subjects like this), the series was poorly produced. Many episodes were repetitive, some concentrated too much on tangential issues and not enough on the main story arc. Too many teams and "characters" were introduced and they were was almost too much crazy and not enough fun, sane families (basically only one was shown giving their child, who is clearly talented, any sense of balance in terms of school and family). The reunion highlighted major issues like injuries, identity formation, and long-term prospects for these kids. I loved that they brought in experts and successful NFL coaches and players to say that this system is pretty broken and doesn't even necessarily produce successful high school, college, or pro players.

The sociologist in me does think that missing from the reunion show was a discussion of race, class, and gender. The class issue was referred to once during the regular series, saying the kids on a particular team didn't live in the "soft" gated communities. Some of the coaches talk about previous brushes with the law, which was another oblique reference. Most of the kids and coaches shown are African-American. And they basically only show men. I'd love to see more of these issues addressed and hear what people on the ground think of them and how football is segregating people by positions, sport, and future development in the U.S. today.

Since there will be a Season 2, there's still time to explore these complicated but important angles. I do think there is something different about youth tackle football than many other activities at this age, but the broader issues are emblematic of what is going on not only in youth sports but also in afterschool activities. So, for instance, if you're looking to get your extreme parenting fix now that Toddlers & Tiaras has been cancelled, look out for the next season of Friday Night Tykes...

Teaching for a LIFETIME: My thoughts on Dance Moms, Bring It!, and Kim of Queens

Welcome to the world of Anti-Abby Lee Millers... Ironically brought to you by the network that made her famous, Lifetime. Building off the success (or infamy) of Dance Moms (a show I've written about quite a bit), the network debuted two new series this year: Kim of Queens and Bring It! Given the descent of Dance Moms into madness (it's one of the few "reality" shows where I believe some of the cast members truly hate one another, as evidenced by the arrest of Kelly Hyland), I guess it makes sense that someone had to be waiting in the wings and the network doesn't want to come off like Bravo, only creating drama-filled shows to make people famous. Dance Moms has become so divorced from reality with parents engaging in such egregious behavior that you have to think their contracts are so lucrative/ironclad that it's not worth stopping, or the only way to get off the show is to commit assault. In any case, I can't believe the show has made the players into stars,  as opposed to the negative backlash caused by Toddlers & Tiaras for many families. I mean, they now show the Dance moms (even relatively sane Holly!) painting on abs and arm muscles on their girls-- how is this any different from spray tans? I've asked this before because there are so many similarities between dance competitions and child beauty pageants for young girls, but so many more do dance that by sheer numbers it's not as marginalized as kiddie pageants. On top of the musculature-enhancing make-up, this year/season the girls often wear costumes with enhanced bust (though some are hitting puberty), which is also uncomfortable to watch at times. Also, the fact that sisters Maddie and Mackenzie (oh, excuse me, Mack Z!) are now homeschooled shows how far off the priorities have become and they are truly not kids living a competitive life, but performers 24/7. Despite all this drama, the show has managed to become boring because it's so formulaic. I for one would never want to go to a competition where the show is filming (for fear of rigging, delays, privacy issues, etc.); although I will admit that the show did give me a glimpse of one of my dance crushes, Blake McGrath, even if he did take a presumably large paycheck to work for Crazy Cathy, so I'm grateful for that

When Kim of Queens started I was initially a bit turned off-- and assumed they were looking to create a new Abby (and to fill the void creating by the cancelled Toddlers & Tiaras). With Kim Gravel portraying herself as country I thought she was trying to horn in on the Honey Boo Boo crowd as well. If that angle drew viewers initially though, it wasn't what made them (or me) stay because despite having contrived story lines and bring a bit silly at times, it became extremely clear that Coach Kim loves all her Pageant Place girls and truly wants the best for them. Her big heart (and voice and personality) and tears made for compelling viewing and her emphasis on growth, loss, and the long-term goal/win as opposed to the short-term win/title/crown was a refreshing message.  I of course know the show was staged-- especially so many of the gags with her own family-- and I disliked the way Kin of Queens brought in new girls all the time because the recruits didn't stick around often and it created extra drama when the natural story was more interesting. But overall it was a nice message, and for that reason the series hasn't been as big of a hit. I know Kim isn't always PC, but her comment about clogging being "tapping with hooves," made me laugh. Her aversion to clogging (even trying to transform it into Irish dance) is one example of her outsize personality and wackiness coming from a place of helpfulness and not pure egotism.


Dianna Williams of Lifetime's other new series, which has done well enough to warrant to additional episodes at the end of its run, including a sit-down reunion special, is similar. She is much tougher and even less diplomatic than Kim Gravel, but her students, the Dancing Dolls, face even bigger challenges (the fact that one of the girls' moms became a grandmother at 28 gives you a sense of the challenges in this community). I love that Dianna says she is preparing her "girls" for life and trying to teach them life lessons, which as you know I believe is possible through competitive activities and competitive dance, if done in a healthy way. Bring It! features a hop hop majorette team, which is a style of dance associated with the African-American community and affiliated with many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The producers often defined dance terms and moves, which even differ from more "traditional" dance. At times I thought talk of "technique" was a bit of a stretch but chalked it up to a different style; but in the finale when a dance team aficionado who was judging complained about the lack of pointed toes I realized the Dancing Dolls were a bit lacking. That said, it was interesting to learn about a new type of dance and all the different categories of competition. The "stand battle" was the biggest component, but there were field dances, captain's dances, burlesque, character, etc. I am sure it is much more complicated than the show let on even so I'd love an insider's perspective! The other refreshing thing about the show was that the body was portrayed in a much less self-conscious way. Compared to the thin Dance Moms girls who paint on muscles, the Bring It! girls embrace their bodies whatever their size and dance with energy and enthusiasm as well (note that this is well known to be more common in the African-American community and black girls/women have fewer incidences of eating disorders and body image problems). I didn't always understand the costume selections, but there is clearly a tradition there. However, my biggest pet peeve was the ripped fishnet stockings and the dance tights showing over the top of the costume pants. That said, the fact many of the girls had to wear "nude" stockings for a different skin tone shows that dance companies should make colors in a wider variety of shades.

While Dance Moms is now so popular it is basically never on hiatus-- constantly doing clips specials and now creating a second team, and a THIRD series starring Abby!-- I'll be tuning in to the shows that feature more positive performance coaches with a more realistic and valuable message. Be sure to check them out, especially if you don't like Dance Moms!

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!