by Julia Buckley
The closest I ever got to a child pageant was way back in 1970, when I was six years old, and my mother took my sister and me down to the local Kiwanis Club, where they were interviewing tikes who aspired to the lofty title of "Little Miss Peanut." Each year the Kiwanis Club, a service organization, sponsored Peanut Day, which allowed them to raise money for various charities. As a part of Peanut Day, they elected a "Little Miss Peanut" who would ride on a Kiwanis float in the local parade and--here's the great part--fling bags of peanuts to the commoners who lined the roadways. Truly it would be a heady experience for any youngster.
Trying out for the coveted Miss Peanut title involved nothing more than an interview with two kindly Kiwanis officers. I vaguely remember them asking me things like my favorite subject in school. After all the girls were interviewed, (and I doubt there were more than five or six) it was announced that I had won, and my sister Linda had come in second place (there was a third place, too, but I forgot that little friend's name). It must have been a proud day for my mother--a validation of her own belief that her daughters were very cute.
So she took us to the hairdresser and got us some impressive bouffants. We wore a couple of cheap tiaras which Linda and I found quite elegant, and I got a sash (which I still have, in its crumbling glory) which read "Little Miss Peanut, 1970). You'll note, in the picture above, that I am very human while accepting my certificate. I have mother-cut bangs and missing teeth, a chubby body and only one adornment (a Bambi necklace). My micro-mini was merely the fashion; when we got home I doubt I thought much more about the dubious honor.
Today, the most memorable visions of child pageants are negative ones (because, if someone were to take it seriously, could there be any good thing about a child beauty pageant?). First the term elicits memories of JonBenet Ramsey and her tragic story. And now, thanks to the endless abysm that is cable television, we have a show called Toddlers and Tiaras, in which the producers either expose child abuse or celebrate it--I can't quite decide. Take a look for yourselves.
I find these clips very difficult to watch, not only because a child is being forced to adhere to an adult's bizarre agenda rather than being allowed to play, or to enjoy the simple beauty of her childhood, but because the parents involved are so blind to the potential damage they do to their children.
Reality television in general seems to shine a spotlight on the human need for validation, but also on the fact that these televised characters seek that validation, continually, in emotionally unhealthy ways. It's bad enough when an adult makes poor choices which are then celebrated by a reality-tv watching segment of the public; but it's far worse when a child is dragged into this narrow and self-obsessed world and expected to understand.
I know that this is a very popular show. I don't watch it (I could barely watch that clip). But I wonder that someone out there doesn't say, "Shut this down--it is not in the best interest of children." My students assure me that the producers are trying to EXPOSE the craziness of the pageant world, not to exploit it. If that's the case, I wonder if any action has been taken on behalf of these children?
In the meantime, I can only be grateful for my own mother, who let me be a kid. She let me lie around and watch television; she let me eat good food without criticizing my physique. She let me play and play and play, and she encouraged me, always, to read books. Wouldn't it be great if there were some sort of reality television show about discovering one's potential, which praised children for thinking and learning and creating? After all, they're the ones who will have to answer for all of our social mistakes.