Beauty Queens and Brazen Bias: Social Class Depictions in “Toddlers & Tiaras”

For countless reasons, I object to the television program “Toddlers & Tiaras.” For starters, I find it incredibly creepy to watch little girls looking like miniature “Real Housewives” — not to mention, the obviously problematic element of having the aforementioned girls gallivanting around a stage being judged for their looks.

But I cannot seem to look away. This show is the train wreck of all train wreck television because it involves children, and I am hooked. Each week I’m drawn back and each week I end up in a feverish rant about some new found grievance.

“So why would you watch such a useless program?” you may ask.

First, to be quite honest, I enjoy it. I have absolutely no shame in admitting how much I enjoy reality television. I await eagerly for the drama of the bachelorette (2­o n­ 1 dates, WHY?) and oftentimes shed tears during episodes of “Extreme Makeover: Weight­ Loss Edition.” I shamelessly watch a variety of cooking competitions, large ­family documentaries, and an inordinate number of wedding planning programming.

Second, I think that reality television, even “Toddlers & Tiaras,” can teach us a lot about respected societal norms and “shared values.” Yes, even lowbrow reality television has cultural implications, evident in the portrayal of class in “Toddlers & Tiaras.”

Numerous production choices including but not limited to musical choices, location setting and depiction of family norms, make it clear that the viewership is supposed to look down on the majority of the participants — with the exception of a few more wealthy families featured.

The most recent episode of T&T I watched, I noticed right away the disparities between how lower and higher income families are portrayed. First, there are the introductory photographs, meant to show what kind of area these families are from. Introductions to the lower income area in this particular episode were shown with fields of old tires and run­down shops and that slow music that can only be described as “bumbling.”

On the other hand, wealthier areas are introduced by shining street signs and high end storefront with what sounds like the same music used on “MTV Cribs” (there is no other description for it really). Immediately, we are told what elements to focus on with regard to the families.

In addition to this, the high income families I’ve seen are not shown with any measure of dysfunction or stress, while there always seems to be something unusual going on in the lower income households. That includes everything from over­caffeinating children to extreme couponing to unorthodox hobbies (Or I should say portrayed as unorthodox? I’m from the south and, honestly, mudding/fishing/outdoor activity isn’t all that weird. TLC producers, I am talking directly to you.)

With these factors, we are decidedly supposed to see these families as “other.” This enlarged space between the viewer and the subject makes it easier for the show to create an aura of spectacle, mostly focused on lower income pageant
participants.

“But I’ve never noticed this before,” you say. “It can’t really be that important, right?”

No such luck, fellow TV viewer. No such luck.

The majority of my social interactions in the past few years have confirmed general consensus that my reality television viewing is, in fact, the lowest of lowbrow entertainment. It appears that “low brow” is also being conflated with “harmless” and there is a pervasive belief that it cannot possibly have the same influence as works of higher cultural value.

However, in my experience, reality television can expose some of the most troubling aspects of viewership and
representation in American society.

The portrayal of lower income individuals in “Toddlers & Tiaras” invites judgement from the viewership based upon socioeconomic status, indicating an expected audience that excludes the subjects of the show.

While I doubt TLC will start changing their production style based on one viewer’s concerns, it’s useful to be aware of what subtle prejudices are implied in the shows you watch, just so you can check your bias.

Also published at: Positively Smitten

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