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

The Inner Dialogue of a Tooth Fairy Standing by the Side of the Road Holding a Sign

I should never respond to “Will you do me a favor?” with a “yes.”

No wonder sign-holders always look so miserable.

This is miserable.

This is what misery is.

I should be listening to Sufjan Stevens right now, that’s how miserable I am. I kinda want to meet him…but like only for a quick coffee, not brunch or anything.

People in large white vans shouldn’t wave slowly. No sir, I’m not getting kidnapped today, so please stop creeping toward the curb!

Aw, that little kid just yelled “Hey, tooth fairy!”

What a sweetheart!

And now he’ll be forever ingrained with the image of the tooth fairy as a curvy Ghanaian twenty-something.

I did not pull all-nighters in college for this.

Don’t you shake your head at me, bicycle lady, my life is actually pretty good! Your pity is wasted.

I should chase her down and tell her that, but I don’t want to get arrested in a tooth fairy costume.

Did that man with the confederate flag bumper sticker just honk at me and lick a chicken bone?

Please tell me in what universe that gets you women.

I could never look my grandkids in the eye if I had to tell them that I was seduced by their grandfather’s Confederate cruiser and greasy chin.

I’m too afraid of drugs, so when will I ever be able to dance by the highway in a fairy costume again?

Maybe at Electric Daisy?

Let’s be real, I’m never going to Electric Daisy, I’m too afraid of drugs.

Next time I see someone on the side of the road, hating life and slowly losing it, I’ll wave or smile or something.

Mad props to the sign-holders of the world.

I really mean that.

This could be the worst day ever or just fodder for my tell-all memoir.

Must acquire more interesting things to tell-all about.

Maybe I’ll move to Brooklyn or something.

Unlikely.

Also published at The Tangential 

Asantewa in Wonderland: Down the Rabbit(Soup) Hole

After four years in the fast-paced northeast, this immigrant kid has returned to the dirty south and Ghanaian home that I hold so dear. As an unemployed post-grad with no driver’s license, I leap at any chance to get dressed in real clothing and leave my little corner of suburbia. Today, that chance came in the form of a trip to the African food store. For those reading who are thinking that there can be nothing more mundane than a grocery shopping trip, let me assure you that this place isn’t selling your run of the mill lettuce-and-tomato type fare.

Upon entering, I was hit with the overwhelming smell that instantly transported me back to  the dusty Makola Market in Accra. A cart was selected and my mother and I started slowly down the narrow aisles under the incredibly suspicious gaze of the shopkeeper. Moments later, I found this gem:

Millet and Species. Breakfast of Champions

Millet and Species. Breakfast of Champions

Among many interesting and sometimes unidentifiable animals and products, was this porridge mix that my mother was thinking of buying until she was confronted with the possibility of varied species in her balanced breakfast.

Around this time, the shopkeeper stared down my mom and said sharply “Are you Nigerian?” My mother responded with a “No, I’m actually from Ghana” which apparently was the correct answer because she started talking in excited Ga. While she and my mother carried on like bosom buddies, I wandered around and found this:

And you thought it wasn't possible, didn't ya?

And you thought it wasn’t possible, didn’t ya?

This store was a veritable treasure trove. You can’t make this stuff up, kids.

We paid and I listened to the shopkeeper’s vaguely homophobic rant about the current state of sin in America. I was tempted to step in and use my fancy liberal arts education to school her in acceptance but a glare from my mother made it clear that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you meat pie.

More than anything, this trip made me feel like a kid again. It made me feel like an eight year old shopping with my grandmother amidst the commotion of downtown Accra. Or like a twelve-year-old impatiently eating plantain chips while my mother sifts through piles of dried fish. With all this adulthood-business going down, it’s nice to know that some things don’t change.

Plus, if nothing else, I got some great ideas for soliciting a roommate come fall:

Number has been blurred to protect the foolish

Number has been blurred to protect the foolish