Let me begin this post with a confession: I watch Bravo TV’s Toddlers and Tiaras. No, I am understating the facts: I LOVE Toddlers and Tiaras. For those of you unfamiliar with the show (um…seriously?), it provides a little window into the weird but apparently very popular world of beauty pageants for the preteen set, if you define “preteen” to include all ages from birth to puberty. Typically, each show follows three contestants through their weekly pageant prep – this would include extensive coaching on how to stand and turn (pretty feet!), spray tanning, gluing on of false eyelashes, etc – and then during the pageant itself. Then everybody gets a crown, and one kid wins, and the rest of the girls cry, and everyone goes home. It’s fantastic.
In the classic reality tv show, the drama – the “it’s-like-a-car-wreck-you-can’t-look-away” quality – stems from the vast gulf between what you think of these people and how they imagine themselves to be seen. In this case, this applies not so much to the children as to their parents, who are considerably more bizarre than the kids, without even the excuse of being children. Is it peculiar to watch a 3-year-old in a bikini shimmy on stage? Not as strange as watching an overweight mom in a TEAM CHELSEA tee shirt unconsciously mimicking every wiggle and pout. Here are some of the things the moms say: “Who’s gonna shake their tushie? You’re gonna shake your tushie!” and “Stop that crying; you are ruining your make-up” and “Princess! What do you mean she won princess? That is like saying my child is a loser!” and “If my husband knew what we spent on pageants we would probably be divorced” (side note: they do tell these people they are on tv, right?). Famously, one mother sent her 3-year-old out dressed as a prostitute a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. AND SHE WON. Some of the kids are monsters and brats, yes. But the parents are the freak show. And what a freak show! Try not to think of it as terrible television. Try to think of it as an unscripted Fellini movie.
Judge away, all you judgers! Personally, I have always suspected that reality shows are an art form, just like graffiti and rap music. And now – now Toddlers and Tiaras has raised the bar. They have moved to new territory. They have, in fact, surpassed themselves. Because last week, the show featured Lacy-Mae Mason, an 8-year-old girl with achondroplasia.
Don’t cringe! I see you cringing. This was no horrible “we represent the Lollipop Guild” moment. This was an 8-year-old girl – a pageant participant and not a sideshow. An 8-year-old girl with short arms and short legs and a very pretty face. Watching the show, I am not positive that I agree with her mother, who said she believes “her size hasn’t been an issue,” but I am certain she was the sanest pageant mom ever on T&T. “She entered her first pageant because they were handing out trophies just for participating,” Mason said. “I thought it would be great for her self-esteem to tell her one day that the trophy on her mantle was from a beauty pageant.” And the kid – don’t get me started. Lacey-Mae Mason is my hero.
A cute little-person story, I thought. Very inspirational for kids with disabilities; all that blah, blah, blah. But no – it was something more.
Because this child wasn’t just not-a-freak. This child, in a world of freaks, was normal. On a show that specializes in twisted family dynamics and the perversion of childhood, the kid with achondroplasia represented normalcy and healthy relationships. This wasn’t Frankenstein or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This was The Little Drummer Boy. It was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This wasn’t about pity or tolerance or sensitivity to the needs of those who don’t measure up. Their depiction of Lacey-Mae didn’t carry the message that little people are human too. In that twisted environment, Lacey-Mae and her family were an illustration of what human ought to be. She lit up that stage, and when she won one of the bigger prizes, you didn’t wonder for one moment if it was a sympathy vote. “I’m a GIANT pageant princess!“ Lacey-Mae said. Yes you are, sweetheart. Yes you are.