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Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Last Friday, one of my students in my Women in Popular Culture class presented on the show Toddlers and Tiaras. As a class, we spent a lot of time discussing what it means for children to participate in pageants. I suggested that perhaps the show, and the pageants, is troubling for many viewers because they exaggerate a more general tendency in parenting where children are extensions of their parents, without their own agency. There’s also multi-layered issues of spectatorship—voyeuristic (and perhaps judgmental) viewers watching the show as well as audiences of the actual pageants who often support and participate in them.
This show, and many others in its genre, raises questions about the line between playing dress up and overtly sexualizing children for an adult gaze; it also challenges the line between parent and child, the boundaries between their respective (or lacking) agencies. Who reflects whom, and for what purposes, with what possible interpretations? I kept mulling over this in-class conversation as I headed home for the weekend to prepare my elder daughter for her first dance recital.
Much of Saturday afternoon was devoted to getting ready—a nap so she could stay up dancing past her bedtime, a movie so I could brush and curl her hair, an early dinner so she wouldn’t be hungry while we waited for her turn on stage. I let her wear some makeup, and I think she feared I’d poke her eye out with the mascara wand (which, true to my promise, I did not). And while none of our preparation seems as dramatic as that which takes place for a beauty pageant, I couldn’t help but notice the intersections. Part of the difference, I hope, is that my daughter got to make a lot of choices: whether to take the dance class in the first place, whether to participate in the show, whether to wear makeup, if she wanted me to curl her hair.
Any choice takes place within a context, though. I have no history as a dancer, so there’s no sense that she’s reliving my experiences there, but at the same time, we are a family who values art and creative expression; she’d been to dance performances long before participating in one. And I wear makeup every day, so that is a ritual that she sees as feminine. A friend once told me that she “didn’t know how to read me,” because I’m an athlete who loves Hello Kitty; I see little problem with the supposed contradictions there, but that, too, is a result of the context in which I act out being feminine.
My question, as I continue to contemplate my elder daughter’s show, is what exactly we’re showing. She took to the stage in all seriousness, an introspective kid who rarely shows the exuberance that lit up her classmates’ faces. Yet when she completed her dance and returned to me, she described it as “the best night of [my] life.” As I watched the performance, I could see the embodied joy in each of the kids. I could see, too, the weeks of practice culminating in less than two minutes on stage. Certainly I can see the ways that the show highlights values of femininity and, as a Christmas show, a kind of secular holiday mishmash. I know in a way that most people will never see for her, what it means to my daughter to interact with her classmates and her teacher, whom she admires. The show reflects on her instructor, and the studio, as well as the dancers themselves.
It also shows hard work and creativity and friendship and joy. And so in the end, as I smile just thinking about that day and re-watch the video and scan the pictures, there’s so much more showing than a beautiful girl in a sparkly red dress and bright black tap shoes. I think it’s good to ask how our choices reflect on parenting and femininity, but in the end any performance is not about what my daughter shows of me or herself; it’s what we show of and to God. And God, I hope, saw an even deeper joy in those dancers than I am capable of witnessing.
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