Babies & Bigotry: American Nationalism Through the Bodies of Young Girls

Toddlers & Tiaras hit TLC in December of 2008, the first of many reality television shows to center on children’s beauty pageants and their participants. I was interested in exploring the themes of traditional adult beauty pageants, such as Miss America, that are repeated and restructured in the types of beauty pageants depicted on Toddlers & Tiaras. I will focus on one episode in particular, Season 3 Episode 5, which follows Kylie (3), Keanna (5), and Liana (8) to the “Darling Divas” pageant in Brooklyn in 2010.

Most notable was the difference in how T&T presented the contesting children. Kylie was the “ideal” candidate–small, white, experienced in modeling, wealthy enough to afford a trainer, and confident from the beginning that she was going to win. Liana presents a different narrative: her family cannot afford a trainer or beautician, so she has to rely on her self-proclaimed “natural beauty,” a term that she uses when describing her straight, blonde hair that is “42 inches long!” Immediately after this moment, the episode cuts to a clip of the final contestant and the only black girl in the mix, Keanna, having her hair done by a white woman her family has hired, Miss Margie.

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It is hard not to see the above image depicting a sort of “teaching moment,” where an older white woman shows Keanna and her family how to make black hair “acceptable” for a pageant, meaning how to make it look white. When Keanna says “ow! ow!” in response to the tugging of her hair, Margie excuses her pain by saying “she’s just not used to it,” and this dismissal fits very well into the “imagined communities” that beauty pageants construct “where national discourse is produced as cultural tradition” (Banet-Weiser 7). Instead of implicating herself for her lack of experience handling black hair, Margie normalizes pain as part of the pageant lifestyle, as a means to look beautiful. Pain becomes a cultural tradition, and the national discourse of whether black hair should have to be styled like white hair to become acceptable and respectable is covered up.

This juxtaposition between white hair and black hair recurs throughout the episode. While the camera shows a considerable number of contestants of color at the Brooklyn pageant, the audience only ever sees light-skinned girls, almost all of whom wear weaves, wigs, or straightened hair. This representation, paired with Margie’s comments, suggests that to compete seriously in a pageant, black girls cannot wear their hair naturally. “Darling Divas,” just like its adult counterparts, “manage[s] and control[s] different styles and practices of citizenship” by accepting the “natural beauty” of white hair, and expecting black children to conform to that beauty type by straightening their hair or wearing a wig or weave rather than styling their own hair in a manner unregulated by white standards (Banet-Weiser 7).

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Twice, the episode returns to Liana backstage, where a few black girls stand around her touching her hair and asking incredulously “This is your real hair?” The show presents black girls as inherently admiring and envying white hair, naturalizing white supremacy as part of beauty culture.

This episode includes exactly one beautiful way to be black: by being white. Recall the “ideal” pageant girl, Kylie. Her white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes make her a choice candidate to represent Western beauty ideals, making her the ideal candidate to wear blackness in an “acceptable” manner, which she does by donning a Michael Jackson look (her mother describes Jackson as a “character” that Kylie is “portraying”), and dancing to Billie Jean–then going on to become the ultimate winner of the pageant.

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In her piece “Eating the Other,” bell hooks speaks to this “commodifi[cation]” of blackness “as [a] resource for pleasure,” which relates directly to beauty pageants quelling national anxieties by using culture as a scapegoat (hooks 23). As hooks writes, “the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races […] affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the other” (hooks 23). In this instance, Michael Jackson’s body is the one on which Kylie plays–literally, plays, as she “becomes” him onstage.

Black culture is represented in Toddlers & Tiaras as something that can be put on or taken off in a moment’s notice. This is but a mimicry of the themes of pageantry as a whole–while some bodies “wear” black culture to win, other bodies must dress it down in order to simply compete.

Works Cited

  1. Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Introduction.” The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2006. Print.
  2. hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York City: South End Press, 1992. 21-39. Print.
  3. Williams, Jill Michelle. “Darling Divas.” Toddlers & Tiaras. TLC. Silver Spring, Maryland, 7 July 2010. Television.
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