First posted on ABC’s The Drum
Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for Early Childhood and Youth, is about to receive a petition requesting his support for a plan to boycott the introduction of American style child beauty pageants into Australia, organised by the “anti-sexploitation” group Collective Shout
Averse as I am to censorship and banning as methods of effecting cultural change, in this case I’m in partial agreement with the zealots.
Watch the video here and you’ll be left in little doubt that subjecting young girls to the intensive and brutal grooming demanded by the organisers of these affairs is abusive of the little child’s body, mind and spirit. Think hot eyebrow wax ripping off a screaming three-year-old’s tender skin, as well as indiscriminate amounts of chemicals from fake tans, bleached teeth and hair; Botox injections, and after that the make up.
Together with the sexy moves the little girls are taught to use and the glittering costumes they are required to wear, reminiscent in their extravagance of Las Vegas showgirls, you’re looking at a violating form of child abuse that is normalised in certain sections of wealthy Western democracies as highly profitable entertainment for adults.
Some mothers argue that it’s nothing more than a game of dress ups, a disingenuous justification that allows them to convince themselves that their little girls are having fun. But dress ups in your mother’s bedroom don’t entail painful beauty treatments or have as their goal the attainment of physical perfection, and the adults you parade before accept you no matter how you look.
Little girls tarted up like caricatures of adult beauty queens put one in mind of the excesses of drag queens, and indeed the little ones look just like infant drag queens, sans the irony, humour and agency the adults bring to their displays. If an infant beauty queen is a tragic sight, an infant drag queen is even more so, especially if she’s scared, forgets what she’s supposed to do, or falls over her own little feet when she’s parading across the stage while her momma shrieks “Shake it like I told ya, baby!” from the front row.
It’s the patriarchy again
On the website to which I’ve linked there’s some comments criticising the mothers who get themselves and their little girls into this Mardi Gras and Sleeze Ball for tiny tots pageant scene. The disapproving commentary is critiqued by others who claim that it isn’t the mothers’ fault, we must be careful not to start a false good mother/bad mother dichotomy in this debate, and that the mothers are themselves products of a culture in which how a woman looks is all that matters.
While I agree that starting a bad mother/good mother binary oppositional is less than useless, I take issue with the justification that the mothers involved are victims of a sexist hegemony promoting the belief that “…women and girls aren’t human – we are all apparently male’s disposable sexual service stations,” to quote one of the comments.
How then, do we account for the millions of women just as subjected to cultural pressures (the majority, I venture to claim) who are appalled by the pageant scene and wouldn’t dream of letting their little ones anywhere near it?
We can’t account for their escape, but what the victim justification does do is allow those mothers who exploit their little ones in pageants to be relieved of responsibility for their choices.
That’s responsibility, not blame, the difference between the two is a big one, and perhaps the failure to understand this difference is what is preventing some of us from fully acknowledging the mother’s pivotal role in child pageantry.
This victim justification inevitably leaves faceless corporations primarily responsible for the “porno-sexuality” allegedly propagated by the beauty industry, and apparently wholly and indiscriminately internalised by pageant mothers. Women and girls, this argument goes, are nothing but “fodder” for “sexist, classist and racist corporate machinery.”
Where have I heard this disavowal of agency and individual responsibility before? Oh yes, the KanYe West and Brian McFadden sagas; the Victoria’s Secret knickers saga, and most recently in the games rating debate article on the Drum.
Wherever you find those who seek to censor you will find the corresponding denial of agency and individual responsibility. According to the censor and ban brigade, a majority of people but especially women, are bereft of all ability to discriminate, soak up cultural influences as if we have Wettex in our craniums rather than brains, and have to be protected from ourselves because we are undoubtedly our own worst enemies.
In other words, women are even less capable of discrimination and choice than children, and women are a priori patriarchy’s victims.
Never underestimate the power of the mother
My argument for having a close look at these pageants isn’t because the mothers are victims. It’s because their children are, and children don’t have a lot of agency in any situation that is controlled, driven and dominated by the mother’s extreme desires. However much a child protests and some of them do, she is bullied, manipulated and cajoled into accepting the cosmetic violation of her body, and into dressing and performing as her mother demands.
The pageant mother’s perception that her child is inadequate and requires physical enhancements is a damaging one, and we should not be accepting it as part of the “normal” range of maternal attitudes. The completely normal little girl is taught by her mother that she is physically lacking, that this is a handicap, and that if she works hard to perfect herself she will receive love, affection and admiration from her mother, and her wider audience.
This is a message the child will carry with her into adult life, introjected as parental messages frequently are so that we come to think they’re our own beliefs, and it’s a big task to free ourselves of the more negative of them.
The intense maternal focus on perfecting the child’s body should alert anyone to the real possibility of creating an obsessive preoccupation in the little girl that will likely be carried into her adolescence and adulthood.
Never underestimate the emotional power of a mother over her little child, even if that mother is herself a victim.
The Twinkie defence
If mothers are relieved of responsibility in the matter of child beauty pageants, the myth that all that is required to protect children is for us to prevent through censorship and boycotts the patriarchal cultural brainwashing of women, is once more perpetuated.
Faceless corporations will be held solely responsible, and the consumer’s Twinkie defence of diminished capacity on account of having been unwittingly appropriated as fodder for the beauty industry, will serve to deny personal agency and responsibility.
I can think of little that is more unrealistic than ignoring or glossing over (so to speak) the mother’s role in beauty pageants, as is advocated by those who are protesting these events. Their undertaking to instead focus on pageant culture (minus the mother’s agency in it) and what it represents sounds doomed to failure, in terms of productively deconstructing these abusive events.
The “woman as victim” ideology
As are all efforts to control through censorship and prohibition alone, this one is at best superficial. We might succeed in preventing the pageant culture taking hold in Australia to the extent that it has in the US, but we won’t have done anything to ascertain what drives a woman to subject her infant to these ordeals, or what she may be doing instead if they aren’t available as an outlet.
Yet again we baulk at acknowledging women’s capacity for violence whatever form it takes, and instead seek to place responsibility elsewhere.
Yet again we are proffered the view of women as without agency, victims of a patriarchal consumer culture that blinds us to our own and our children’s best interests.
Once again some of us are denying women an opportunity to claim agency and own responsibility for our actions, and in so doing become proactive participants, rather than the perceived passive victim recipients of the culture in which we live.
And, as is all too often the case, the biggest losers are the little girls denied the ordinary enjoyment and acceptance of their normal children’s bodies, paraded instead in grotesque finery in front of adults like primped, beribboned and ruffled toy dogs in a very bad circus.
And again, the question must be asked: what is it with some women that makes them apparently incapable of acknowledging and addressing blatant maternal abuse, even “for the sake of the children?”