When TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras returns April 4, bloggers and viewers will be champing at the bit to see what new beauty procedure, salacious costume, or questionable “go-go juice” the pageant moms force upon their daughters this time. Writing for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, Judith Warner likened watching the young girls undergo their pre-pageant regiments to “witnessing a crime.” Yet, while many viewers have expressed (pleasureable) guilt over watching these girls, no one is questioning how we should feel when watching their mothers.
Media sources have roundly censured the mothers of Toddlers and Tiaras—and not without good reason. From dressing their daughters in Lady Gaga meat bikinis to holding down tikes through involuntary spray-tanning sessions, there’s ample evidence for criticizing these women and questioning their parenting choices. Moreover, by opting to appear on Toddlers and Tiaras, they have consciously chosen to subject themselves to TLC’s portrayal and to expose themselves to viewers’ scrutiny. However, within the realm of parenting controversies, the media’s excoriation of the Toddlers and Tiaras mothers is disproportionately high and lacking in any dissenting opinions. The treatment of these women in comparison to others with harsh or unusual parenting tactics reveals a nasty kind of classism.
While not uniform among the pageant families, many featured on Toddlers and Tiaras are from poor, rural, Southern areas, which the show highlights with stark establishing shots of sparse and depressed towns. The “white trash” markers of the mothers—strong accents, ungrammatical speech, obesity—are also highlighted on the show, providing a classist subtext to the media’s judgment of parenting. It’s not whether waxing your young daughter’s eyebrows or depriving her of dinner is objectively worse. It’s that a Toddlers and Tiaras mother’s participation in supposedly “trashy” culture makes her a beastly parent, while Dara-Lynn Weiss is a merely controversial or micromanaging one.
The media takes a certain thrill in humiliating and hating the Toddlers and Tiaras mothers, and this would not necessarily be a problem (it is reality television, after all) were it not happening against the backdrop of the reaction to Weiss and others, like Amy Chua, a mother who also came forward with controversial parenting techniques and leveraged them for her personal success. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua admitted to denying her then 7-year-old daughter bathroom and water breaks until she learned to play a piano piece just right. She certainly faced criticism, but she was never vilified as the Toddlers and Tiaras mothers have been because her ultimate goal for her children, admittance to prestigious universities, is accepted as legitimate by bourgeois parenting standards.
The mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras are chastised for ignoring their children’s feelings, forcing their own desires upon them, and spending exorbitant amounts of money to do so. If the mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras expended their funds and parental pressure on SAT tutoring, squash instruction, or foreign language immersion, they likely would not be dismissed as broad caricatures that are all too easy to hate. Because in reality, the main difference between a pageant mom and a tiger mother is just a matter of accessories.