Tuned In

The Morning After: Game of Tiaras

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It is almost too easy to be horrified and sanctimonious toward TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, which had its season 6 debut last night. But you know, sometimes the easy thing is the right thing.

The first new episode of the network’s highly successful child-pageant horrorshow was structured around an “ultimate showdown” between 4-year-old MaKenzie, from Louisiana, and 6-year-old Eden, from Arkansas. (You might also recall Eden from her appearance on The Talk, above, or by this more-viewed viral-video version of the performance, slowed down like a nightmare sequence.) In the process, we saw the girls get earrings painfully jammed in their lobes, get woken up with glasses of “special drink” Red Bull and ask–in the perfectly reasonable words of MaKenzie–“Why can’t I ever just be by myself?”

You know, I have two kids. Parenting’s not easy. Life is complicated. Different kids are different. And for this reason, whatever TLC show I watch, I’m always loath to call a real person a bad parent on the basis of a TV show. So instead, let me just say this: I, at least, am an immeasurably worse person for having watched this.

Before the faceoff contest to be the “Ultimate Grand Supreme” (prize: $1000 and a canopy bed), we followed the girls to L.A., where an appearance on Entertainment Tonight awaited them, along with promises of showbiz dreams. MaKenzie met with an acting coach, who talked her through a scene in which she played a little girl whose mother died. Eden’s mother, meanwhile, prepped her daughter to perform an original song that Mom wrote, and hoped that the next time they made it to Hollywood “will be to buy a house.”

Are MaKenzie and Eden actually ready for this? I watch movies and TV shows all the time that involve child actors, so I would be a hypocrite to claim that there’s something wrong across the board with children as performers. But if nothing else, it seems pretty plain that you don’t get to this Ultimate Grand Supreme stage at this age simply because it’s “what the child wants.” Rather, as Eden’s mom—a font of self-incriminating quotes—says, “It’s whatever Eden wants to do, and mama’s going to be right here pushing her.” (Her capping quote, in the show’s epilogue: “In an ideal world, tomorrow I get the old ringy-ding [mimes picking up a phone]: ‘Miss Wood, we’d like to sign Eden for a $2 million deal. Bye-bye, teacher’s job! Hello, Hollywood!”)

TLC’s strategy in presenting the pageant world seems to be to give the viewer just enough to be mortified by, while presenting it lightly enough that the viewer can take it as a harmless good time. (There’s lots of help from the lilting, isn’t-this-all-wacky soundtrack.)

But the quotes from moms (any dads, here at least, are out of the picture) and pageant organizers are hard to write off (as is the sight of a little girl in pink ruffles and a mini leather jacket dancing to “Love Crimes”). And however many times someone repeats “She really wants to do this,” you can’t get past the image of overstressed MaKenzie having a meltdown while her mom tells us, “It makes me angry, because we spent a lot of money on this, and I want her to do well.” (Which, of course, also brings to mind all the parents spending however much money on the pageants without getting to star on a TLC show.)

Nor can the repeated reminders that little Eden is a “complete professional” make her it less painful to see her and the rest of her tiny made-up cohort waiting anxiously to hear who will be declared “Most Beautiful” and sobbing–“Please God! Please God!”–before the Ultimate Grand Supreme announcement. As it turned out, she won Grand Supreme–a shade under the top prize–and was as devastated as MaKenzie, who won nothing. Eden’s mother’s consoling words: “Please don’t cry, baby. You’re on camera.”

That, apparently, is showbiz. When Eden is uncooperative in putting on her makeup before the competition, Eden’s mom threatens her with the specter of losing out to MaKenzie, and talks about her daughter like the manager of an adult showbiz diva: “Do we have to have a come-to-Jesus moment?” she asks.

Yes. Yes, I think we do.