Reality TV has the reputation of dehumanizing people, but my brief experience on it was to the contrary. In the fall, I judged a Universal Royalty pageant that was filmed for Toddlers and Tiaras (read 5,000 words of my thoughts about that here). The episode finally aired this week (I was interviewed for the show, and you can see a reel of my screen time here). Watching the early portion of the episode, which chronicled the preparation for the pageant (as every first half of a Toddlers and Tiaras episode does), was eye-opening, primarily because it was incredible to see the children that I judged actually look like children.
Isys doesn't wear glasses onstage (a lesson from the early part of the episode: her mother doesn't know "how she sees" but is convinced that she does). If she did wear them, though, I would have certainly given her a 10+ on facial beauty. That would have been a bold and endearing choice. Glasses on kids! That is heartbreaking and adorable.
Considering the context of a person you are sharing a situation with is a doorway to compassion. Glitz pageants serve to seal that door by placing children in the most consciously unnatural costumes possible, obscuring their brief lives with piles of hair and teeth and makeup. This could probably be said for any sort of competition that requires a uniform, but of course feels more pronounced in pageantry given the medium's investment in masquerade. This lack of these children's own context serves several factors, but from a judge's perspective, it makes children easier to evaluate -- when they are onstage, they exist as creations that more or less strive for a specific ideal. If only life and the range of human achievement were so simple! We would have so much more free time.
Of course, human error that results in a failure to achieve the pageant-queen ideal is actually what makes these pageants interesting and hilarious. It also always says much more about the parents than the blank canvasses they strapped into their car seats and plied with Pixy Stix. You look at a pageant kid who's really trying to compete and you don't think, "I wonder if she likes dolphins and if she is prone to scraping her knee." You think, "Well, her mom must really be something. I wonder what she's trying to compensate for." In the most fascinating scenario, the answer is nothing. While that provides one sort of context in itself, these kids who have been plucked from their sandboxes and placed in sequins and lace, are mostly defined by what has been imposed on them. Nurture is unnaturally in overdrive.
I hadn't really considered the bigger picture -- the lead-up to the pageant as experienced by each of the three Toddlers subjects I judged (and, for that matter, any of the rest of the 60 odd kids I had to critique) – so seeing it was conscious-expanding on an exponential level. Regarding this highly superficial world through the highly sensational medium of reality TV, I feel an unlikely enlightenment. It tickles my brain to have been able to go back and see what was going on while I was confined to my own existence, thanks to the third eye TLC provided. I can only assume that this is something many people experience as a result of appearing in any sort of verite medium that focuses on the lives surrounding them, and thus is not new to me, but if you haven't experienced it, I highly recommend it.
My association with it was privileged in that my life was not invaded by cameras (if anything, I was the invader in this alien world). I just showed up and watched a lot of Shirley Temple impersonations and talked about them and left. People have commented that my camera time suggests how "seriously" I took all of this, and that is a fair assessment. I surprised myself with how critically I approached this thing, when its inherent ridiculousness was never not in my face, winking at me against the weight of false eyelashes. I existed on at least two levels of discernment. They pointed both at the girls and this entire institution as I sternly looked on while laughing so hard I cried within. I don't know if I lived camp per say, but I definitely now know what it feels like to be a conduit for it.
If anything, the show gave me a nice edit – a few of my on-camera evaluations that didn't make it to air would have sounded unbelievably harsh in the necessarily out-of-context medium of reality TV sound bites. That was my fault, I should have known better but I luckily wasn't punished for it, nor were any of the recipients of my critiques (at least, not to the extent that they could have been). I walked in that room at 8 am thinking, "If I am interviewed, I'm totally going to say, 'I'm not here to make friends; I'm here to judge a pageant.'" And so I did, when asked if I was a hard judge. It didn't make the cut, of course, because it would not have made sense to show me talking about myself (I'm neither toddler nor tiara). Also, maybe they were able to suss out the phony, premeditated nature of that line. I really thought I could retire on the cred of bringing "I'm not here to make friends" full circle, but oh well. Maybe next time.
From the little that I saw, I got the sense that Toddlers was a legit production – I wasn't led or asked to say anything, merely interviewed and allowed to answer honestly. My responses were all filed where they belonged in the episode (no Frankenstein sound bites from me!). When I said the bit about Isys looking miserable, the producer asked me, "Do you think her mom maybe has something to do with that?" I said, "I've watched this show – her mom probably has something to do with that." She asked that I not mention the show. I couldn't help the meta-commentary.
I don't have a lot of insider info on the finer points of the episode, since to maintain my integrity ("integrity") as a judge, I could not associate with the parents or children. I will say that Mia's mom's freak out about her daughter's time on stage during the beauty portion was entirely unwarranted. Mia remained on stage longer than any child (hitting a mark, standing there, moving to the next mark, standing there...), and I initially assumed that it was because she was on the show, thus allotted a larger portion of beauty time. Then when Saliz and Isys came and went like everyone else, I realized the imbalance. If Mia's mother's reaction to her daughter being "cut off" seemed insane on the show, think of how much more insane it is that her daughter was allowed to linger longer than anyone else. I'm telling you, this is mind-expanding stuff.
Mia on the show was infinitely more endearing than she was onstage (which is not to say that I had any negative opinions about this lovely child). That she was able to disregard her mother's shaming when she failed to win the $10,000 grand prize and instead was perfectly pleased with the $500 she was rewarded bespeaks a confidence and sense of self beyond her 4 years. I think she just might have the stuff to survive what seems like a complete nightmare of a mother.
(For the record, I did not hate Mia even before she impressed me with her on-screen groundedness!)
Isys' mom complained about the pageant being "rigged" and left in a huff. I can't attest to any manipulation either way (they collected our score sheets with a frantic diligence to suggest numbers were indeed being crunched, and hard at that), but being that these rankings on her child's beauty are so subjective, anyway, I don't even understand how rigging could come into play. Either 8 random people (at least one of them, me, being entirely unqualified) as a unified group didn't give your daughter the award you wanted her to win, or one person didn't. I don't see much of a difference. The idea that anyone would think that what happened in that room mattered on a level beyond being a (possibly) entertaining activity boggles my mind, since that woman's daughter could step in front of a different panel of eight people with an entirely different outcome. I know that's how life works – you advance by impressing a few people who have arbitrarily ascended to power – but it's also what makes life a big joke. Believe me, I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of taking it seriously, but a greater consciousness really comes in handy.
Just for the sake of fairness/masochism, I searched "toddlersandtiaras judge" on Twitter to turn things back on myself and find out strangers' evaluation of me. Here are some results:
I read gay enough to make people describe me as "posh" and "fierce" and not at all so that people wonder if I'm a pedophile. Like I said: arbitrary.