Sociology & Tiaras
Robert Wood Johnson Fellow in Health Policy
Every Wednesday night at 9 pm I sit down in front of the TV, put on TLC, pull out my notebook, and do research for two hours. Yes, that’s right—watching the pageant shows Toddlers & Tiaras and the new show, King of the Crown, is part of my research. Back in 1999, when I was a sophomore in college, I did a research paper on child beauty pageants for a required sociology class. Little did I know that a decade later I would still be writing about pageants, but now as a professional sociologist!
Ever since the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, Americans have been simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by child beauty pageants. Many people didn’t know about these events until the death of JonBenét, in late 1996, but I have found that child beauty pageants have existed in the United States in one form or another since the 1800s. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the growth and development of a variety of events that are precursors to the child beauty pageants of today, including May Day festivals, baby parades, and beautiful and healthy baby contests.
All of these festivals, parades, and contests started at about the same historical moment. Such child-centered contests were part of a larger movement that began to socially value children in new ways. It was during this time period, from roughly the 1870s to the 1930s, that child labor was eradicated, compulsory education began, and children came to be valued as “economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless,’” according to sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer.. This re-evaluation of childhood helped contribute to the development of distinct children’s spheres, like clothing designed especially for children (see Daniel Thomas Cook’s work on kids’ clothes).
The Asbury Park baby parade was arguably the most famous of the baby parades and contests that started at the turn of the twentieth century, rewarding children for their looks and their costumes. In its heyday, in 1893, it drew 30,000 spectators; in fact, it was so popular that Thomas Edison made one of his first movies of the event, on September 12, 1904.
As the popularity of parades and contests declined at the turn of the twentieth century, modern beauty pageants, for adult women, began to hit their stride. The first “live” beauty contest is said to have occurred in Reheboth Beach, Delaware in 1880. After that, pageants began springing up at carnivals and fairs and on beaches along both coasts, with pageants available for every age and body type.
The most famous, successful, and enduring of all of these is the Miss America Pageant , founded by a group of Atlantic City businessmen in 1921. These men wanted to keep visitors on the shore after Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer season, so they came up with the idea of a bathing beauty contest. They held the first Miss America contest on September 6, 1921 (though it didn’t come to be known by that name until 1941) with only seven “bathing beauties.” By the next year there were 57 contestants, and from there the Pageant continued to grow.
After the Miss America Pageant first appeared on television in 1954—breaking all previous viewing records with twenty seven million viewers—child pageants as we know them today started to develop in the void left by the closure of the parades and contests (which was mainly because of fears of polio in the 1950s). If you’ve seen Little Miss Sunshine, then you have a pretty good idea of how these pageants work.
One the biggest questions the public usually has after watching Little Miss Sunshine or one of the TLC shows is: Why do people, almost always mothers, put their little kids in these pageants? I’ve given you a bit of historical background, but I want to suggest a few explanations from other academic disciplines, before turning to my sociological analysis. Psychological explanations usually draw on the idea that many parents vicariously live through their children. Pageant moms are looking for self-affirmation when they are told their child is beautiful; they may be frustrated with their own lives and appearances and push their daughters to succeed in ways that they have not.
Economists focus more on the investment these moms are making in their children. Here the idea is that someday, their children will grow up to be successful (perhaps related to their participation in these events), and they will then have more resources to take care of the parents when they are elderly. Or, for some families, the pageants provide the possibility of a financial windfall. For example, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears both did child beauty pageants. On a smaller fame-scale, some pageant contestants can earn money in other ways. Remember the cringe-worthy final answer of Miss South Carolina Teen a few years ago?
Caitlin has now parlayed that “answer” into TV appearances, highlighted on TLC’s King of the Crown, and a recent commercial. Other pageant contestants use the scholarship money awarded to pageant winners. For all its faults, some of which I write about here, the Miss America Pageant remains the largest source of college scholarship money for women in the world.
And this leads me to part of my sociological analysis of why mothers enroll their very young daughters in child beauty pageants, like those shown on TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras (for a more complete analysis of participation in child beauty pageants, check out a paper I recently published in the journal Childhood). The majority of the pageant moms I met explain that they have their children involved to help ensure that they will be successful later in life.
One pageant mom explains, “I just want to see my daughters go somewhere—go somewhere in life. I didn’t. I ended up having kids right away. I’m stuck at home now. I’m doing this for them.” The idea that pageants can teach children specific skills that will help girls be successful was brought up literally hundreds of times in interviews with pageant mothers. There are eight major skills mentioned by moms (in decreasing order of frequency): learning confidence, learning to be comfortable on stage and in front of strangers, learning poise, learning how to present the self and dress appropriately, learning to practice, learning good sportsmanship, learning how to be more outgoing, and learning to listen. Of course, these are lessons and skills the moms want their children to learn and the children may not actually be learning them…But that’s a subject for another blog entry!
What do you think—can you think of other sociological explanations that explain participation in child beauty pageants? What might some “big name” sociological theorists, like Pierre Bourdieu and Thorstein Veblen, offer as explanations? Have you ever thought about doing a beauty pageant, perhaps even to help cover the costs of college?