During the Season 1 finale of Lifetime’s Dance Moms, Mackenzie, 7, started crying while rehearsing for a music video and ran out of the room, ponytail bouncing over her hot pink sports bra. She found her mother in a back room and ran toward her. “Please don’t make me go!” As she hugged her mother, Melissa, Mackenzie’s head was turned, and her eyes made contact with the camera, staring right at us. She pulled away, her face a mess of sadness and anger, and pointed accusatorily at the camera and its operator’s intrusiveness. The image quickly cut away.
That’s when I realized I was watching televised child abuse—abuse that came not from a kid being forced to do something she didn’t like in that second, but abuse that’s far more subtle, caused by the presence of cameras broadcasting moments that should never be public. Which the child stars of these shows seem acutely aware of sometimes.
But just a few days before I watched a repeat of that episode, which was rebroadcast before the hit show returned for its second season, I was fondly recalling a short-lived CBS reality series that also starred children: Kid Nation. CBS’s 2007 series abandoned 40 kids, ages 8 to 15. in a fake Old West town. Journalists, television and otherwise, became hysterical, freaking out. Someone burned herself on a stove! Kids were by themselves! Authorities investigated.
In the few years that have elapsed since Kid Nation, that sense of outrage over kids’ welfare has faded.
There was mild hand-wringing over the children on Jon and Kate Plus Eight when the increasingly crazed parents realized it was lucrative to parade the kids in front of cameras as their relationship fell apart. But now, it seems the only worry over kids and television that gets media attention is fretting that a kid might see a penis or a breast or learn about sex. Sexualized kids being paraded in front of cameras, bring it on!
Which brings us to Toddlers & Tiaras and Dance Moms.
Toddlers & Tiaras debuted as a series three years ago after airing its pilot in 2008, and it is the kind of freak show we’ve come to expect from TLC, which excels at finding and exploiting subgroups for its unscripted series (My Strange Addiction, Extreme Couponing, Hoarding: Buried Alive), and in the process has become the odd and desperate child among its sibling networks, which include the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. The series is a horrifying parade of freakishly madeup, sometimes bratty children being paraded around in hypersexualized outfits by their controlling mothers, who do things like feed their kids Red Bull and spray tan them until even Snooki would cringe. It’s now in its fifth season.
Lifetime’s Dance Moms first aired last summer and, as its title suggests, focuses more on its adults: the mothers and dance teacher of their kids. Its lead character, Abby Lee Miller, is a successful dance instructor who’s also a complete nightmare of a human being. She does things like berate a child that the kid’s mom is at work and not watching dance rehearsal, rationalizing that by insisting, “I feel bad for the kid,” even as she makes the child feel bad.
The dance and pageant moms (and teachers, and judges) are like people on Hoarders who can’t smell the feces and rotting food that make everyone else gag. But laughing at the behavior and hypocrisy of adults is very different from laughing at adults who are literally shoving their kids on stage, both in the context of the show and on Dance Moms itself.
During one episode, a mom and minister named Dawn told the camera crew, “I don’t care if you’re taping; I’m going to kill her,” and then yelled at Abby for kicking her daughter out of class for having the wrong clothes on. A verbal confrontation ended with Abby calling the police, but not before repeatedly suggesting the child was as dumb as her mother. It was riveting reality-TV drama, of course, and it’s easy to see why Lifetime has ordered a second series, Dance Moms: Miami, especially since the ratings for the original keep growing (Season 2’s premiere earlier this month had 150 percent more viewers than Season 1’s).
During the fight, Minister Dawn screamed, “You’re not going to do this to my kid.” But what was she doing to her child? And what are we doing to these kids by watching?
There’s certainly a lot of social value in illustrating the insane pressure adults place on kids while convincing themselves that it is for the kids’ own good. TLC, Lifetime, and reality television producers did not create or cause this, and there’s a possibility that broadcasting it could help stop it.
But what of their role in doing something potentially even more scarring, like having your childhood permanently recorded and broadcast? Although I watch and write about reality television, I’m eternally grateful that there weren’t camera crews following me to capture, say, my reluctance to play soccer or T-ball, among hundreds of other examples, many of which I’ve probably forgotten.
That’s childhood. But these kids won’t ever be able to escape theirs. Is that worth the laughs we get?
Was Kid Nation? I found it to be a fascinating exploration of human behavior and the formation of societies and social groups, especially as they resolved conflicts and came together. It was also just a lot of fun, like when Southern pageant queen Taylor, the series’s villain, ran around barking her catchphrase, “Deal with it!” I wish it hadn’t been canceled after a single season.
Kid Nation and other early reality shows that cast children, such as NBC and Discovery Kids’ Endurance, took place in artificial contexts manufactured to create drama. Kid Nation divided its participants into different social classes, while Endurance had its teenage participants vote each other into an elimination, although a game of rock-paper-scissors ultimately decided who went home.
Dance Moms and Toddlers & Tiaras take us inside existing subcultures and show us something that would be happening whether cameras are there or not. That makes the shows both socially redeeming and much, much worse, because these are the kids’ real lives. They cannot escape the cameras because their parents have made the decision to broadcast their activities. And of course, broadcasting these pageants or dance competitions may encourage more people to drag their children in front of cameras to make them—and themselves—stars.
A year after Kid Nation aired, villain Taylor explained in an exceptionally self-aware interview that she was fed some lines by producers, but added that, “Even though I was the bad person, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I’d love to go back. It was fun.” The key is that it wasn’t her life: it was an experience she had, one that wouldn’t have been possible without TV. And one in which behavior is contextualized and more easily explained; Taylor said her friends were understanding because they “kind of knew that some of it wasn’t real.”
The impact of early fame is well-documented by former child stars, but reality-TV child stars have the misfortune of having their actual lives filmed and turned into entertainment. Thus, when they’re mocked and ridiculed by viewers, it’s about them—not a character they’re playing. That’s what seems like child abuse. The yelling, berating, and demanding is one thing, but turning that into entertainment is something else entirely.