Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

“Don’t Be a Drag, Just Be a Queen [or a Grand Supreme]”-Lady Gaga

I should probably be embarrassed to admit in a public forum that over the course of this summer,  I have become incredibly addicted to the fascinatingly disturbing TLC program Toddlers & Tiaras (sadly,  the season finale was last week, but (un)luckily,  I now have Lifetime’s Dance Moms to fill the void).

T&T has received intense criticism for its portrayal of the child pageant world,  a universe abound with flippers (fake teeth),  parents with an obscene amount of disposable income (children often compete in $2000+ dresses for significantly less cash prizes),  and little girls not yet potty trained rocking more eyeliner than a heavy metal band. The main critique of the show is its sexualization of young girls—in essence, that girls are being made into women before their time. Interestingly,  this critique operates within a heterosexual matrix—it doesn’t want to acknowledge children as sexual beings yet,  but it still acknowledges and assumes that they can and will become sexual beings,  and heterosexual beings at that,  when the culturally sanctioned time is right (for more on this notion that children-don’t-have-sexuality-unless-it’s-an-assumed-heterosexuality,  check out Kathryn Bond Stockton). The issue isn’t the gendered performance;  the issue is that the performance is out of time. Implicit in these critiques is that wearing make up,  dressing provocatively,  and sporting spray tans are all okay for the purposes of being attractive presumably for the purpose of attracting a member of the opposite sex—just not yet.

While I am certainly not defending the show (at least for the purposes of this entry) and acknowledge the aforementioned problem and a multitude of others with the child pageant world,  reading Judith Butler’s “Bodily Inscriptions,  Performative Subversions”  made me consider T&T in a new light. In this piece,  Butler points to drag as an example of subversion,  or that which “establish[es] that ‘[gender] reality’ is not as fixed as we generally presume it to be”  (101). Drag causes anxiety because it destabilizes the fictive and “falsely naturalized . . . unity”  (112) of “anatomical sex,  gender identity,  and gender performance”  (111). This destabilization “reveal[s] the performativity of gender”  (113),  threatening those naturalized categories which society needs to exist to continue to operate in a way that accepts and excludes certain bodies,  sexualities,  and genders.

I wonder if the anxieties over the children of T&T point to these glitzed-out girls as another example of subversion. That the gendered performance of a grown normative woman can be enacted by these girls in a way that stirs such controversy and scrutiny suggests that the “woman”  being performed by the girls is convincing enough to critics (or that critics think that the performances are convincing enough to viewers,  unspecified sexual predators,  etc). That this performance can be so easily co-opted by toddlers in a way that’s convincing enough to cause anxiety points to an unfixed-ness of the gender reality of,  in this case,  woman. Another dimension of the “unity”  of gender is its temporality—society wants gender to unfold according to a particular timeline,  and these girls illustrate that that timeline is also open to destabilization.

While Butler warns us that we have to be careful in deciding which parodies of gender are “effectively disruptive”  (113) of false realities and which merely “become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony”  (113),  the controversies surrounding Toddlers & Tiaras indicate a deeper anxiety over gender norms as they’re linked with time. While there are arguably many reasons to be uncomfortable by the performances of these gendered princesses,  how much of that discomfort may have to do with the fact that these girls actually reveal some of gender’s illusory powers?

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