Little Miss Sunshine

Saw Little Miss Sunshine recently, about a girl (Olive) who makes it to the regional finals of the Little Miss Sunshine competition (by default; the winner broke her ankle). Olive is your average seven- or eight-year-old, and the family realises the moment they get there that she is way out of her league when they see the other finalists; young girls dolled up to the nines in imitations of adult beauty queens. Anyone who’s followed the Jon-Benet Ramsey case over the last ten years would have some idea what I’m talking about.

Round by round, Olive is thoroughly outclassed – and within two minutes, you’re glad she’s being outclassed. While the other girls gaze coyly at a forty-something MC who reminded me of a paedophile, she darts her eyes nervously. While the other girls strut around in bikinis skimpy and glittery enough to make a grown supermodel think twice, Olive has a modest swimsuit – you know, the kind ordinary young girls the length and width of the US wear. Olive is outclassed in wit, sophistication, coyness and sex appeal – and aren’t you glad for it.

Then comes the talent segment. Again, the Jon-Benet Ramsey thing; those song-and-dance routines which reek of acting coy and seducing the audience, all with a veneer of childhood innocence. Provocative swaying of the hips, suggestive lyrics, an inch of make-up – all are OK so long as they can claim that veneer of innocence. The routines were injected with huge amounts of sophistication and sex appeal that was creepy to watch.

Then along comes Olive, whose grandfather has taught her a strip routine – complete with tear-off school uniform – to “˜Superfreak’. Except she has no idea what she’s doing; the lack of sex she’s injected into the routine, she may as well be doing the Macarena – there’s nothing there. The routine itself was designed to be sexy, but her genuine childhood innocence means there’s nothing sexy about it.

A couple of people – her family and one of the judges – recognise this, and think the routine is amusing. (So did I and my friend.) But the majority – including other judges and mothers who thought there was nothing provocative about their daughters wearing flashy clothes and being deliberately seductive – are outraged.

I didn’t have a problem with the movie’s portrayal, per se. I thought it was a very realistic portrayal of common attitudes towards these pageants – that it’s OK for girls to wear flashy clothes and act seductively, so long as there’s a thin veneer of (very deliberate, very practiced) childhood innocence – but have genuine childhood innocence permeating a strip routine that’s nullifying anything sexual, and she’s a harlot with terrible parents. Seductive, provocative minxes who are properly and deliberately coy are OK; genuinely innocent children who have no sex appeal to inject into their routines are not. Isn’t that just a touch hypocritical?

We live in a world where it’s OK for Paris Hilton to launch a career off a home porn movie, but not for Britney Spears to renege on her commitment to remain a virgin until she marries. Where Jodie Foster playing a prostitute causes uproar, but non Jon-Benet strutting her stuff. While Jessica Simpson playing the Southern Baptist Virgin is met with approval, Hilary Clinton pursuing her own career is not.

Kudos to LMS for addressing this hypocrisy, at least on a small level.


  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Wow – that’s thought-provoking. That the sex acts are cute as long as they’re a conscious farce, but they’re perverse if the kid actually doesn’t get it.

    Maybe it’s that underneath all the talk, most people are so damn frightened of and threatened by sexuality that they’re only comfortable when it’s been reduced to a farce. Paris’ video was a joke; Britney’s sexual choices were the real deal in her life. In this movie, Olive’s (lack of) sexuality was the real deal, while the Jon-Benets were the joke.

  2. scarlett says

    I think it’s also because Britney was unrepentant, whereas Paris took the ‘I was exploited and I made a mistake’ route. The way Paris went all ‘I’m not have sex for a year’ bit after two engagements suggested a repentance for making big mistakes with sex and going to the other extreme entirely. But for Britney to say ‘yeah, I know what I said when I was fifteen, but now I’m twenty and I’ve changed my mind, that’s my peogative’ was far more unforgiveable in some ppl’s eyes, I think.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    That makes good sense. I… somehow seem to have missed out on the whole Paris Repentance. (This is what I get for avoiding entertainment news, LOL!)

  4. scarlett says

    Well, she took the whole ‘I was exploited’ stand against the ex who published the tape. And a few months ago she said she was swearing off sex for a year.

  5. SunlessNick says

    Very insightful article; and exactly why I find myself in a far more pro-Britney Spears frame of mind than I’d ever have predicted I would.

    [Actually though, I think the rawest part of the deal Spears got is that I don’t think she’s entirely without talent, but Pimps for Jesus have effectively made sure that her level of talent will remain forever irrelevent]

    But those child pageants have always struck me as deep-down sick: “this couldn’t cater better to child-molesters if we’d designed it to; but if we work hard at not mentioning the word, it won’t count, and you’ll be the sicko for suggesting it might.” The worst part is the claim that this is somehow teaching these girls self-respect.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Very true about these pageants catering to child molesters. It could even send the message that our society accepts a person blurring the boundaries between children and adults.

  7. scarlett says

    When the JonBenet thing happened, a lot of girls in my class – I was about thirteen – didn’t get why I thought it was atrocious there was such a culture of child beauty pageants at that level. ‘But they look so CUTE, what’s the harm in it?’ was the gist of it.
    I just don’t understand how parents can justify putting their daughters through that kind of thing – not just because of the peadophile thing, but the sheer amont of work that goes into it. LMS was a really good contrast because on the one hand, you had Olive, who was thoroughly outclassed but just wanted to have fun, and the other girls who seemed so phoney and had dedicated what, all five years of their lives to being beautiful and sexy, probably at the prodding of their parents.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Which raises the question: why does that look cute to people? The emotion of “oh, how cute!” serves an evolutionary purpose: it makes you want to take care of a child or animal that can’t fend for itself. What makes us find a child or animal cute is the differences between you and them: those adorable tiny baby fingers, for example, remind you that this baby can’t even use its hands yet. It needs your help!

    How does dressing a little girl like a grown-up – or worse, a grown-up sex kitten – remind you that she’s unable to fend for herself and needs your caretaking?

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well it tends to make me seriously question the sanity of the parents involved, but I doubt that’s what you meant.

    That’s pretty much what I meant, actually. I mean, if dressing little girls up like sex kittens is cute, then what about dressing boys up like Chippendale strippers, or drag queens, gay adults in leather strutting their stuff? That must be cute, too, right?

    And yet – weird! I’ve never heard of that! 😉

    This alleged “cuteness” is strictly reserved for little girls. And that alone makes it less “harmless” than people are making out.

  10. MaggieCat says

    How does dressing a little girl like a grown-up – or worse, a grown-up sex kitten – remind you that she’s unable to fend for herself and needs your caretaking?

    Well it tends to make me seriously question the sanity of the parents involved, but I doubt that’s what you meant. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere around here before that these child beauty pageants seriously freak me out. For me it causes some sort of visceral “dear lord NO” reaction that makes me wonder why people refuse to let kids act like kids anymore. A little dirt and a scraped knee never killed anyone, but unnecessary body issues and hyperattentive focus on something entirely superficial can do so much damage. Unfortunately I think the people running these things think the kids are “so grown up” which is pretty much the exact opposite of my opinion. Looking grown up does not indicate any actual maturity. And it doesn’t seem like they’re learning how to function in real life, just how to be shallow and competitive rather than working with people and accepting them and judging them based on their merits.

  11. MaggieCat says

    Heh. Well I was referring to the idea of perceived vulnerability leading to a caretaking reaction rather than leading to questioning the competence of the people who should be doing the caretaking, but good point.

    This alleged “cuteness” is strictly reserved for little girls. And that alone makes it less “harmless” than people are making out.

    Obviously they need to be indoctrinated to the double standard early if it’s going to take. 😉 Boys get to do things, girls are just there to be looked at. In a completely passive role. Which is never harmless in my opinion- making people perceive themselves as powerless is a form of control just as effective as physically taking away any power they may some day possess, if not more so.

    I’m sure a lot of those girls would say they want to do the pageants, or they were the ones who started it wanting to play dress-up, but it’s up to their parents to put them in healthy situations which those things certainly do not seem to be. Do they still want to participate after they know what’s involved? Would their parents allow them to quit if they did? That’s not the impression I get, it seems like the parents are far more invested than the competitors much of the time and the kids just do as they’re told. That’s why I question the adults involved.

  12. scarlett says

    Again, this is what I liked about LMS – Olive was very passionate about being in thee pageant, even without her parents particularly pushing her. (Well, her dad was a bit weird, but her mum was very supportive of her making her own choices.) I grasp the logic of the argument ‘little girls like to dress up and show off’, something again you can see with Olive – but there’s still something fundamentally childlike about her dressups and showing off. But there’s nothing childlike about the JonBenet prototype, it’s just creepy, and I refuse to believe it’s entirely their choice, or even mostly.
    Incidentally, Patsy Ramsey – JonBenet’s mother – was a Miss America runner up, something I found very interesting given how hard she pushed JB.

  13. Jennifer Kesler says

    A lot of these parents are probably typical “stage parents” who push their kids into fame, all for the parents’ own glory. Some “stage parents” suffer from serious personality disorders, which cause them to see their kids as an extension of their own identity, so they literally live vicariously through the child.

    The smart ones make use of a child’s existing interests (and you know how many interests little kids go through in a month). This way, whenever the kid wants to quit, they can remind her, “This was YOUR dream, honey! If you quit now, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

    Kids raised this way don’t develop personal boundaries and a core identity the way they should, and may develop serious disorders themselves, and perhaps even pass the abuse along to the next generation.

    While I think it’s entirely possible for a child to be in the performing arts with the support of truly loving parents, I would question the fitness of any parent who allows a child to perform a sexy act. You know, leaving porn around for kids to find is a standard child molester tactic: it introduces the kid to its natural curiosity about sex, so that the child will become (in the molester’s warped mind) open to a sexual “relationship” with the molester. How different is teaching little girls striptease?

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    Interesting comment on an article asking people’s opinions of these pageants:

    I live in Denver, Colorado, not far from where Jon Benet Ramsey was murdered. Even though there are a handful of these dreadful pageants in this part of the USA, almost all of them take place in the southern states. So many of us “Yankees” think they are horrible and teach these young girls that the only thing that matters is that you’re pretty. Believe me, there are a majority of Americans who loathe these pageants. Please don’t lump us all in one category!

    Southern states, huh? The Bible Belt where I was taught that rape is the fault of girls who dare to be sexy, even though there’s nothing else a girl can do that’s valuable? Land of Britney Spears’ Spandex Virgin routine? And let’s not forget Jessica Simpson, whose father (a former minister) couldn’t stop talking about her fantastic Double-D breasts and other luscious bodily features, but excused his comments by saying he was speaking as her manager?

    Yeah… I’m not shocked.

  15. scarlett says

    Well the movie was interesting that regard and what really stood out about it for me was that her GRANDFATHER taught her a strip toutine (from memory, she got down to a leotard) but not the sexinesss connotated with it. He was a warped individual (obsessed with sex, but devoted to protecting Olive from it) and they never go into his motives for teaching her the routine, but there was never a sense of teaching her to be overtly sexual, rather, the opposite.

  16. SunlessNick says

    Beta Candy said this in the Diamonds for Christmas thread.

    It could even mean you’re an unloved trophy wife who exists mainly to model your husband’s taste in finery and show the world what a great guy he is.

    And it made me think of this. Specifically, the sense of woman-as-ornament, and buying gifts as touch-ups to make her a better ornament. Which might sum up these pageants pretty well: look at the pretty child-ornament, showing off the taste and refinement of her family – thus explaining the hysterical reaction when confronted with the idea of any other intepretation, especially sexual – after all, silver spoons or ornate picture frames aren’t sexual.

    Plus of course, in that picture, lusting after the “stars” then becomes infringement on the family’s property, making any reference to sexualisation an attack on their sense of possession.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    Ooooh, that’s a great point! It’s another form of objectifying: not as sexual object, but as family trophy.

    The Bible seems to celebrate the practice of men flaunting their beautiful, well-adorned virgin daughters for sale to the highest bidder. No wonder these pageants are most popular in the Bible belt.

  18. says

    Children dress like grown-ups all the time. Sometimes it’s in play, like firefighter and police officer outfits, sometimes seriously like for formal occasions. Learning how to be an adult via roleplaying is a natural part of growing up. It’s cute because they try so hard, but can’t act like adults; they still need help growing into the roles they will take as adults. Needless to say, the pageants twist and exploit this, but that’s the basic idea.

  19. scarlett says

    Yeah, they REALLY exploit this. I think children playing dress-up is meant to be viewed as cute, like children pretending to be adults, and doing a bad job at it. But kiddie pageanmts, IMHO at least, are about children pretending to be verys exual adults, and doing a damn good job at it, and being celebrated for it.
    I’m glad my little article has got people talking…

  20. Maria says

    I love this movie — particularly the parts where the Dad tries to indoctrinate into Olive a kind of body self hate, over ice cream and chub, and her other family members really disrupt and protect her from that.

    It’s been YEARS since I’ve seen it, and now I need to go rent it tonight!!

  21. Scarlett says

    I haven’t seen this movie since it came out, but I remember there being an adult pageant queen who Olive talks to, and there was this moment that I really liked where she’s all ‘I like to eat ice-cream too’. Also, I seem to recall that that particular judge thought her strip routine was funny, not outrageous, too. I think the dad sort of saw the error of his way when he saw how hard-core the other contestants were. Man, I need to see it again.

  22. Maria says

    YES!! I loved that part. And I loved that she’s brown/mixed racec, and that Olive clearly adored her, and while that’s not something made explicit in the film, I felt that that moment of shared solidarity really hit on the awesomeness of being comfortable in your skin even when others don’t think you’re “supposed” to be pretty AND happy.

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