Over the winter break, I went home where there is cable television. Somehow, my mother and I ended up watching - late at night - part of a marathon of the execrable "Toddlers & Tiaras."
The show is one I have seen once or twice before; when it first appeared, I made a point of seeing an episode or two, since it falls right within my purview as a person interested in representations of children (and sexuality, and exploitation of children, and on and on).
A kind of slack-jawed, horrified inertia kept us watching through glitz-girl tantrum after tantrum, but the remote was poised to switch it off when a new episode came on. But hold that thought! Because this upcoming show includes a previously-unseen entity in the show: a Pageant Prince.
The boy in question is 7-year-old Brock, from podunk-nowhere, and he is fabulous (in every sense of that word). Brock just loves to dance - he says he's a diva, he loves the sparkle, he has two American Girl dolls who are his friends when no real friends are around (he brings the dolls to at least this one glitz pageant). He shows off some fierce jazz hands, and informs the camera that he wants to go on Broadway.
His mom - despite the fact that she dresses up Brock's very small sister in those heinous pageant dresses and makeup - seems to be great. She says that she and his father support Brock 100% (I wish we could see the father, to be honest). This - the dancer, the pageant boy, the drama queen who loves the spotlight - is Brock, his mother tells us; it's who he is and they love him, and anyone who has a problem - well, they don't need to be around us.
Of course most of the clips of the mom's interview are defensive-seeming, especially all strung together; the show makes it pretty clear that Brock is "unusual," that we are seeing something different that needs to be explained and justified in great detail. Yet we also see Brock onstage, being introduced (he's the only boy in the entire pageant) in a suit with sparkly lapels, and then dancing - his real passion is dance, and his mom tells us his routines are partly planned, partly improvised. Watching him, in black dance pants and a red sparkly tanktop, dancing surprisingly expertly (most of the "toddlers" are rather dreadfully awkward and stilted in their own dancing), my mom said: "he's the most natural of all of them. He's probably the happiest of all those kids, too."
And I think she's right. The pageants are kind of horrifying in eight thousand ways - and the way they sexualize very little girls is just one of those ways - but for Brock, they seem to function very differently. Instead of transforming, as the girls seem to, from fairly normal, un-forced, natural little kid to tarted-up performing monkey, for Brock, the pageant seems to be the place where he gets to be not just himself, but rewarded and applauded for being himself. He wins as pageant King, of course, because he's the only boy competing for the title, but he ALSO wins in the overall pageant categories: he gets Best Personality.
I don't know how long little boys can compete in pageants. I don't know at what point Brock's love of dancing will be overpowered by social and cultural disapproval; the episode mentions that he is teased for doing dance. In another ten years, or six years, or four years, I hope Brock is still dancing and being himself, however that manifests, and that his folks are still 100% behind him. But I also know that Brock and his family appear to live in a midwestern, rural-ish town - places not known for being especially welcoming of any kind of deviation from gender norms or sexuality.
Watching Brock was a delight, and it was also a reminder of why I want to do the dissertation I'm struggling to write and complete. The world I live in is pretty well-packed with boy dancers and queer-friendly folks and lesbians and effeminate men; it can be easy for the urgency to fade from my project. And it isn't that I think my dissertation will make the world safe for little boys who want to dance (although if it did! if it could!), but my dissertation will allow me to teach ranks and ranks of undergrads that little boys who want to dance are pretty great. And that difference doesn't, and shouldn't, imply hierarchy.
I'm trying to write a conference paper proposal about my Mister Rogers' Neighborhood work, and I'm playing around with some of my ideas about representations of masculinities. And, I think because of seeing Brock, I am thinking more centrally about that episode (#1484) in which Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann meets Mr Rogers at Swann's dance studio. Because Lynn Swann, football hero extraordinaire, also danced ballet. And had danced ballet for years and years. He arrives at the studio in his football gear, then removes it and explains the padding and protective gear; then, in black dance pants and a tshirt, begins working on a routine with the other dancers in the studio, under the watchful eye of a rather flamboyant ballet master. Meanwhile, Mister Rogers is telling us at home how wonderful it all is. And Lynn Swann is talking about how much he enjoys dancing, and how it has also helped him with his football.
This episode aired in 1981.
Thirty years later, poor Brock's mom is still having to explain her little boy's love of dance and glitz and sparkle, and his love of dress-up (he was Dorothy for halloween three years in a row, and tells us "I think I was a pretty cute Dorothy" [note: he was. there are photos]).
Mister Rogers worked very, very hard to make the world safe for little boys who want to dance. And I need to work very, very hard to make sure the world remembers that now; I need to work very, very hard to make sure that this aspect of Mister Rogers' legacy is remembered AND continued.