Christopher T. Gullen, Ph.D. The Taboo of the Tiara: Examining How “Toddlers and Tiaras” Sexualizes the Child Female Body

The moving image is perhaps the greatest storytelling tool in human history. While informed by so many other art and literary forms, film and television allow access into the minds of artists in unprecedented ways.

“It is this world that inspires me,” says Westfield State University communication professor Christopher T. Gullen, who also co-hosts “That’s A Wrap,” a podcast on film, media, and culture about which he says, “We wax cinematic on a variety of topics.”

As a filmmaker, he describes his work as “informed by citizenship–what it means to be a citizen, or more specifically an American—especially within marginalized or oppressed groups of people.”

Gullen authored, “The Taboo of the Tiara: Examining How ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ Sexualizes the Child Female Body,” a paper that examines one of the most controversial television programs of the past several years.

The Learning Channel’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” series follows the families of contestants in child beauty pageants. The program’s focus on pre-pubescent and younger beauty pageant contestants has generated considerable controversy in academic circles due to the hyper-sexualized exhibition of the children.

“This program is problematic for more than the common complaint that it causes young girls to develop unhealthy standards of self-worth but also societally confuses our reception and interpretation of child female sexuality,” says Gullen.

While critics have called “Toddlers and Tiaras” child pornography and creating in the participants an unhealthy and unrealistic attitude toward femininity and sexuality, defenders have asserted that pageants are a healthy way for girls to build self-confidence and poise.

“Not only do we have a perverse objectification of the pre- pubescent female by male viewers, but we simultaneously have a performance, a practice of idealized femininity for other women,” Gullen says in his paper.

Gullen discusses that by enacting all the various pageant activities, young girls are learning that by placing themselves in these positions, they can get money, fame, and power. He cites the “Toddlers and Tiaras” spin-off program, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” as an example of its disturbing aftermath.

Gullen voices concern that what lies beneath the fake teeth, the frilly dresses and the heavy makeup on young children is a perilous path to identity dysmorphia. In addition, research suggests there is a dangerous connection to the onset of eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression when girls are exposed to sexuality early in life.

Professor Gullen holds both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Film/Media Studies, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, Michigan.

Visit the Communication Department at Westfield State University

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