Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen (TV Movie 2001) Poster

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Spot the Barbies
nightraven2011 May 2004
Filmmaker Sharon Cookson follows the beauty pageant path of Swan Brooner. Coached by her mother, Robyn, Swan is taught how to behave on stage, how to be looked at. She is told to make eye contact, or to `spot' the judges. As theorist John Berger would say Swan is the surveyed, while the judges are the surveyors. We as audience members are surveyors as well, but we see the whole picture, including the training, the `tough love' that Robyn provides, the make up and hair process as well as seeing Swan act like a kid once in a while. Through seeing all of this, the camera does not re-objectify her and does not present her to us as a sexual object, as opposed to a simple tape of just the beauty pageant itself may do. We as an audience are a panopticon (Foucault's term for an instrument that sees all) because we see all of these things, or we see all of what Cookson wants us to see.

Robyn forms her daughter's looks and behavior based on the stereotypical female, such as Barbies (hence the title Living Dolls). A big part of the pageants includes close up headshots, even for those as young as a few months, where they are made up to look like pre-madonnas posing for Vogue. Their eyes are accentuated with eyeliner and big eyelashes, fake teeth, as well as hair extensions, hair coloring, and make up caked on to a ridiculous extent. Swan and the other girls are also encouraged to flirt with a man who serenades them, by batting their long, fake eyelashes.

Another rather ironic and disturbing part of the documentary is Robyn's role as a mother. Yes she is putting all this time and energy into her daughter, but she neglects the rest of her family. Her other daughter insists that she's dedicated, yet when her other son Bubba runs away, she seems un-phased and determined to stay focused on Swan's pageants. Later Bubba gets put into a juvenile detention hall, yet Robyn still insists on using over 70,000 dollars on Swan rather then helping her son.

This in depth look at child beauty pageants and the non existent childhood of Swan makes a big statement and critique not only on the practice of pageants but of the people behind the pageants, the parents.
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9/10
Like watching a car wreck at slow speed
soriley14 February 2002
Impossible to take your eyes off this insane documentary. There is no voice-over, the subjects speak for themselves. The subject matter is so over the top that it is almost hard to believe that it is real. You couldn't make up characters this over-the-top. An amazing, unblinking look at the insular world of children's beauty pagents, 90% of the world will find it utterly repulsive, 5% will think it's adorable. Do not miss it.
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Critique of femininity in the film
gkjay2210 May 2004
`Living Dolls' is a very amusing film to say the least. The 'accurate' depictions of beauty conveyed in the film only further promote the typical American male definition of beauty and femininity: Barbie. The film furthers these stereotypes with John Berger's idea of the surveyor and surveyed, meaning that men act and women appear based on how the male wants them to appear. The film portrays young children made into dolls as they are coached, dressed, and made up, in order to turn them into a 'beauty queen.' The viewer cannot help but be amazed at the lengths parents will go through to make their child 'beautiful.' Your mouth will be agape as you hear coaches talking about putting hair extensions on 18-month-old babies, and fake teeth on children whose baby teeth were not perfectly straight. It is almost disturbing to see the objectification of these little women as they turn into Barbie dolls. In the process of following one child's, Swan's, journey to 'femininity,' one cannot help but notice the lack of 'femininity' her mother possesses. Ironically, as Swan turns into the ideal female, her mother breaks all stereotypical barriers of what a women and mother should be. She is not nurturing nor does she protect and provide for her family. She is an ex-marine who spends the bulk of her time training Swan to be a beauty queen while she neglects her older children. As Swan is the center of her mother's attention and time, her mom fails to notice her other children. She does not notice her daughter maturing and starting to date, nor does she notice her son's cries for attention as he is constantly in and out of jail. Mom does not nurture and protect her children; she does not cook real meals for them and she acts as a drill sergeant with her children being her soldiers. The lower class white family feels the economic burden of Swan's 'perfection' as Mom spends the families money on the costs of pageant entry fees, transportation, professional coaching, custom made clothing, and rewards for Swan's performance. It is also enjoyable to watch Swan's mom be the dominant partner in her relationship. One cannot help but chuckle when watching Mom's boyfriend bike ride to work as she takes his van.

`Living Dolls' is a movie for the open minded that will undoubtedly make you laugh several times while making you awestruck at the objectification of these children.
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This is NOT a way of life in the south!!
Noelle W Dempsey4 August 2002
I found watching this documentary about child beauty queens quite disturbing. The mentally abusive mother, the neglected siblings and brow-beaten boyfriend who was coerced into giving up his retirement money to fund glittery costumes and adult makeup, the creepy pageant presenter crooning at little girls who are painted up like 25 year old women going out on a Saturday night, five year old girls using "come hither" looks to influence the judges, eighteen month old babies getting hair plugs...yes, very creepy.

However, what I found quite disturbing is the at the beginning of the film there is a claim that these pageants are a "way of life" in the south. Absolutely not true! I grew up in Alabama (not in a trailer by the way) and never saw anything like this. Please do not think this is common in that region..only among a misguided few.
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femininity as a performance
tanyamm2239 May 2004
After viewing Living Dolls, I am now aware of how femininity is a performance. The little girls featured in this documentary showed how certain characteristics of femininity are learned and then performed. During this performance at beauty pageants, little girls are taught to be erotic and are sexualized in order to promote what is called `the total package'. The film exposed the way it could be seen as the parents of these contestants promote the commodification of their children. Watching the actions of the girls participating in the pageant, we can identify the ways class, race, and sexuality intersects in the production of the `total package'.

The girls are objectified then and then play into the notion of being surveyed by the male gaze, where you become a spectacle based the male perspective. But they are not only viewed on the male gaze, we take note how other females also survey each other. The main goal of the contestants in the pageant is to achieve the total package, consisting of modeling a well fit dress, heavy use of makeup, personality based on how they react to the judges. Families will go out of their way to achieve this goal by having fake teeth made to cover where the girl may have lost her tooth, and custom make outfits. The girls learn the value of competition by watching tapes of their rivals performing and criticizing them. By doing so, they learn what to do and what not to do once on stage. This shows how the girls are constructed and splits to be a surveyor of her by looking at herself from a male perspective. The girl begins to internalize herself. The girls are taught to be sexual at such a young pre-sexual age. With practice, they develop the skills to relate erotically to their performance on stage. Stage outfits consist of flashy apparel and slits in the costumes. For the actual performance, the girls are sexualizing their singing and learn how to dance in such a manner. Their routines flaunt erotic and sexualized characteristics, which help them to achieve the total package. Race, class, and sexuality are clearly depicted in the pageant. The majority of these contestants have blonde hair and blue eyes. The maturity of speaking, vocabulary, and diction of the children identify them as being in a particular class. It is also apparent through the clothes the girls model and the stylists that come to the pageants that they must be of a middle to upper economic class. In contrast, educationally, one would put them into a lower class. This is evident from their inability to understand what they are doing to their children. Sexuality is represented when they cut the talent portion of the pageants, yet the modeling portions and the section where the lounge singer sings to the girls remained. This section with the lounge singer displays how these young girls masquerade their femininity on stage. Eroticism is depicted when she sways seductively to the music, smiles invitingly, and the batting of her eyelashes towards him.

This whole segment shows the adult sexualization of these young contestants. The film reproduces existing stereotypes of femininity. This is a performance that is socially learned. Through practice, this behavior is learned and applied to the performing on stage in the pageants, as well as other areas in life. A woman may accentuate her femininity in order to attain something she desires. For example, flaunt her femininity to receive a certain position in the work force. The concept of femininity as a performance, teaches us about gender roles and how they can be interchangeable. Since this is a learned characteristic and performance, we shouldn't assign roles. A woman can be masculine and a man can be feminine as well. The pageant shows little girls having erotic and sexualized characteristics, which help them reach their goal of wining a pageant title.
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An outstanding documentary. See it as a double feature with "Best in Show"
TooShortforThatGesture21 March 2003
I watched this film this afternoon and agree with most of the other comments on it. The topic (child beauty pageants) is very disturbing. The pageant circuit obviously exists for the benefit of the adults involved, not the children. The pageants are a club, a place to belong, like any club, but clearly fill emotional needs in the parent/members. These needs vary - the need to "win" something, the need to have a purpose in life, the urge to create, a frustrated desire to perform, a need to escape their lives and homes and travel, etc. etc.

As many have commented, it is frightening to see children, even infants, wearing layers of make-up and wearing "extensions" and wigs and dental applicances to hide the gaps when a baby tooth makes an untimely exit from that all-important smile. But what is truely chilling is realizing that the parents involved seem to have absolutely no self-awarenes, no sense at all that this is an activity they do for their own benefit and not their child's. The children are used as show-horses. The difference between these pageants and the Westchester Dog Show lies only in the fact that the dogs's owners don't try to make the dogs wear make-up.

I am sure that the kids involved do have fun with pageant life often. But, without a diatribe about the multitude of ways in which children can be twisted by having their parents' needs put first or by having their self-worth dependent upon their looks and "charm" and by age-inappropriate competition, I will simply say that the documentary makes it clear that a life on the pageant circuit should be accompanied by coupons for adult therapy.

(As an aside, I have to say that as a gay man, I was uncomfortable with the gay couple who work as very successful coaches for some of these children, including the daughter of one of the men. In many ways they seemed devoted to proving up every stereotype of gay men. On the other hand, I think they make a good case for gay parenting. They certainly aren't do any WORSE than the other parents in the film. I also respect the filmmaker greatly for the fact that the gay aspect was presented simply as a reality and was not played up. I do wonder, however, how many of the Mom's who drive hundreds of miles and get second mortgages on their homes to hire the couple turn around and vote for homophobic politicians.)

Anyway, the horror of all this aside, the documentary is terrific because it is invisible -- it simply allows the pageant world to speak for itself. There are no comments by the filmmakers who seem to limit their overt involvement to a series of intersticial titles every so often (the work is episodic) that just establish the setting or provide a fact. They do a pretty amazing job of piecing together what feels like a neutral "just the facts, ma'am" film allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusion. Also, the film does not condescend to these people. In fact, I think that a fan of the pageants might walk away thinking that the film was a positive one, supportive of pageant life. That's a hard line to walk for any documentarian.
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7/10
An inside look at the ugly behind beauty pageants.
bestknown4failure27 April 2005
I thought this was so interesting to watch. Even after seeing it once, I continue to tune in whenever it is on. There's something captivating about it. I can't believe some of these poor girls. I figure maybe, some of the kids want to do it and it does look fun, but they have pageants that involve newborns. They obviously don't pick this life. Parents need to understand that they've lived their lives and it is their obligation to let their child do the same. Parents should do whatever they can to preserve individuality and the mothers that force their kids into this strip all of that away. It's was sad the way Swan's mother just yelled orders at her all the time, but a few years after the documentary aired, she and Swan's father died. So as much as I was feeling.. wow what a terrible mom, at least she had one. Poor girl.
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Natural? Beauty
dinke1910 May 2004
In this film, there is documentary style depictions of people involved in beauty pageants. It presents views of the beauty pageant world as generally conforming to a stereotypical pattern of beauty. In many ways, the girls are shown as beautiful only by their conformance to social norms rather than based on character. There are quite a few examples in this film that portray the necessity to achieve to sexual norms in order to be successful in beauty pageants. Also, the film depicts many girls' ways as needing to show off their femininity, as though the central element of female desire for beauty is to show off their beauty and to be recognized as beautiful. Keep in mind that the nature of beauty is being shown here as a creation and a presentation rather than an inherent aspect of the girls in the pageant. The femininity of the girls is being presented for the viewing of society rather than a natural product. The coaches and/or parents are seemingly encouraging the viewers under the guise of success in the beauty pageant world. In general, the primary element that the documentary portrays is that society is dictating norms of behavior and appearance, not the individuals. These `norms' are suggested to be essential to being beautiful leading the girls to believe that if they do not fit the stereotype then they are somehow inferior, hurting their self-esteem as well. The beauty pageant just reinforces female subservience to men, since the girls are presenting their beauty for a generally male oriented viewer, this creates the suggestion that women are meant to display themselves. Overall, this documentary shows the harsh reality that society places enormous pressure on exterior beauty rather than interior.
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9/10
One of the best horror tragedies ever made
ekaun18 February 2002
If you've never seen exploitation documentary, this is a great starting point. As another reviewer said, the subjects speak for themselves. The scariest thing about this disgusting true-life story is that the subjects would probably find it a supportive, wholesome story of family life with a precocious child. Any sane viewer will see it as it is: children trapped by the reality-warping gravitational field of their mothers' solipsistic quests for validation.

The mothers seems to fit into one of 2 categories: 5% glamour queens and, 95% bovine / porcine wannabes. Both are equally disturbing for entirely different reasons. The projection of their failed hopes and warped frustrations onto their trusting children is horrific to watch.

Outstanding documentary. A must-see.
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SAD
jjispi29 March 2002
One will want to change the channel, yet feels compelled to continue watching. The beginning shows a lower class woman who browbeats and psychologically tears down her (yes adorable) five years old child, Swan, as she prepares her for the child beauty pagent ring. Her constant demands and critical commentary on Swan's preformance continually appear to wear the child down, as ninety % of the film, her bewilderment, weariness, and constant strain of preforming like a circus animal show on her face. The other part of the film features the daughter of a gay man, who along with his partner, have made a fortune preparing these children for the pagent circut. The daughter, Leslie, is a little older, and the contrast between the two children is sad. While Leslie is supported by her father, Swan behaves like a beaten dog trying to win the approval of a cruel master. The gay men seem to enjoy the children, and the process, yet the mother of Swan is forced. She guilts the child by saying things a five yr. old can't fully understand, i.e., 'I am taking a 3rd mortgage on my house for all of this, I am getting a third job, etc. Her other three children are in stark contrast to Swan- a troubled teenage boy who is in jail, a sixteen yr. old girl who is slightly overweight, and a virtually ignored three yr. old son. The entire film is troubling, and leads one to wonder how the subjects themselves felt after watching it, and if it changed their attitudes any.
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Great Docu on a sad subject
communic-110 June 2004
This was a great piece, I would rank it in the "must see" category. Having said that, I was disturbed by the pressure put on the kids to perform, and act. I was also disturbed by the parents and their attitudes toward the whole thing. I was convinced when they mentioned the zero to eighteen-months category - of pageant participants. Imagine a one-year-old beauty pageant contestant? Yuck.

Another aspect of the story, was the fathers (gay or not?) who had a sort of racket going. They brought their daughters who usually won. When others saw how well they performed, they contacted these guys who for a small ;-) fee, would coach future participants.

Anyway, a sadly entertaining piece. Gotta see it.

F
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review for film class
batalf10 May 2004
Within the documentary `Living Dolls', the mother daughter relationship is shown through film techniques such as shot reverse shot, facial close-ups, and up ward angle shots. Robin, the mother of Swan, seemingly dedicates her life, and that of her young child's, to winning beauty pageants throughout the Southern United States. But as the film techniques show, the relationship between mother and daughter is that based on Robin's controlling needs. Not only does she virtually ignore her son as he is getting to trouble in school and with the law, but instead she concentrate her energies and concerns by projecting her ideals of a typical white American post adolescent girl onto her four year old by focusing on stereotypical body and personality traits, such as big eyes, as emphasized by black eyeliner, long hair, sometimes requiring extensions, and a flirtatious nature. These ideals come from the Hollywood cinematic gaze which objectifies and commodifies women as bodies by focusing on certain parts of their bodies, and attempts to set standards for an ideal woman, and according to Majer O' Sickey's article, helps little girls and mothers alike believe that this ideal image is that of `Barbie'. This is quite evident throughout the film as the little girl Swan is made to play dress up in pi nk dresses, and as talked about before the extreme eyeliner and hair extensions. This relates to Foucault's micro-physics of power, which is power determined by segmenting the body into parts that must be presented in a certain way, determined by rigid themes, habits, etc.that helps present these parts of the body in the desired way.
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8/10
Rubbernecking Barbie.
abqdiva17 January 2005
This film made me feel like I was watching a 100 car pileup in real time, but - like with such a terrible accident - I couldn't STOP watching it, either. And it is scarier than any horror movie I've ever encountered, because it's REAL.

I highly recommend this movie because: 1) It shows parents how NOT to raise their kids. 2) In some scenes, it is a nearly perfect sociological study of southern white trash culture. 3) It gives a full view of how our society has ensured our "super-model-barbie-culture of beauty" is prevalent among the youngest (all under age 10) of us.

So, be sure to look out for "the great anorexia epidemic of 2010" among these kids. On the bright side, the movie is the *perfect* primer for Hollywood moms.

Some subcultures are constantly under attack for not fitting in with the rest of society. There is no hope for us, however, if this one continues to flourish. Watch this movie and be as frightened as I was.
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10/10
Opportunisitc "Art"
Elchasai13 May 2006
Hello Ms. Cookson could you tell if the following is at all accurate?:

everyone who thinks the kid is "better off" because her mother is dead is a god-damned idiot.

Do none of you have enough critical thinking to realize what a documentary is, the entire thing is edited to make the point of view of the writer/author whatever they want their audience to take away from it, these pageants have been cast in the shadow of the death of jean benet ramsey and the author meant to capitalize on that curiosity, so Robin is made to seem an over-bearing and unloving cattle prodder, when in fact it probably couldn't further from the truth, her daughter expressed a desire to be in pageants because she saw them on TV and began dancing around and after her first defeat her mother started to train her to compete because her daughter wanted to, Swan did all the normal things kids do in addition to going to pageants that she wanted to compete in, the estimation of 70,000 dollars is over a two year span that includes gas for the car, all wardrobe, hotels that were used as vacations for the entire family, lost overtime at one of robin's jobs and many sacrifices to give her child the make up and glitter and right fit on the dress that she needed.

anybody with half a brain can see that this documentary was edited in a manner consistent with the documentary maker's own pre-conceived notions and/or desire to make money by being as controversial as possible.

anyone who watches this film and comes to the conclusion that Robin didn't love and guide and teach all of her children or wasn't a good mother is an absolutely uncritical thinker, has fallen exactly where the director/author of this documentary wanted you too. Please think about what this you are watching, really seriously think about it, the atmosphere of the documentary is one of relentless focus on the documentary as if this was all anyone connected the pageants lives were about. this is simply not the case. this is every bit as normal an activity as soccer/ tap dancing or teeball. these children's parents are the same as anybody elses, they love their kids anyone who pushes them to succeed do the same thing when it comes to their schooling or athletics or anything else, if their is a character flaw in the way the parent goes about it thats just the way they are, perhaps there are some weirdos when it comes to pushing a kid to thinkgs exactly right, but that is not endemic to pageants, its across the board in life-thats the way some parents are right or wrong. But the world of pageants does not engender that nor attract that. the author/director of this "documentary" had an axe to grind, to any critical thinking individual that is clear, watch this "documentary" again, how many narrative questions do you hear? none-the prompts have been erased. ask yourself why?

Robin was a good mother, who worked hard to provide for her kids, the reason why her eldest son had such a hard time is because he had no father, no male role model to guide him, single mothers everywhere have trouble with their teen age boys and it is because of that same reason. It is such frickin shame the way people had to treat this family after this "documentary" came out, anyone who did should be ashamed of themselves, and that woman who wrote/directed this "documentary" sure should be real proud of her opportunistic piece of "art" don't you think?
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10/10
"One of the Best Documentary in Years"
imfntw5 March 2006
"Living Dolls" is a very entertaining, and well put together documentary with a gorgeous cast of People. I don't have to read any of the other comments to know that many of the people on this commentary called it"child prostitution". I absolutely disagree. Those many of you out there are hypocrites, hoars yourselves and have something sick and dark in your own closet to hide. Child beauty pageantry is a great way to teach girls early on that she is a beautiful, gorgeous being and she should be pampered and cared for liked a princess. Without the self confidence and self affirmations many of you commentators do, you would go out there and have random sex, do drugs, and sleep with man like a prostitutes and do not charge them for it and that just makes you even "stupid-er" than a prostitutes. And then you hold your head up high and tell others that you are a virgin when you know that you are liars. Child Pageantry is just a way of life, and no one has any say over any one else's way to live their lives. That is robbing them out of their living and shame on you for that. As for the sad ending of Jean-Benet, well, closed-minded low class stupid Americans, don't you think that perverts exist because they just do, whether that Jean Benet is a "child Pagent winner" or not, that sex crimes against women are really not that biased, perverts will take weak woman, any form, whether she is tiny or huge. Anywway, My hats out to everyone on the documentary "living dolls", Thank you Shane, Micheal, Swan, Robin, Reed's Mom,Leslie and Swan's Dad and her Big Sister and Big Brother, I love you all.You were all very kind and brave to show us what that lifestyle is like and you all are an inspiration to us all. To Those of you who cannot stand this film I suggest that you get a life and stop ruining others and leave nice people alone.
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Scary but true
bestgirl1007 August 2002
This is one of the most disturbing things i have seen in a long time. To think that people could really put thier child in a beauty pagent is out of this world. These little girls work so hard. One of the mothers in this show treats her little girl Swan age 6 like a dog most of the time it looks like she is forced to do these pagents. Swan's mother is a little too obsessed with pagents she workes 3 jobs just so Swan can go to these things.Swan's mother even gives her child suff if she wins if not she has to work until she cries. Another part of this show shows a gay man and his beautiful daughter Leslie. Leslie's father Shane makes huge somes of money by teaching other childern how to be in pagents with one big diffrence he makes it very fun for the childen. Leslie has won over 30 pagents and looks like she is having lots of fun. At the end it show's you inside the makeup room with all the mothers doing thier children's hair and makeup and it's sad because they really are living dolls.This is a must see. It really makes you think a lot about how you treat your kids or how childern should be treated.
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I watch it every time it comes on! Impossible to look away.
giatime20 February 2002
Scary! Gross! These loser mothers, putting their babies through this humiliation. You couldn't make these people up if you tried! I don't understand any of it, other than the mom's are re-living their lives through these little kids.
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9/10
A Realistic and Sad Story
the-evil-cult17 January 2007
Living Dolls is about Swam Brooner, a five-year-old little girl who competes in child beauty pageants. Sometimes I wonder whether she wants to do this because she often seems sad. Her smiles on-stage seem fake. Her mother is extremely pushy and critical, telling her daughter to look up, not sing too low, etc. At the end, Swan wins prize money but the family has spent much more than the prize money on clothes, transport, makeup, accommodation, etc, so really the whole exercise was not profitable. If the same effort were put into trying to get her into college I think that might have been more profitable. Whether the child will be happier in college or in beauty pageants is something I don't know but I would bet on the former.

I have recently heard that Swan's mother died and she is living in Alaska now. She is 13 and no longer doing beauty pageants. Even though she won some beauty pageants, she lost as well, and it was really sad to see her face in this documentary when she lost.

Some comments were made about the observation that although many of the children in these child beauty pageants were very pretty, many of the mothers of these children were obese and homely. This suggests the possibility that these mothers are trying to compensate for their failures by succeeding through their children. That is, the parents are using their children to live their own lives.
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Wow!!
smithfkjs21 January 2006
I read all of the comments about the documentary, "Living Dolls" I would like to comment on this because I have had a granddaughter in Pageants for the last year. I would agree that there should be an age limit on these pageants, my granddaughter is 10, the babies and the smaller children in no way enjoy a lot of the hoopla involved with the pageant scene. What this documentary failed to show was the backstage things that go on...children acting like children and not "made up dolls" like most people think. I was amazed at how relaxed the whole thing is and not at all like it was portrayed in this documentary.

To say someone is a bad mother because of a short span of their life being shown in a documentary is very wrong. I wonder if any of us could live up to some of the expectations most of the people who commented have set. Could they? I seriously doubt it!!
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