February 14, 2012

Production to examine child beauty pageants

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A long-ago moment inspired the performance art production taking the stage at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Kleinau Theater this week.

Andrea Baldwin, a doctoral student from Abilene, Texas, majoring in performance studies and speech communication, brings her take on child beauty pageants with the performance she wrote and directs, “Little Miss Grotesque.”  The production runs Feb. 16-18 with performances starting at 8 p.m. Tickets go on sale at the door an hour before the performance begins.

Baldwin said the seed of the idea behind the performance grew from a brief, chance encounter in a hotel in The Dallas-Fort Worth area.  A 2-year-old girl entered in a child beauty pageant, crying and on the verge of a fit, crossed Baldwin’s path.  Moments later, the girl’s mother caught up with her, turned her harshly around, and said, “Don’t be ugly.”  Baldwin said she never forgot that moment.

This performance, though, isn’t about bashing child beauty pageants; it is more complex than that.

“While TV shows (such as TLC’s ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’) highlight parents doing less than stellar things, there seems to be a lot of love coming out of them,” she said.  “In their minds, they are doing what is best for their child."

Baldwin’s focus, while not shying away from negative consequences of child beauty pageants, also examines parental relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters.  She applies performance art concepts; inter-textual references; and literary and philosophic theories, such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque, or grotesque realism, to this “hyper-extended disciplining of children’s bodies for display.”

Baldwin said she hopes her audience members will be more mindful and reflective about their own childhoods after experiencing her performance.

“While what the public knows about this phenomenon (of child beauty pageants) is negative and over the top, (I hope) they will see the complexities in the relationship on the stage, as well as in their own lives,” she said.

Diana Woodhouse, also a doctoral student, is assistant director.