If you’ve ever seen Toddlers & Tiaras, you’ve probably noticed that its allure lies in large part in our society’s obsession with what many consider to be unnatural or freakish. The beauty pageants shown take female beauty ideals to a upsetting extreme of sexualized infancy; toddlers parade on stage in Pretty Woman’s prostitute outfit and the like, wearing heavy make-up and fake adult teeth. So much of the series’s premise is about being disgusted with the poor children, who obviously are not at fault. It’s impossible to watch five minutes of the TLC show without feeling deeply saddened.
In her recent work, the artist Ingrid V Wells examines “reality television [... and] child beauty pageants,” hoping to scrape away at “the power dynamics of grotesque performer and entertained audience [and to question] the ethics of fascination.” In Honey Boo Boo’s Amurrican Starquest and Beautimous, she the paints child stars in monstrously unrelenting and heartbreaking tones. She explains, “By emphasizing the artificial display of happiness with over-the-top dripping spectacle of paint and well-practiced facial expressions, the paintings critique the type of images that American viewers have become so attached.”
The artist is inspired by Bertolt Brecht in some of her other work, but I also see his influence here. The performative aspect of pageantry and reality television is unmasked; the fourth wall, if we may call it such, is broken. Although viewers may sympathize with the images of the children participating in pageantry, we cannot empathize. The texture of the paint, the drips, the distortion and the blurring, come to the forefront. We don’t approach these paintings like we do Toddlers & Tiaras, with the familiar “Oh my goodness, that poor child!” Instead, we are asked to critically examine through these visceral images the falseness and the artifice of performance. The incriminating lens, as it were, is turned back on the American public: “Why are we fascinated by seeing children as grotesque or sexualized?”
At first, I was disturbed by the images because I viewed them as cruel. What would young Honey Boo Boo think if she saw these grotesque abstractions of her pageant outfits? But I reconsidered: these paintings aren’t the stuff of nightmares because the children are pictured as visually unappealing. Instead, they’re alluring and profoundly disturbing because they remind us of the unsavory way in which we ourselves gawk at them. And that’s a harsh truth we have to face. What do you think of Wells’s work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Images via Flavorwire