Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dance Moms and Child Abuse as Post-Modern Entertainment

Are popular reality TV programs symptomatic of an emerging mass generational contempt for breeding itself?



Over the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with the Lifetime cable program “Dance Moms.” For the unknowing, it’s a “reality” television series that focuses on the lives of several new-wave yuppie moms that spend outlandish sums of money to have their personality-less daughters get yelled at and exercised half to death by a she-wolf dance instructor who more or less resembles a hippopotamus in sweat pants.

The mothers on the program are all various shades of the worst human beings you could ever imagine; a bunch of dim-as-a-blown-light-bulb pseudo-blonde alkies (with the exception of a Michelle Obama doppelganger, who is perennially frustrated by her child -- the only African-American girl on the program -- constantly being garbed in jungle-themed regalia) that scream, curse and backstab one another with the sort of melodramatic glee usually reserved only for the cheesiest of Spanish-language soap operas.

The children on the program are practically chattel; pieces of meat whose failings and triumphs at various competitions serve as nothing more than a convenient excuse for the adults on the program to bitch and bicker at one another. The grown-ups on the program mercilessly decry the children for showing an interest in anything other than dance contest success; moms make “jokes” about education being a waste of time for their daughters, and one miniature ballerina once said that without dancing, she would probably kill herself.

The dance numbers -- which usually revolve around the tykes dressing like common street walkers and gyrating on stage like Miley Cyrus mini-mes -- are interspersed with “dramatic” subplots, which usually obliquely gloss over the fact that at least half of the parents on the program have obvious drinking problems (in one episode, a sloshed mother even ends up searing the flesh of a competitor with a curling iron.) The mothers -- who endlessly sling verbal barbs at the rotund dance instructor and refer to each other as “whores” and “bitches” in front of six-year-olds -- are really only united by their hatred of a rival dance studio, which is commandeered by a toothy wash-up whose (presumably, adopted) daughter clearly has some sort of unmentioned developmental disorder going on.

The show, thematically, has several commonalities with another program, “Toddlers & Tiaras,” a popular cable series that is perhaps most noteworthy for introducing “Honey Boo Boo” -- a morbidly obese grade schooler living in borderline squalor with her mentally challenged kindred -- into the national consciousness. Of course, both programs ultimately pale in comparison to the undisputed king of child-centric, cable reality programs, “Beyond Scared Straight” -- an A&E series that revolves around the Justice Department-rejected practice of placing young kids in jailhouses and letting inmates threaten them with acts of bodily harm.

All three shows are indelibly popular, and all three shows, at least in some way, speak to a perverse, contemporary cultural perspective on the value of children. Whereas in the past, our society’s default mantra was “the children are our future,” television programs of the ilk seem to be promoting an entirely different message to the masses: “forget the children, and if we can, let’s have a few giggles at their maltreatment!”

Throughout Millennial culture, one is likely to detect a certain air of infantilization; not only are our consumer tastes clearly leaning towards the juvenile and the unsophisticated (comic book fare and fantasy programs continue to dominate the pop culture landscape, after all), but our very ways of life now seem to skew towards an extended adolescence itself.

The blunt reality is that Generation M is one with a great distaste for the “traditional” family construct. Instead of focusing on childbirth and marriage, ours is a culture that instead emphasizes the fruits of consumer culture -- why have a spouse and raise a couple of rugrats (or even own one’s home) when all that moolah could go towards non-essential purchases like smartphones, tablet computers and Playstation4s instead?

As such, the child -- once the most celebrated concept in all of U.S. society -- has been degraded, if you will, to the status of pariah. Restaurants excluding child customers altogether have become unsurprisingly lucrative, and movements to ban children from attending movie theaters (no doubt sparked by childless, under-30-somethings who want to enjoy their Marvel Cinematic Universe films like adults) are growing in popularity.

Of course, the Facebook Generation will merrily throw its (largely symbolic) support behind campaigns that seek to stamp out child abuse, but their entertainment preferences seems to tell another story; take for example, the popular film “Bad Grandpa,” whose “humor” largely rests upon the child-hating antics of a protagonist with a penchant for verbally abusing his grandkid. In the 20th century, the anti-child shtick of W.C. Fields was an aberration in pop culture; today, however, it seems to be the overwhelming majority consensus.

At the heart of this pop culture transvaluation rests an unspoken truth about contemporary America; Generation M (in particular, its college-educated denizens), AREN’T becoming grown-ups. They are fleeing their homes in smaller numbers, fewer are getting married in their 20s, and most notably of all, the number of young Americans starting families of their own is in a serious tailspin. The big three qualifiers of adulthood (home ownership, marriage and childbirth) are quickly becoming outmoded concepts to today’s generation; in short, we’re seeing a complete eradication of the natural social order that has underpinned the very bedrock of Western culture for centuries. A similar cultural transvaluation, it is perhaps worth noting, is slowly setting  Japan up for one of the most remarkable total population declines in history; whether or not this portends a bona-fide “Idiocracy” situation for America itself, however, has yet to be revealed.

So, back to “Dance Moms” and its ilk. While the shows are no doubt popular among a large swath of middle aged, suburban moms, the programs’ true subversive qualities ring truest for the under 30-set, primarily, those without kids who have a general disdain for the American family model as a whole. It makes sense, really: a large underclass of emerging paraprofessionals, all scarred by the breakdown of the nuclear family, viewing the vivisection of the American yuppie household as darker-than-a-turd’s-shadow comedy.  “Dance Moms” and “Beyond Scared Straight” aren’t as much entertainment as they are forms of vengeful voyeurism, an opportunity to revel in the disintegration of the other (in this case, the next-next generation) like a bunch of bloodthirsty spectators waiting for car crash wreckage to be cleared; with bated breath, we lick our chops, waiting for the severed body parts to be revealed.

Why does Generation M hate children so much? Perhaps it’s a sort of jealousy, an older sibling envy that they get all the toys we want without all the hassles of semi-adulthood -- oh, the joys a six-year-old must have, not having to worry about student loans and credit card debt and all of those trifles. Or perhaps it’s envy from the other side of the pasture; that, deep down, we want to start families of our own, but the post-Recession wasteland has made child rearing a financial impossibility.

Either way, the reality is unmistakable: Generation M is to be an America in which a larger throng of educated individuals are to go childless than at any other epoch in our nation’s history. This disinterest in (perhaps even a disdain of?) reproduction represents a profound shift in U.S. society, marking the culture’s slow turn away from the classical family model, and perhaps among certain demographics, the first steps of a massive “depopulation” trend that will surely impact the nation’s overall cultural composition.

That’s the grim, underlying metahumor of “Honey Boo Boo” and “Scared Straight,” which our culture seems too afraid to come out and utter: all we’re doing is just heeing and hawing at the misery of the children we’ll  probably never sire ourselves.

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