Culture //

Reality check

Those who cannot learn why putting children on reality television is bad are doomed to repeat it, writes Mary Ward.

Maddie Ziegler has 1.6 million followers on Instagram, 390,000 followers on Twitter, and her appearance in the music video for Australian singer Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ has been viewed over 97 million times. In the past two months she’s appeared on The Ellen Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live, and she’s currently in Australia promoting the upcoming fifth season of her hit television show.

The 11-year-old is having a damn great year.

Maddie’s success could not have come at a better time, because Dance Moms, the show on which she found fame, has not been having a great year (assuming you measure greatness by the capacity to not film and broadcast children watching their guardians assault each other, By various other measures, however – the capacity to promote jazz shoe brands, the sequin-to-spandex ratio – things are going swimmingly).

Dance Moms follows the lives of the Abby Lee Dance Company’s junior competition troupe, and their stage mothers. Each week, the girls are ranked on Miss Abby’s ‘pyramid’ (worst dancers at the bottom, best dancer/kid whose mum payed for the most private lessons at the top) as their mums do their best to make Siri look like a viable parenting alternative.

Abby Lee Miller is part-Broadway choreographer, part-Sontaran. She tells her young charges: “second is the first to lose” and “everyone is replaceable”. She prides herself on once having told
a mother her daughter “looked like road kill”. Yes, it’s totally/probably/hopefully a bit scripted, but that doesn’t preclude it from also being fucked. Earlier this year, Maddie and her dance troupe were filmed as they watched Kelly Hyland, the mother to dancers Paige and Brooke, punch Miss Abby in the face.

Hyland has since launched a lawsuit against Miller for emotionally traumatising her daughters, which is reportedly (read: according to TMZ) worth $US5 million. Hyland alleges that Paige has been attending sessions with a psychiatrist to try and overcome the anxiety she developed under Miller’s tuition (and, you know, her mum treating her like a performing monkey on cable TV, but maybe that’s something to raise when Paige launches her own inevitable lawsuit ten years from now).

And yet, despite the controversy, when the Abby Lee Miller dancers came to Australia two weeks ago they were welcomed with open arms, morning television spots, and thousands of young girls whose parents were either $184.47 poorer after buying their kids tickets to a Dance Moms Meet’n’Greet or $154.00 poorer after scoring a place at ‘Tea Time with Abby Lee Dance Company’.

The dancers were everywhere, appearing at cultural bastions like Randwick Racecourse and the Kyle and Jackie O Show. Even Channel Nine was on it, which seems an odd choice given their desperate attempts to promote The Voice Kids as a really ethical method of exploiting children on live television.

But is there ever an ethical way to have children appear as their unadulterated selves on the box? As each new show comes around – Junior Masterchef, the Got Talent franchise, Toddlers and Tiaras – we seem to reach the same conclusions every time: these children don’t understand what’s going on and thus can’t consent, and it’s hard for them to differentiate between their private lives and working lives if so many elements of the former (their parents and friends) appear in the latter.

Will there ever be a time where television producers decide that making kids watch their mum beat up their dance teacher is perhaps a bad idea? Or will the allure of thousands of girls and their parents’ sweet cash dollar always win out? For now, the latter seems to be winning.