Little Women

January 24, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Seldom does video shock us anymore. Our newscasts, after all, are a collage of the pained and maimed, the grieving and dying. Our entertainment, violent and explicit, full of bloody bodies and grisly acts. We’ve seen it all. We’re hip, blase, cynical. But then out of the blur of stories and images a six-year-old pixie sachets into our living rooms, curtsying and pirouetting. What is this, we ask unnerved, watching little

Jonbenet Ramsey twirl in the beauty pageant spotlights, the strange hybrid, part child, part woman, with her rhinestone tiara and tiny made-up face. The spectacle is heard and one can imagine sickeningly alluring to someone aroused by the mixed metaphor, child as woman, woman as child.

Of course, we know the punch line: America’s little Royal Miss of 1996 was found dead in the basement of her family home in Boulder, Colorado, sexually molested, physically assaulted, and murdered. In the aftermath, looking at all the images of Jonbenet and the tens of thousands of other child beauty pageant contestants, we were left with two questions: What are the parents who groom their children for this kind of public display thinking of?

And what kind of culture encourages it? While Jonbenet’s fate was unusual, she was not. Our culture is shot through with provocative and sometimes pornographic images of young girls.

Wether they’re beckoning coquettishly from the computer Internet pages, or from the pages of high fashion magazines, these little princesses are everywhere. Weaned on the idea of fame and fortune and pushed by over-ambitious parents, they have become the culture’s pint-sized sex objects, even as the country seems to be frantic about child abuse and child pornography, consumed with sorrow over the fate of the country’s pretty babies like Polly Klaas, encouraging girl children to pout and pose and strut and flirt and compete and begin to starve themselves to meet the body ideal. I know eight-year-olds who already look askance at their little rounding thighs, eight-year-olds who know the names of all the big-time fashion models, Kate and Claudia, Linda and Nikki, and pore over their glossy layouts with envious dreams.

It’s not hard to imagine little Jonbenet poring over these very same pictures with her mother, the two of them imagine her shimmery, crowing future, Miss America, Circa 2008.

Of course, for her that’s not now to be, but other little girls will go right on competing and posing, lightening their hair and darkening their lips while only in first grade. Five hundred thousand girls, age twelve and under, compete in beauty pageants in America every year, two hundred and fifty thousand of them between the ages of six months and eight years.

Beauty is still the female weapon, the female ticket. That’s the retro message–in a world that’s at least partially in retreat, it would seem, from the hard work of grown-up relationships, from women who have the freedom now to be assertive and demanding and successful. So bring on the Lolitas, please, the younger, the better.

Let them sit in the nation’s knee and tickle its sexual fancy and sell its goods, and themselves, before they really even know what any of it means, what the cost might be.

One grieves, of course, for Jonbenet, the woman child buried with a tiara on her head and a teddy bear in her arms, America’s little Miss Mixed Metaphor who achieved fame all right, not as a beauty contestant but as a cautionary tale.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.