Will France ban childhood beauty pageants?

December 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In January, France's national legislature will vote whether to ban childhood beauty pageants. Critics contend that the pageants send the wrong message to young girls and only add to what they argue is an already over-sexualized environment for children today. William Brangham of NewsHour Weekend reports.
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TRANSCRIPT

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the public imagination, France is renowned for many things: its cuisine…its culture… as well as a very open embrace of female beauty.

You can’t walk a city block in Paris without seeing the scantily clad models showcasing France’s high fashion industry.  This is the nation that gave us Brigit Bardot And Catherine Deneuve, and welcomed former supermodel Carla Bruni as its first lady… this after her many years modeling with very little – or nothing at all — on.

Given all that, it’s maybe a bit surprising that a controversy has erupted in France over what some argue is the ‘hyper-sexualization” of young girls….  Girls like 9 year old Anais Agogue… Anais regularly competes in what are called “mini miss pageants”

MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) This was her first pageant.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  How old?

MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) She was 6 and a half years old.

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM:   Anais lives with her family in a suburb of Paris.  Her mom Martine showed me photos of Anais competing.

MARTINE AGOGUE:  When Anais comes out on stage people stand up and applaud her. I mean of course there is this feeling, this pride.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  In the pageants, the girls wear formal dresses –no heavy makeup, no high-heels. They walk on stage, say a few words, and a winner is picked for her overall poise and presentation.

Martine makes most of the dresses Anais wears.

MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) This one is for Anais’s next competition

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  She loves that the pageants bring her closer to her daughter, and thinks the awards Anais has won gives her a sense of accomplishment.

ANAIS AGOGUE: (translated from French) We arrive in the afternoon, have lunch, talk with our friends.  My favorite part is when I’m on stage and when I put on my dress.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  But Anais’s favorite activity might be threatened because of what happened with another young French girl.  Back in 2010 this photo spread appeared in French Vogue magazine.   The model here is 10 years old.

At first, no one in France paid much attention… but women’s groups in the U.S. were outraged, and they took their case public.

ABC Reporter: When you see these pictures, what do you think?

Woman in ABC report (Koa Beck, Mommyish.com) I see a young girl being sexualized.

WILLIAM  BRANGHAM (to Jouanno):  When you saw those photographs, what was your reaction?

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO:  Well, you always think of art.  So, you think this is only creation, this is artistic.  So, you don’t see the problem.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Chantal Jouanno is a senator in the French legislature and a member of the center-right ‘UDI’ party.  She says the fashion industry gets a lot of leeway in France, but the American reaction to these photos made her and others take a second look.

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: But after, when you really look at the– the photo, the pictures, you say, “Yes, this is a problem.”  How can we use children just to sell products?  How can we use children as sexualized people?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  The Vogue controversy got so big in France that the Minister for Family Affairs asked Jjouanno to investigate whether there was a problem of French children becoming ‘hyper-sexualized,’ and if so, what to do about it.

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: ( to French Parliament ) When our children are not with their parents, what do they see?  They see cartoons, TV shows, which are all based on hyper-sexualization.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  Jouanno is a mother of three kids… and she was surprised to discover that millions of kids in France – just like in the U.S. – routinely see images that PBS  wouldn’t typically put on the  air…

RHIANNA: (music video) All I see is dollar signs…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM … images of young women portrayed in highly-sexual ways…  online, on TV, in music videos…

ROBIN THICKE: (music video) I know you want it

BRITNEY SPEARS: (music video)… at my derriere

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jouanno found sexualized images infiltrating toys and cartoons aimed at younger kids.

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: I was surprised by those things my own children could see.  And I was surprised to understand why hyper-sexualization could be a problem for them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the end of her 6 month investigation, Jouanno issued this report:  it argued that the level of sexualized, unrealistic body images was so pervasive in French society that it amounted to “a form of violence” against kids… one that not only objectifies girls, but causes them to then judge themselves harshly.

For example, according to the World Health Organization, 27% of eleven year old European girls think they’re “too fat.”  That percentage rises to 40% for fifteen year olds.  About a quarter of those girls say they’re now dieting.

So Jouanno’s report came out and it contains 12 recommendations to protect kids.  It would prohibit companies from using children as their spokesmodels…  it would create a website to ‘name and shame’ companies that don’t go along.  It would create an educational program for parents…  And it proposed banning those childhood beauty pageants, saying they offer a “degraded or tarnished” image of girls.

Jouanno — who is not just a senator but is a 12-time karate champion and a former national minister for sports – says she’s not against competitions for kids, she just objects to ones that put a premium on their looks.

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO:  This was just one recommendation, to ban beauty pageants, so that the society will give a very clear message to medias, to companies, that our children are not object of beauty, and are not– object of seduction.  And that, we agree on any other kind of competitions based on talents, as singing, as dancing, but not only based on your physical appearance.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nine-year-old Anais was not happy when she heard about Jouanno’s proposed ban.  She thinks the senator is confusing the pageants she does with the kind that happen in the U.S. — like those seen in TLC’s hit show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’

ANAIS AGOGUE: (translated from French) There is this woman – I’m not sure what her name is – but she wants to forbid the Mini Miss pageants because she believes it’s just like in the U.S. and that we put on make-up and show our butts, show our mouth and teeth and breasts.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Her mother Martine agrees that kids are often exposed to too much, too soon…  she says she and her husband Phillipe work very hard to protect their kids from that…  but she doesn’t think pageants are part of the problem, and she’s furious at the senator’s suggestion that by letting Anais compete, she’s somehow harming her daughter.

MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) I was angry for sure. Because essentially what she’s saying is we’re dumb and we can’t take care of our kids. We don’t let our kids wear anything indecent. She can come and have a look — I want her to come and see! Our daughters are not Barbies.

WILLIAM  BRANGHAM: The parents who support the pageants argue that it’s not nearly as extreme as what we see in the United States – it’s not so much makeup, high heels, and they think of it as a harmless, simple competition.

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: Yes, but the aim of this competition is still the same, with or without makeup.  The only way you can tell where– this is the winner, or this is not the winner, is to make a comparison between young girls, and between their physical appearance.  This is the same issue, indeed.  There is no difference, with makeup or no makeup.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sociologist Michel Fize studies adolescent development. He says, yes, hyper-sexualization is real, and that it can rob kids of their childhood.  But he’s not convinced that pageants – at least as they’re practiced in France — are that harmful.  He thinks they’re simply young girls showing pride in their femininity.

MICHEL FIZE: (translated from French) For some people like Jouanno, the moment this femininity is exaggerated it’s a sign that we’re returning to male domination over females in society, with woman as ‘object’ in society.  But little girls don’t see themselves as objects. They don’t see themselves as unequal to boys. They are just proud to be feminine.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Jouanno argues pageants are just the beginning of a process where young girls are objectified by society, and often turn that objectification inwards…

WILLIAM  BRANGHAM (to Jouanno):  You’re talking about something that is so broad in the culture– affecting everything from parents to education, to the media, to our values.  Do you think that going after pageants is the best approach to dealing with this enormous issue?

SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO:  No.  The ban of beauty pageants was only one recommendation among 12 big recommendations. And that’s a shame that the only recommendation which has been nearly adopted today is a ban of beauty pageants.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Anais is continuing to compete in pageants… she just did another one last week weeks ago.  Jouanno’s proposed ban on those pageants will likely be voted on early next year….  Anais obviously hopes the measure fails.

ANAIS AGOGUE: It’s our passion so if she takes it away, we’re going to be really sad.