On Sunday I watched the 2001 HBO documentary Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen. It's an examination of child beauty pageants in the South, centering around precocious five year old Swan Brooner and her chain smoking, straight-out-of-central-casting, stage mom, Robin. I should have known better than to watch it, as I knew that it would inhabit the "Hey, look at this weird thing!" area of the Documentary Dormitory, somewhere down the hall from To Catch a Predator.
I have to say that Living Dolls is really enjoyable. There are parts that made me laugh out loud, like when a flamboyantly gay pageant coach from Alabama (all Southerners know this man, he lives in a mansion, he is a great musician and plays organ for the First Baptist Church, and had frosted tips before that was cool) teaches the little girls the correct way to smile and strut. And the film has a definite feminist message: the girls are instructed to flirt with the pageant MC, for example, and we cringe. That said, while the film is very well made, it approaches its theses* in a clinical and too-straightforward manner. For example, when Shari Cookson, the director, wants to show that Robin is neglecting her other children because of Swan's pageants, they show Swan's baby brother sitting on the floor while Robin shouts at Swan for forgetting her lines.
We get it.
That's the main issue I have with Living Dolls. It doesn't explicitly break the "show, don't tell" rule that informs so much good storytelling, but it doesn't quite follow it, either. Every shot in the film seems to be an attempt to oppress the viewer with as much message as it can.
The film also engages in some mild South-bashing, but I'm willing to let it slide, as the assertions it makes** are hard to deny.
If you want to watch it, it's broken into nine parts on YouTube, starting here.
*That pageants are meat markets, that being a certain kind of intense parent is bad, and an overall "Women are commodified, and that is wrong" message.
**There are large amounts of superficiality, disingenuousness, and obesity in the South.