‘Living Dolls’ lets viewer decide
Marc D. Allan
The name JonBenet comes up only once in tonight’s installment of HBO’s America Undercover Sundays, Living Dolls: The Beauty Pageant (sic, should be Queen), but her specter is ever-present.
For one thing, the central figure in this documentary (9 p.m., ★★★1/2) an adorable little Florida girl named Swan Brooner, looks amazingly like the slain JonBenet Ramsey. For another thing, this show follows Swan through a year on the 8-and-younger pageant circuit – on which JonBenet competed.
In the four years since JonBenet’s murder, there have been a number of expaminations of beauty pageants for children. And given all the negative attention, filmmaker Shari Cookson easily could have shredded the entire circuit.
But Cookson takes a road less traveled and lets viewers decide for themselves. That turns out to be a wise course, because it allows her audience to walk away with two distinctly different reactions,
The more obvious one is revulsion over these events which small children – some not even toddlers – are dressed like adults and put through rigorous paces as they learn how to perform. In one absolutely creepy scene, the host of a pageant sings “You are the love of my life” to a line of smiling little girls.
The parents take the competitions unbelievably seriously, to the point that they pay consultants to give their little beauty queens (and kings) makeovers and teach them how to carry themselves in front of judges. The kids don’t seem to mind, but the travel and preening certainly look like a grind.
Still, while we’re watching this and probably thinking how appalling it is, there’s another element to consider: Would we be as disgusted if the children were going through drills to become a great musician or a great athlete?
Like it or not, the parents of Swan and the other children shown here are instilling their offside with poise, pride and confidence.
That’s why, even if you stare, horrified at the pageants, it’s difficult not to root for Swan.
Her mother many be demanding and sometimes mean-spirited (“If ever I saw a kid who looked lost, it’s you,” she says), but Swan is such an innocent. She has a room full of trophies but doesn’t know what any of them are for, and she cheerfully accepts the rigors of competition.
You want her to win, even while you’re wishing that she could just stay home and be a kid.
Living Dolls covers Swan’s story brilliantly – with one exception. There’s a lack of an explanation for why her mother, Robin Browne, pushes herself and her daughter to these extremes.
Browne works two jobs to pay for all the costs associated with these pageants and more or less ignores her three other children – a teen-age girl who seems just fine, a teen-age son who’s repeatedly in trouble with the law and a young son who, it appears, is being raised by Browne’s boyfriend.
At one point, Browne reveals that Swan said, “Mom, if you quit your jobs, I’ll quit pageants so you can stay home with me.”
Brown’s reaction: “That’s when I started looking for the third job. It made me even more determined. If she wants to do it, I’m going to keep going.”
Obviously, Browne wasn’t listening. And maybe she should have been. A great potential follow-up documentary would be to see what has happened to this family five years from now.
The Indianapolis Star
Transcribed By: S Cookson