‘Dance Moms’: Entertainment or Exploitation?

Soccer mums, netball mums and activewear mums are consistently made fun of and the butt of many jokes. The 2011 reality TV show exposed a new sort of mum – the Dance Mom.  

Dance Moms was a hit reality show of the 2010s that followed a junior competition team and their mothers as the team competed weekly. The show is well-known for its escalating drama, screaming matches and emotional breakdowns. While most reality TV shows follow this same formula, Dance Moms is unique because it also involves children. Inevitably, this complicates things. 

It’s no secret that reality television has grown enormously popular over the past decade. Whilst consumers watch fictional TV shows to escape, they watch reality shows to feel connected with real, relatable people in unscripted situations. 

A classic example of this is Chelsie, winner of the Aussie Bachelor in 2019. From the get go, Chels was characterised as this shy lil’ thing, who’d been hurt before, and therefore found it hard to open up to Bachie, Matt. As the series progressed, she learned to open her heart up, and eventually she won the series (and the guy). As a result, she was uber popular with viewers, as we could all relate to her experience. 

We also watch reality TV shows because of the dramatic screaming matches. We love to see the Kardashians or Real Housewives fight over small indifferences, because we feel superior knowing that we would never do that. 

Dance Moms had both of these elements: captivating cast and lots of drama. We all loved the intelligent mum Holly, because we believed if they were on the show, we would be her. Viewers loved to root for Christi’s daughter Chloe, because she was the innocent underdog. Aside from the engrossing cast, each episode was filled with entertaining drama. 

The show’s setup made it very easy for producers to manipulate the situation and cause drama. Every episode had competitions and a Pyramid (ranking each girl), creating winners and losers, and provoking these mum’s frustrations. For example, the producers once entered a secret duet into the competition at the last minute, causing Paige and Brooke’s mum Kelly to lose it and eventually slap Abby. 

It’s clear the relationships between the mums and Abby were already fragmented, and that the producers just exploited this for drama. Furthermore, this drama was mostly in front of the girls and would make them visibly upset. 

As viewers, we can easily come home from a long day, turn on the TV and watch the show without thinking about what it was like to be on the flipside of the camera. We might be aware that what we see is far from the truth, but the young girls’ tears and their breakdowns are real. While duty of care in reality TV is becoming more enforced in Australia and the UK, America seems to be falling behind in this issue. 

What makes this all worse is that most of the original mums on the show have revealed that they tried to get their daughters off the show but couldn’t because of their contractual obligations. In other words, these young girls were in this toxic environment against their own will. In later seasons when new girls arrive, it’s clear they join because of the allure of fame. JoJo Siwa’s mum Jessalyn later revealed that the producers told her to ‘stick to the crazy’ to stay on the show. This highlights further problems as it’s clear that some of the mums would go to crazy lengths just to get their daughter famous. 

In a popular Tik Tok trend, users sarcastically poke fun at how they cannot be hurt because of something they experienced. A majority of the Dance Moms cast have joined this trend by posting videos saying ‘You think you can hurt me? I was on Dance Moms’. One cast member Chloe commented ‘My experience was so traumatizing I don’t remember those 4 years. It’s an actual coping mechanism!’ 

We can laugh these jokes off, but they do reveal the long-term psychological damage the show caused to these young girls. Plenty of scientific evidence demonstrates the need for nurturing and positive environments for children’s development. Yet viewers’ starving need for entertainment seems to negate the seriousness of the issue.

A popular reality show that makes kids cry in order for the producers to make more money sounds like something out of a fictional dystopian world – like the Hunger Games or Divergent. But it’s happening right in front of us. Considering Dance Moms’ enormous popularity, it’s possible that in a few years our TV screens will be filled with shows depicting children at their worst for producers to make more dough.

Pushing kid’s lives into the spotlight too early is not something that  should be encouraged. Both viewers and production companies  need to think more critically about the actual impact of the shows we watch before it’s too late. 

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