Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bread and Circus: Outrageous Kid Parties

I was born in a little house in the big woods. When I was still quite small, we moved, in a Conestoga wagon, to a little house on the prairie, where we collected buffalo chips for fuel and my sister Mary went blind. We went to a one-room schoolhouse, and this girl Nelly, a town kid and a snotty snob, was mean to us. For Christmas, all I ever got was a walnut and a doll made out of a corn husk. For my sixth birthday, I got a ladle-full of water from the well. When I graduated from pre-school. Meh! There was no such thing. No pre-school, let alone graduation.

Oh, wait a second. What was I thinking.

It’s just that sometimes I conflate my own childhood with that of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Because mine – when you take away the television (from mine) and the picking up buffalo chips (from Laura’s) – was a lot closer to that of Laura I. W. than it was to that of the kids who “star” in the “reality” series Outrageous Kid Parties, a relatively recent excrescence popping out of the excrescence-packed TLC network. (Formerly known as The Learning Channel. I would say Ha. Ha. Except that, if you do watch this network, you really can learn quite a bit about narcissism, idiotic behavior, and such over-the-top consumption that it makes garden variety wretched excess look like Mother Teresa’s closet.)

I was introduced to this particular show by my nieces, and we watched a couple of episodes a few weeks back, howling all the way.

The two shows we watched both featured parties that cost over $30K. One was for a little girl’s sixth birthday; the other for a five year old who had accomplished the tremendous feat of graduating from pre-school.

Where. To. Begin.

The party for six  year old Sadie had a country hoe-down theme, and I’m dead certain I’m not the first – and dead certain I won’t be the last – who thought ho-down. Especially once the party girl, with her grotesque make-up and plucked and shaped eyebrows, bratted her way onto the screen.

My favorite aspect of this was the scene in which Sadie’s fellow dance-class members – all little girls her own age – auditioned for the privilege of joining Sadie in a professionally choreographed line dance at the par-tay. Only three girls would be chosen, and they all had to strut their stuff while Sadie and her mother played Simon Cowell and took notes rating the girls. At one point, Sadie – in what was no doubt one of many scripted moments – announced to the assembled children, “You-all aren’t cutting it.”

While the lips of all the girls quivered, and the eyes of all the girls welled up, Sadie announced her picks.

I’ll say this for old Sadie. She didn’t necessarily go with the cutest girls, so I’m guessing that she picked her besties.

The dancing teacher then announced the wonderful news: all the girls were invited to the hoe-down. Yippee!

Where. To. Begin.

Who sets their kid up to sit in judgment like this on other little kids? Who allows their kids to take part in such a sadistic travesty?

Why not just have Sadie make her picks off-screen and then show the kids rehearsing?

But, of course, where would the dramatic arc be in that?

In another scene, which took place in the beauty parlor, Sadie pitched a fit in order to get her way and goad her mother into hring a Ferris wheel for the party. But I’ve seen fits pitched, and this one didn’t seem all that authentic. The script-ola, no doubt, called for the kid to throw a hissy to get her way. And so Sadie, apparently not much of an actor, half-heartedly threw a half-hearted fit.

The sub-theme on the show – which I guess is consistent throughout the “series” – is that Dad okays a $10K expenditure, while Mom sneaks around behind his back revving the toll up.

Another wonderful thing to “teach” on the channel formerly known as The Learning Channel. Not only are children supposed to whine and scream their way to whatever they want; not only are parents supposed to shrug and give in; but Dad is nothing more than a hapless Dagwood Bumstead, there only to write checks to cover the cost of manipulating bee-yotch Blondie’s ditsy spendathons.

On party day, Sadie, her friends and Mom were delivered to the party-site (a farm), in a jacked-up, high-rider stretch Hum-Vee (or something thereabouts). Sadie then made her grand entrance on a pony, stumbled through the professionally choreographed line-dance, dunked her sister in a dunking chair, and kissed good old Dad in the kissing booth.

Unfortunately, the Ferris wheel, having been struck by lightning, was a no show.

Sadie, to her credit, took the news well, leading me once again to believe that the “I must have a Ferris wheel” fit was a set-up.

Maybe everything was okey-dokey because her gift was a wooden play structure that cost nearly $6K.

It goes without saying that these parents have not just rocks in their heads, but boulders. Not only do they end up portrayed as imbeciles with poor taste and worse judgment, but they put their kids in the position of being targets of derision and harsh judgment. Like this one.

For all I know, Sadie is a bright and sweet little girl who was just thrown into this mess by her shallow, overbearing, attention-craving mother. But as portrayed in her pouty glory, Sadie comes across as a trifecta: dull, mean, and not particularly attractive.

Who does this to their kids?

Well, Donna on Long Island, for one.

Her poor little fellow, Derek, has a peanut allergy, and, thus, can’t let loose at other kids’ birthday parties, and has to eat at a special non-peanut table at pre-school.

And, thus, his attention-craving mother cooked up the idea of a peanut-free Willie Wonka party, where hundreds of Derek’s closest friends could gorge on candy, purple-dyed hot dogs and purple-dyed mac-and-cheese; watch hired Oompa-Loompas dance with Derek (in his own Willie Wonka outfit) to a specially choreographed, professionally written and orchestrated celebration song; and climb the $8.7K rock-wall that was Derek’s graduation gift, given in recognition of the sterling accomplishment of graduating from pre-school.

I know, I know, Laura Ingalls Wilder and I grew up in other centuries.

When I was growing up, kids got one or two birthdays per childhood. And I’m guessing that not one of the birthday parties I had or attended cost much more than $10 to throw. The birthday cakes were home-made. The party favors were blowers and/or tiny pink plastic baskets with loose M&M’s or sticks of gum in them. There were a couple of dime-store prizes for the winners of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, musical chairs, and the game where you were blindfolded and felt around a shirt-box containing familiar objects and then wrote down your guesses about what you had your hand on. Which wasn’t too hard to figure out, since pretty much every mother put in the same things: a spool of thread, a thimble, a tea-spoon, a marble, a jack (from a set of jacks, not a car), a pencil, a rubber band…

The only “swank” parties I attended were those for Maggie and Susie Shephard.  But just how “swank” is a party thrown in the first floor flat of a three-decker going to be? I guess in my min, those were “swank” because their parties were color-themed, with their mother dyed the ginger-ale with food coloring to match the blue or pink cake. Blue cake! Now that’s what I call living!

If it wasn’t your turn to have a birthday party, birthday was cake with the family, and some small gift from your parents, augmented by a buck-in-a-card from a bunch of aunts and uncles, and a fiver from your grandmothers. One year, my family gift was a boring book about polar bears; another year, a guck-gold wool sweater – the last color on the face of the earth that you would put on a blue-eyed, pink-skinned, blonde child. (Needless to say, I wasn’t getting my eyebrows plucked and wearing lipstick at age six. Although my mother did give us those lousy perms….)

Non-birthday celebrations – graduation, Holy Communion, Confirmation – were similarly low-key.

In fact, other than my eighth grade graduation – for which a class party was held in our back yard because we had one of the biggest ones, and because my mother was president of the OLA Mothers’ Club – I don’t remember any party for any of the above events for any of my siblings, beyond a family dinner to which my grandmother and the local aunt and uncles might have come.

But I do remember the actual events, which were not overshadowed by any post-party, wahoo celebration. That is, other than eighth grade graduation, which I can’t remember because there wasn’t one. On the last day of school, Sister Mary Flora distributed a little paperback on not giving into the devil and his tempting ways (a gift from Msgr. Lynch, our pastor) and then gave out a few prizes.  I got a pair of light purple glass rosary beads for having won a scholarship to high school. I had not been Sister Mary Flora’s candidate, and she was a bit peeved that I had had the audacity to win. So rather than utter my name, she turned her head, held out the beads, and called me to the front of the room by piss-ily announcing, “The girl who won the scholarship.” The awards ceremony over, she huffily addressed the class, “I suppose you all want to leave now.”

Which we did.

We trooped out into the schoolyard where, in front of the priests’ garage, we threw our ties (girls wore bow ties) into a heap, and one of the boys set the heap on fire.

We watched our ties flame up, then smolder for a few minutes, then we went our separate ways – none of which featured a $30K party. Just the hot-dog and hamburg party in the Rogers’ back-yard, where we all did the twist and my friend Rosemary and I took turns jumping in front of Billy Murphy to get him to dance with us. (He was pretty cute…)

Interestingly, the two families whose parties I “watched” on TLC didn’t strike me as all that supremely well to do. Both family houses were middle-class, but nothing special. We’re not talking hedge-fund estates here. But who knows. Maybe they’re in businesses that generate a lot of cash. Maybe they’re good little savers. Maybe they don’t mind going into a bit of debt to throw a once-in-a-lifetime party for their little darlin’. Maybe $30K is chump change, and not a new car or half a year at Harvard. (Hmmmm. Probably these folks are not quite thinking about a half year at Harvard.)

But neither family looked like the type who wouldn’t have better things to blow $30K on than an insanely elaborate party.

Such is the state of American “culture", however, that there is an apparently endless supply of people who so crave their fifteen minutes – I guess it’s a solid half an hour now – of fame that they’re willing to go on “reality” TV. Where they – and their families – will be portrayed in an extreme, and extremely unflattering, light. After which their half hour of fame will live on endlessly through on demand, YouTube and online commentary – 99% of which will be critical.

Meanwhile, we – the body politic – gets diverted from real reality by this sort of fake, bread and circus, “reality” show.

O tempora, o mores alright.

In case you’re interested, which – if you’re reading this blog – you probably aren’t, TLC is casting for Outrageous Kid Parties:

Are you planning on throwing an over the top party for your son or daughter? Would you like America to experience this event with you? If so, TLC's Outrageous Kid Parties wants to hear from you now! Please e-mail the following info [name, family bio, etcl]  to

Please don’t tell them I sent you.

A tip of the party hat to my nieces Molly and Caroline, with whom I watched Outrageous Kid Parties.

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