Despite spending an embarrassing number of hours watching Toddlers & Tiaras in the past, I’m not a fan of pageants. I think there’s a part of me – I hope I’m not the only one – that draws a perverse comfort from seeing how whackadoo some people can be. I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that I’m also a big proponent of purging “stuff” yet I’m fascinated by the hoarding shows.
When I watched the new documentary, Miss You Can Do It, that first aired on HBO on Monday night, I was struck by how similar the framework was to all the episodes of T&T. It started with a brief rundown of the pageant including an interview with its organizers, some interviews with the parents, vignettes with the contestants at home or out-and-about with their families in the run-up to the competition, some backstage scenes of hair and makeup, followed at the end by the pageant itself and the crowning.
But that’s where the similarities ended. It reminded me of that Seinfeld episode when Elaine comes face to face with Bizarro versions of Jerry, George, and Kramer…and the Bizarro group is…nice. Miss You Can Do It is like Bizarro Toddlers and Tiaras, and unlike T&T, worth every minute.
Even though it’s a documentary, not a fictional drama, I still don’t want to give too much away, though I can barely restrain myself from sharing every detail. So…minor spoiler alert. Here’s a rundown of ten things that stuck with me after the credits rolled.
- The film leads off with Abbey Curran’s voice saying, “Accomplishment begins with two words: I’ll try.” Enough said.
- I was glad that the filmmakers showed the girls enjoying ordinary kid things – chasing butterflies, climbing trees, being mischievous. Those minor details provide a testament to what we special needs parents already know – our kids are just kids with extra challenges.
- The families of the girls affected me in a profound way. From the older sister who forced her younger sister to do things for herself because she felt her parents didn’t push her hard enough, to the family who, after having a daughter with Down syndrome, adopted a Ukrainian girl with Down syndrome to be their daughter’s companion of the same age, I was buoyed by their spirit. They reinforced what I already know to be true – having a family member with a disability challenges you to become a better person.
- The girls radiated joy. There were no meltdowns, no tantrums, and there was no whining. Could that be a function of editing? Maybe, but I doubt it. Oh, and the parents didn’t meltdown, throw tantrums, or whine, either.
- The pageant has an interview portion! I was sold from the moment I heard that.
- The documentary included some video footage of Abbey as a little girl. Her parents described her as hitting many milestones on time or early until hitting a brick wall with walking – from both their comments and watching the video, I could see that Sarah Kate was more affected. However, if you’ve seen recent videos of Sarah Kate walking, Abbey’s unusual gait is much more pronounced, which would seem to contradict that. However, Sarah Kate had selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) at age three – Abbey likely didn’t, as the surgery was much less common when she was a child. Three cheers for SDR!
- Abbey uses a hand control to drive, and one of the segments is filmed in the car while she’s driving. I’ve seen hand controls before, but I’d never seen one in use. That was cool! It also prompted me to go online to find out how expensive hand controls are, as I’m fairly confident that Sarah Kate will need one, and I was pleasantly surprised.
- Some of the parents testified to what I already knew to be true – many medical professionals who work with pregnant mothers and new parents don’t value those with disabilities. One couple was advised by medical professionals to abort their daughter; another mother was told by a nurse shortly after her daughter’s birth that she should institutionalize her because she’d never be able to do anything. I’ll let it be a surprise which girl that was…
- Our society has a lot of shortcomings in terms of treatment of people with disabilities, but we have it much better here than in some countries. The family who adopted their daughter with Down syndrome from the Ukraine said they were told they were “stupid Americans” for adopting a child with “no worth.”
- God only gives special children to special people? Nonsense. One mom put it best when she said, “Anybody can do it. It’s whether or not you choose to.” I feel sorry for all the parents who opt out – what tremendous blessings they miss!
I still don’t really understand the appeal of pageants (in general), but I also don’t understand why some people want to climb Mt. Everest or hunt deer. Before watching Miss You Can Do It, I saw pageants as ridiculous, superficial nonsense. But what I realized is that different people like different things, and beauty pageants are really no different from climbing Everest, hunting deer, or…running marathons. I run marathons because I want to feel strong and accomplished. Maybe pageant girls compete because they want to feel pretty, or admired, or some other something that’s just as valid as feeling strong.
Forty-five years ago, Special Olympics was begun by Eunice Shriver to give people with intellectual disabilities opportunities to participate in activities that were otherwise closed to them, and in doing so, the typical world began to realize, “Hey – folks with disabilities actually want to play sports, too!” Four decades later, it’s not uncommon to see kids with disabilities participating in team sports, cheerleading, and other extracurricular activities.
You’ll never see my kids in a pageant, because we aren’t pageant people (I asked Sarah Kate to watch the film with me, but she declined, stating, “It sounds really boring.”). But one day I think you’ll see someone else’s daughter with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome competing, and you can look back and remember that Abbey Curran was the one who opened the door.
Miss You Can Do It will airs multiple times this week and is available On Demand and via HBO GO.