Did you feel that sinking awareness in your guts when you first glimpsed the video of 6 year old JonBenet Ramsey? The sudden pain that came when you realized the intent behind her poses? Who taught her the overt sexuality of a practiced exhibitionist? Didn’t you ask yourself, “What was the goal of her pageant pursuits?”
Overlapping these unwelcome thoughts came the awareness that a six year old child was dragged down into the dark, her wrists and mouth taped as she was raped on a cold concrete floor, beaten with a golf club until her skull caved in, then garroted unto death with a nylon cord.
God give rest to this poor little girl.
It is now six weeks since her body was found and I’ve found myself wondering if JonBenet ever had a chance to be a little girl. Her face haunts me, that innocent gaze struggling to overcome the mascara, the rouge, the sculpted and sprayed mane, the pouting lips drawn in by a cosmetician. What was being covered up? I see these portfolio photos and I feel the need for a shower.
Her beauty? A given.
Her heart? Pure, I’m sure.
But her life? Troubling doubts arise.
Along with the rest of America I learned just how big this beauty pageant business has grown; 5 Billion! In government speak that means 100,000 jobs. The fastest growing segment of this dubious business is the children’s division, ages 0 to 8 years old. In most States there are simply no rules to this game, for pageants fall under the broad definition of the entertainment industry and the entertainment industry is exempt from federal child labor laws (Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938).
Five billion is a pile of money. Five billion is a very large game. Too large to be played without rules. But I am not so concerned about the money going into the pockets of adults who know that their crop of children is an ever-renewing resource as I am about the character of that which is lost. Childhood.
I am a victim of this strange phenomenon. I know of no other way to explain this to you but to tell the truth of the world as I see it. In my mind there is a connection between JonBenet and Jessica Dubroff, between Macaulay Culkin and our Olympic gymnastics team. In my heart I feel a binding thread between children who kill without remorse and plummeting test scores. They are all of a piece, these random pains.
What’s wrong with us? As a people?
We know all about childhood. We were there. We experienced it. There is but one mechanism to arrive at our majority, and that’s the passage between birth and adulthood we call childhood. It is not popular wisdom but the wisdom of the ages that binds us to titles like, “Everything I needed to know I learned before kindergarten.” We know about childhood because we were there. We did it.
In our humanness we are unique because we can learn about things in many fashions. We learn about love by having it in our life…or not. We can abstract the lessons of love from a far remove; watching others, reading about their passions, buying into truthful portrayals on the television or in the solitude of our thoughts.
A child is not a thing or a possession. It is a trust…a projection into the future. A child is not a prop, nor a bauble, nor a piece of clay defenseless against our meddling. My friend Diana Serra Cary, herself a child star in that era before Talkies, says that we have lost our sense of preciousness because childhood illness and disaster do not take our children from us as was normal just fifty years ago.
We are swimming in children as never before in the history of man.
And they are sending us messages. Unpleasant messages.
Drug use up 300 percent.
Teen suicide rates skyrocketing.
Babies having babies. Declining intelligence scores.
As a Society we have begun to take the word of the least intelligent, the least capable, the least informed as the revealed truth. We have elevated murderers to celebrity status, celebrated gym-rats as standard bearers, heaped riches on health club fanatics who spend hours every day in self-absorption.
Movies have become cartoons with caricatures masquerading as humans. Buffoonery is now a staple of entertainment. Mindless violence is parlayed into blockbusters as hormonally driven adolescents are pulled into a world of pretend over and over…and over again.
Language is being corrupted by juvenile street thugs and the noble verities have all but disappeared in a sea of acceptance, of tolerance and denial.
With far less money but far more effort we used to teach our children at a level of accomplishment that was the envy of the world. We did not teach to the lowest common denominator but to an excellence that was both our hope for the future and our national pride.
I once asked Doug DeCinces, a fair country ball player, how he kept his perspective when our culture threw money at him for playing a game. “I never walked out on that field,” he told me, “and felt that I was worth more than four hundred teachers.”
Think of it. A 3rd baseman worth 400 Teachers.
Yet millions of children are engaged in organized sports. Organized by whom? For what purpose?
Oh, I know the arguments; that Sport teaches teamwork and sportsmanship and courage in the face of adversity.
Tell that to Dennis Rodman or Tanya Harding. Watch another millionaire football player make an ass of himself with his strutting and his in-your-face gestures to the striped symbols of authority.
Children are not stupid. You weren’t. You remember. They see those tennis players bereft of common decency sign those big time commercial endorsements, the Olympians with advanced bone deterioration on the cereal boxes. They watch the news and see their chums laugh in the face of the most serious charges because they know we don’t care about consequences anymore.
They watch and they understand when a man is accused and convicted of stealing a billion dollars, serves two years, and is ordered to give only half of his loot back, and when they steal those hubcaps they expect the Judge to slap their wrist and tell them to give just two of those spinners back…and we’ll call it even.
Children get it when Madonna’s siren song loosens the purse-strings their parents control. Our youngsters sift through the mixture and know the score when inattentive adults hand them money to buy Gangsta Rap so they fit in…so they belong. They know what it means when a drug dealer can openly drive a Beemer and his family collects welfare.
There is no revulsion left in these children. No sense of right and wrong. Because we have none left in ourselves.
Honestly, don’t we know the score when Michael Jordon is paid 30 million to represent Nike while the shoe factories have closed down in America, the work that once sustained American families gone to Southeast Asia where it is performed by virtual slaves and mere babies? Did the cost of those Nikes go down when their manufacture now costs $5.12 and shipping them across an ocean costs a mere twenty-two cents? Does it matter anymore that there is a 40,000 year gap between the woman who works a fourteen hour day making those Nike and the one year salary of the man who sells them to our children?
Our sense of proportion has evaporated and we no longer see the abuse in a line a children waiting at four-thirty in the morning for the ice skating rink to open up so they can practice before school.
We have lost our sense of outrage when an athlete graduates our most prestigious universities and cannot read or write. After all, doesn’t O.J. have a degree in chemical engineering?
All this I feel and more when the image of JonBenet Ramsey is called to mind. I wonder if that Mom in Akron thinks of JonBenet when she buys a blouse for her daughter with the name brand splashed all over the garment, that hot little number that will help her daughter fit in. I wonder if Mom knows that she’s buying into that concept of an ornamental woman these pageants promote.
I am enormously sorry for the Ramsey family, riddled with guilt because from my perspective I stood by and did nothing while a five billion dollar industry grew up in my homeland, an industry as worthless as it is harmful when taken in a dose too large.
Psychologists speak about the cycle of abuse and I see the Ramseys. Grandmother put both her daughters into the pageant world. Both prospered, didn’t they? Of course JonBenet became “Little Miss Colorado.”
Do you think all the crowns in the world will bring JonBenet back?
Why do I feel as if a very large secret is being withheld from America?
The business which raised and trained me has many secrets regarding children. We know, for example, that a female child of tender years dressed in a provocative costume sitting on a grown up man’s lap and making all his cares go away is irresistible box office. The rubes don’t get it, but we do…so, what the hell.
We know that when a woman is raped the very first thing she craves is a shower, so we produce television dramas with immoral people making immoral choices so that the mostly female viewers feel dirty and subconsciously feel the urge to clean up. We even call them Soaps.
The most visible children in our culture are engaged in unworthy pursuits while the real achievers go unmentioned in our Press. There is now a vast and unbroken silence.
Silence, said Sir Thomas Moore, is affirmation. Silence is not disapproval, but acceptance of what confronts us. So the question is, what do we do about these beauty pageants?
When Jessica Dubroff died in that plane crash the FAA finally banned the meaningless exercises foisted on children in the world of aviation.
We might do the same for little JonBenet Ramsey.