By Gillian Flynn
Updated May 22, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

The women Tiara Girls profiles — intent on landing crowns like Miss Louisiana Queen of Hope and Miss Greater Des Moines — know how to alternately wheedle and spout that brassy I’m-worth-it patois. ”First runner-up is first loser,” snaps a confident Florida teen. (These shows are the seesaw opposite of those corny ’50s teen industrial films, in which young women were schooled to be overly polite, disturbingly deferential, and modest in all things. Which is the worse evil is now up for grabs, but at this point I’m leaning toward advocating anything that encourages an occasional act of graciousness.) Girls takes a longer look at the parental role, as many of the moms and dads also act as their daughters’ coaches. But since each girl’s quest begins and ends in one 30-minute show, it’s never nearly as psychologically interesting as something like Shari Cookson’s 2001 Living Dolls documentary, which followed child contestants through an entire pageant season.

On Girls the over-involved parents both dote on and pick at their daughters, like the father of an Iowa contestant who, assaying his offspring in an evening gown, announces: ”On a very thin girl it would just be dynamite.” Ultimately, too, the pageants themselves are poignant — gyms spruced up with tinsel and tiny boys’ school lavatories doubling as dressing rooms while girls weep that this small glory has been denied them.