Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Following up...

Following up on my last post ... I just spent a weekend watching Disney Channel with my little sister and it really got me thinking about a lot of things.

First of all, there are some really positive images of young girls on TV these days when it comes to children's programming. Ok, so I haven't really been watching a ton of kids' shows besides stuff on Disney since that's what my sister likes, but from what I've heard, those are the shows that are all the rage for that age group right now. And what I have seen has been good. First of all, there is Hannah Montana, which is arguably the most popular show and which I mentioned in my last post. In my opinion, from what I've seen, it is very positive. The main character Miley, who "moonlights" as Hannah Montana, is a really good kid. Each show seems to showcase some type of lesson about being honest, fair, accepting, etc. And when she transforms into Hannah, she seems to be okay as well. Sure the outfits she wears are really sparkly and everything, but she doesn't seem to be sexualized like many of the young pop stars.

I think back to Britney Spears, who was only slightly older than Miley Cyrus when she released her first album. Her first single "Baby One More Time" was accompanied by a music video of her dressed as a sexy schoolgirl, an image that is still well-known today. Although people claim that she went from wholesome to hypersexual, I would argue that she was never wholesome. This picture of her is from a 1998 tour she did with NSync, when she was only 16. Compare it with the photo of Cyrus, who is nearly 15 herself. Christina Aguilera, also close in age to Cyrus when she released her self-titled first album, gave us "Genie in a Bottle" where she proclaimed, "My body's saying let's go" and "you gotta rub me the right way" and where she rolled around sexily on a beach. Currently the singer Rihanna is a big hit with her single "Umbrella." The music video for this song involves her dancing around in some skin-tight, leather number that leaves little to the imagination. She is all of nineteen. Next to cases like this, Cyrus is like a breath of clean air -- even if that air has been purified by commercialized Disney pop. Her lyrics and dancing are clean while her outfits actually cover her body. I know I probably sound like I'm about 80 years old, but there is something extremely unsettling about seeing eight-year-olds imitating hypersexualized teen pop sensations. There is a reason why kids are engaging in sexual activities at younger and younger ages. The "tween" generation is in desperate need of alternative images. And luckily there are a few to go around.

In addition to Hannah Montana, another popular Disney show is The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. This show is about twin boys living in an upscale Boston hotel with their single mother, who works there as the headlining singer. The show also follows the lives of other employees of the Tipton Hotel, such as candy salesgirl Maddie Fitzpatrick (played by Ashley Tisdale) and the owner's daughter London Tipton (Brenda Song). While London is rich and beautiful, she is also not very smart. Maddie, her best friend, is portrayed as very hard-working, intelligent and outspoken. She cares a lot about environmental issues and aspires to attend law school. She is also the sensitive and caring character. Throughout the media's history, strong and intelligent women have often been shown as cold or ruthless or socially awkward. Maddie, rather, is shown as the character that girls should strive to be like.

Here is a clip from an episode where Maddie has to act as London's brains in order to help her impress a National Merit Scholar.

Another Disney phenomenon has been High School Musical, a Disney Channel original movie released in 2006, with 7.7 million viewers tuning in to its U.S. premiere. This movie also does a lot for positive images of girls on television. The leading female character, Gabriella, is sweet and pretty albeit somewhat shy. She is extremely intelligent, having won numerous scholastic competitions in the past. In the movie she is part of the scholastic decathlon. During one scene, other members of the decathlon are trying to convince her to forget about Troy (the male protagonist of the film). Her friend, Taylor, says to her, "Our culture worshipped the aggressor throughout the ages and we end up with spoiled, overpaid, bonehead athletes who contribute little to civilization other than slam dunks and touchdowns" then reminds her, "But the path of the mind, the path we're on, ours is the path that has brought us these people" and proceeds to show her images of Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo, Sandra Day O'Connor, Madame Curie, Jane Goodall and Oprah Winfrey. She states that the side of education and accomplishment is the future of civilization. And all of this coming from a cute young girl (who they later show having a romantic interest for one of the other leading male characters) and not some evil, castrating bitch. In fact the entire movie itself is about nonconformity with lots of gender deviations -- the male lead, Troy (Zac Efron) is afraid for his basketball pals to discover his hidden desire to be in the high school musical while Ryan, the guy who is usually the male lead in all the musical productions is caricaturaly stylish and effeminate. In the song "Stick to the Status Quo", various students reveal secrets, such as one basketball player who bakes and dreams of making the perfect creme brulee.

Back to Hannah Montana, one can see all of this reflected there as well. Firstof all, education is put as a top priority in various episodes. In one, Miley's father tells her that her European tour will be canceled if she doesn't get her grades up. In another one, she is not allowed to go out all weekend because she must study for midterms. Her best friend Lilly defies gender norms by being great at sports, a skateboarding champion and hanging out with the guys. In one episode, Miley tries to get Lilly to act more "like a girl" in order to impress a guy. In the end, the guy reveals that he liked the old Lilly much better, showing that there are lots of different ways that one can "be a girl." Their other best friend, Oliver, is often doing girl stuff with them and while he sometimes frets about his masculinity being threatened, he shows that he can be a normal guy and also do "girl stuff" with his friends. Miley's dad, who is raising his kids on his own, cooks, gives his daughter advice, talks about what hair products he uses and after he and his son go work out one day to be more "manly" they quickly cave and go bathe with floral scented bath soap.

Beyond Disney Channel, there are other examples as well, such as the one I mentioned in my last post -- Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. As I said, Hermione is depicted as not the smartest girl in the school but the smartest student. She is also able to apply her intelligence and logic in dangerous situations, she stands up for others and what she believes in and she remains extraordinarily courageous throughout the series. If one goes through and reads the seven books, the trio's success would probably never happen without Hermione's cool wit.

But the problem is that while many of these images are available to young girls, their positive influence does not seem to be lasting nor does it seem to be universal. One only needs to step into a store such as Libby Lu which is like Hannah Montana on crack, with little girls doing runway shows with belly-baring outfits and headsets. I nearly passed out the first time I went into that store ... I would be ashamed to bring my little girl to a party at a place like that. It is not children's programming that is teaching young girls how to dress, dance and act provocatively. It is artists and shows that should be aimed towards older teenagers and adults, which for some reason seem to have a greater impression on youth. Furthermore, there is still an incredible drop in self-esteem for girls around the age of 10 or 11, when they begin to perform less well in school and feel less comfortable acting like an individual.

I think there are a few reasons for this. First of all, networks such as Disney channel are on cable. Network television does not have as much positive programming in my opinion. There is PBS, but unfortunately perhaps due to rapidly decreasing funding, the shows on PBS are aimed mostly towards preschool and early primary school children. Secondly, the target age for shows such as these seems to be shrinking. Kids as young as 9 or 10 are watching shows with mature content, which I think is inappropriate. Parents need to take more responsibility in monitoring what it is that their kids are watching. Devices such as Tivo are finally creating this possibility, so I think it is time for adults to really step up. Twelve or thirteen years old is not mature and not anywhere near adulthood. There is no reason why girls that age shouldn't be able to still watch shows such as those on Disney. But for many, these shows seem too juvenile and instead they're watching some crap like The Next Pussycat Doll which touts itself as empowering to young women but which is really females trying to see who can act like the biggest sex symbol.

It also doesn't help that adults don't give much credit to anything that is clean and not laden with sex. Kids and teenagers listen to the radio a lot. I know that I listened to it a whole lot more when I was younger than I do now as an adult. And what is on the radio? Songs with lots of adult content. If the radio is for everyone to listen to, they should include songs that everyone can listen to. I was just reading a Washington Post article recently that discussed how although Miley Cyrus has had two albums debut as #1 in the U.S., her songs have gotten no play on the radio. The article also cites other acts such as The Cheetah Girls and Aly & AJ, whose CDs have been reaching platinum and multi-platinum levels but have been locked out of the Top 40. They also mentioned the High School Musical soundtrack, which was the best-selling album of 2006 (sales hitting the 4-million mark) but got no radio play. One radio consultant said that many stations, which target the 18-34 age group, don't want to alienate their older listeners. However, there are plenty of other young artists finding radio play, such as Rihanna (age 19) and Sean Kingston (age 17) and of course in the past artists such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne, Mandy Moore and Hanson were all teenagers, too. Listening to the songs themselves, the only difference between an early era Britney song and a Miley song is in the lyrics -- Cyrus' being cleaner. One music executive notes that they Disney artists would have found radio play 40 years ago, but that there is no room for them today. This is unfortunate because many young teens will listen to the Top 40 to see what music is "cool" or "in" at the moment. Perhaps this is one reason why they are led astray. I don't really listen to the radio, so I certainly wouldn't mind if some of these artists were thrown into the mix. And adults should be able to deal with it, since there are plenty of crap songs aimed towards adults as it is. If adults interests determine everything that is played, then it is no wonder that kids are striving to become like adults faster and faster.

I think it really says something about society when I start to feel like I'm some type of old-fashioned prude by saying that 10-year-olds shouldn't be imitating the latest sex icon. I don't think that kids should be sheltered; actually, I think that we should be more open with our kids about sexuality. But I think that something went terribly wrong -- kids should understand about their bodies and sexuality and other facts of life, but they are still children and they should not be emulating adults. Sex and sexuality shouldn't be made taboo, but they also should not be "reclaimed" by children. It is one thing for a little girl to be taught to love and understand her body and another thing for her to be taught that it is alright to objectify herself. I do not feel bad saying that.

And now that I think I have beat this topic to death, you can rest assured that I will try not to mention young girls and media influences/portrayals anymore. It's that damn feminist in me!

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