Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hope for Hollywood's Future

In a celebrity world full of false idols and poor role models for young girls, it is always refreshing to see a rising star that actually reflects positive values and authentic talent. Having a six-year-old sister and working with lots of young girls over the years, I have become especially conscious of the fact that there are few great role models out there. Sure, there are some talented female performers, but talent is not enough. The questions to ask: are there strong female role models in TV and movies for young girls to see? Are the actors playing these characters people that also reflect the values of their roles within their own lives? Well, there certainly aren't enough of the former and rarely can one find both the former and the latter.

Even though it lately seems like there are an exceptionally high number of very young female celebrities getting negative attention for partying, substance abuse, eating disorders and the like, it also seems that there are a rising number of promising young stars. I just recently read a blog entry about Emma Watson, the young star of the Harry Potter films, which inspired me to delve into this topic. There was a brief period of time where Emma was getting some negative press for her supposed "diva" like antics, which included her taking a bit longer than her co-stars to sign on for the last two Harry Potter projects. Reports claimed that she was "tired of being known as that girl from Harry Potter" and that she wanted to move on to different projects. Other reports stated that it took a couple extra million dollars to "lure" her back.

But now Watson seems to be everywhere, and there is no trace of the diva-like image that was painted of her only months ago. Instead, she is being praised as someone appearing "intent on carving a career of substance" and giving the "promise of a brilliant woman primed to emerge from the girl we've watched grow up these last six years." And sure enough, Emma speaks with a maturity and determination that reminds us that not all child-stars are doomed to follow the path of Lindsay Lohan. Discussing her final holdout on the last two HP movies, Watson explains that it was her commitment to her education and not professional maneuvering: "I didn't sign the contracts sort of immediately because I needed some time to just figure out, actually, the logistics of ... making two Harry Potter films and combining that with my school timetable. I really want to go to university. I really wanted to continue what I was doing, and I didn't want to give either one up. And so I was really in this kind of difficult position. And it just took a bit of time just to block out how I was going to make that work."

On her character Hermione, Watson says, "There are too many stupid girls in the media ... Hermione's not scared to be clever. I think sometimes really smart girls dumb themselves down a bit, and that's bad ... I'm a bit of a feminist. I'm very competitive and challenging ... When I was 9 or 10, I would get really upset when they tried to make me look geeky, but now I absolutely love it. I find it's so much pressure to be beautiful. Hermione doesn't care what she looks like. She's a complete tomboy."
Speaking of Hermione, let's give a big thanks to J.K. Rowling (author of Harry Potter) for creating such a fantastic female character. True, she could have made the book Haley Potter or something, but even though the hero is not female, Hermione truly represents the brains behind all the Harry Potter adventure. As I heard one person put it, she represents the "cosmic force." She's not only the smartest kid in the book, she also does not shy away from danger. In the 5th book it was Hermione that took the first steps to organize the illegal student organization Dumbledore's Army. It's awesome to see little girls worldwide looking up to her.

But back to Emma -- as for the benefits of fame and fortune, she proclaims that although she has made enough money to never work again (and all at the ripe old age of 17), she "would never want that." According to Emma, learning keeps her motivated and her education keeps her "in touch with reality." As for her future, the young actress has expressed interest in the theater and now perhaps modeling, as word on the street is proclaiming her as the new face of Chanel. One thing is sure, this is a young woman that I would not mind my baby sister looking up to.

Here is a clip of Emma playing the famous Hermione in 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire followed by a very recent interview on David Letterman

The Disney Channel must thank its lucky stars for the day it decided to sign this young woman to play the lead role in their television series about a normal girl leading a double life as a teen pop sensation. Since Hannah Montana first aired last year, it has quickly become Disney's most popular show. And its leading lady (or should I say girl?) has become a household name among every family with girls over the age of 5. Following in the footsteps of such former child stars as Britney Spears (The Mickey Mouse Club), Lindsay Lohan (The Parent Trap) and Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire), Miley Cyrus has become part of the Disney franchise. But the promise of this young actress and singer is unlike anything that has come before. Her show premiered in March 2006 to the highest ratings in the Disney Channel's history (with 5.4 million viewers) and is the No. 1 cable show among the 6-14 ("tween") age group. It is No. 2 among all channels, second only to American Idol. In 2006, the Hannah Montana soundtrack debuted as No. 1 on the Billboard Charts and last month the double-disc Hannah Montana 2/ Meet Miley Cyrus CD also debuted at No. 1, beating out Kelly Clarkson's My December. At only 14 years old, Miley is the youngest performer to ever attain that level of success.

And it is not a lack of talent that has gotten her this far. Her dad, singer Billy Ray Cyrus (who also plays her father on the show), compares her comedic acting to a young Lucille Ball and, just like a father, has nothing but praises for her musical talents: "Musically, she is — this is the only time I'm going to brag — she's the real deal musically. I can't wait for you to hear what she's been writing and the songs that come from inside of her. You know the saying she's got an old soul? Well, she's got an old soul, and her old soul's got a lot of soul." And she gets songwriting credits for every "Miley Cyrus" song: "I write all the time. Miley Cyrus wrote every song on that CD. I write in my sleep." Of course, "songwriting" credit can mean a lot of things (I once heard Ashlee Simpson explaining her songwriting contributions by saying that sometimes a "word" or "emotion" would inspire her and then the 'other' songwriters would turn it into actual lyrics and music), but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt for now.

And many of her songs reflect the values that the show seems to promote. Lyrics such as "Who said, who said, I can't be president / I say, I say, you ain't seen nothing yet" , "Don't let anyone tell you that you're not strong enough / Don't give up / There's nothing wrong with just being yourself" or "I know where I stand / I know who I am / ... I know I can change the world" and "I'm unusual not so typical, / Way too smart to be waitin' around / Tai Chi Practicin' / Snowboard champion / I could fix a flat on your car" may not be complex or highly developed, but they send a very positive message "girl power" message out to youth. I remember cringing when a group of elementary age girls that I was working with started singing from memory the words to Justin Timberlake's "Bringing Sexy Back." These songs are ones that parents can feel okay about their kids singing along to. And the show itself always attaches positive lessons to the episodes, such as one in which Miley attempts to make her best friend act more like a "girl", only to have that plan backfire on her. Those of you who, like me, grew up in the 80s and 90s may be reminded of classic shows such as Punky Brewster.

Of course success does not always a role model make. It is more than her achievements that makes her someone that her target audience can look up to. Like Emma Watson, it is a head set firmly on her shoulders that gives her promise for the future. Jason Earles, 29, who plays her older brother on the show, says that Miley, "could be awful if she wanted to. But she's not. She's about as sweet a person as you could want." And with solid values and strong family relationships, it seems hopeful that the young Cyrus will not follow in the footsteps of other former Disney tweens. As Miley herself says, she thinks about the bad paths she could go down, but doesn't worry that it will happen to her, saying that her music and her family keep her focused -- and hopefully the millions of little girls like my sister that think she's the coolest thing in the world.

Below view a couple clips of Miley as Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana and an interview of Miley Cyrus on ABC News:

Long before Hannah Montana was even a twinkle in the Disney Channel's eye, another young woman was making her mark on this kid's network. Raven Symoné's name has been known in the world of television ever since she was cast as Olivia on The Cosby Show at the age of 3. But it was her leading role on Disney's longest running show That's So Raven that made her a well-known figure amongst young girls everywhere. The show, about a teenager with psychic abilities, first aired in 2003. It was later nominated for an Emmy for "Outstanding Children's Program." Also in 2003, the then 17-year-old performer starred in the Disney Original Movie The Cheetah Girls. That film was followed up in 2006 with The Cheetah Girls 2, the channel's 2nd most-viewed film to date, of which Raven was also an executive producer.

Now 21 years of age, Raven Symoné projects an image of success, maturity and modesty -- no small feat for someone that has been in the business for nearly her entire life. Despite her success as a singer, songwriter and actress, she chooses to maintain a low-profile, managing to avoid the controversy and publicity that so often surrounds former child-stars. Today she owns her own production company That's So Productions and has over the years been awarded with 6 NAACP Image Awards.

In a world overwhelmed with stick-thin, barbie-blonde celebrities, Raven has always stood out to me as a positive image for all young girls, but especially for girls of color. There are too few opportunities for young women of color to see themselves positively reflected in the media. That's So Raven brought a diverse cast of stars to the Disney screen while The Cheetah Girls, with three out of the four main characters being young women of color, has helped to change the face of role models for kids.

Below you can view a clip from That's So Raven and an interview on Regis and Kelly.

If I were to choose an actress to epitomize a role model for young women, I would have to pick Natalie Portman. At 26 years of age, she is several years older than the others mentioned in this post and she represents a future that I would wish upon all of them. Like these other actresses, Natalie has been in the business from a young age, "discovered" at the age of 12 and shortly afterwards cast in the film The Professional. Since then Natalie has acted in many films such as the recent Star Wars trilogy, V for Vendetta, Garden State and Closer (for which she received an Oscar nomination). She has also acted on stage in productions such as The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway.

But it is what Portman has accomplished in addition to all this that makes her someone that all young women can look up to. Education has always been of utmost importance to her; she has even been reported saying, "I'd rather be smart than be a movie star." In high school she wrote a paper on "The Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen" which was submitted to the Intel Science Talent Search. She attended Harvard beginning in 1999 and graduated in 2003 with a degree in Psychology. During her time at Harvard she was a research assistant, coauthoring two research papers which were published in professional scientific journals. Born in Jerusalem, she also speaks fluent Hebrew and has studied French, Japanese, German and Arabic. In 2005 she worked on her graduated studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She appeared as a guest lecturer in 2006 at Columbia University's course Terrorism and Counter-terrorism.

Natalie has also devoted herself to many different social and political causes. She has been a vegetarian since the age of 8 and has advocated for various environmental causes. In 2004 she publicly campaigned for John Kerry's presidential campaign, traveling the country and speaking to various groups. She has traveled as an Ambassador of Hope for the organization FINCA, an organization that promotes micro-lending to help finance women-owned businesses in poor countries. She has appeared on the PBS program Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria to discuss microfinance. Said Zakaria, "I am generally wary of celebrities with fashionable causes ... she really knew her stuff."

She has also kept herself away from scandal and left little for celebrity bloggers and gossip columnists to say about her, showing that fame and deviant behavior need not go hand in hand. Natalie can give hope to future generations of up-and-coming young women in Hollywood, proving that the life of an actress can in fact be positive, multi-dimensional and inspiring.

Watch a scene of Natalie in the film Garden State opposite Zach Braff and afterwards see an interview of her on David Letterman.

Of course these rising stars are only three among many other very talented young women. I hope that we continue to see even more girls like this emerge in the future. It is my sincere wish that the futures of these young women will be as promising as they seem, and that there will continue to be others that follow in their footsteps and provide a similar hope to those of us who don't want to see our seven-year-olds imitating Beyonce and Shakira.

No comments: