There was a very interesting article written in the LA Weekly by Nick Schager regarding Disney's television programming and its corrosive impact on young women (hat tip to Big Hollywod). In it, Schager writes:
Disney Channel and Teen Nick preach the merits of being a brat by creating fictional worlds in which kids operate without -- or without any regard for -- adult supervision. Embracing the example set by the otherwise more wholesome granddaddy of the genre, Saved by the Bell, grown-ups are either altogether missing in these shows or, in the case of Wizards of Waverly Place andGood Luck Charlie (and the superior, now-canceled, iCarly), infantile sidekicks with no legitimate influence on their mischievous charges. When adults are around, they're depicted as buffoons, and their threats of punishment are toothless, mere narrative devices designed to provide drama while also underscoring the kids' awesome and lionized do-what-I-wanna-do behavior.
The whole article is worth reading here.
I don't completely agree with all of his points. He sees the weakness of parental characters as a kind of commentary on the how unnecessary parents are. But that has been a staple of child-driven shows for as long as I can remember. The Goonies had to save their community for their parents. Adults don't have voices in the Charlie Brown universe. And when his father screwed up, Spanky had to give his dad a spanking.
But I am glad that Schager raised the issue of the influence of shows directed at tween girls from the Mouse House and from Nickelodeon. I think the problem is less in terms of actual content. One of the reasons why these shows are so saturated among the young is that parents feel much more comfortable having their kids watch this than anything on the ironically titled ABC Family or network television. Schager is upset at the smart-alecky attitude these shows exemplify. But is a truism in most pre-teens that doesn't need a tv show to encourage.
My real issue with these shows is the next stage. Let's turn back the clock to the Mickey Mouse Club with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The show featured these two talented young women sharing the innocent joys of singing and dancing. But by their mid-teens, they took the fast track to superstardom. When Britney was still under 18 she became a media sensation by: a) dancing as a half-naked Catholic schoolgirl and b) posing provocatively in other various states of undress for Rolling Stone. (You know Rolling Stone? The magazine that recently did a glamour cover of a mass murderer?) This led to constant debasement of one-upsmanship in trashiness between Britney and Christina culminating in both of them making out on stage with Madonna.
If this was just another example of the corruption of a young girl with dreams of stardom, it would be just another sad story. But look at where they came from. They were farmed out from Mickey Mouse. This is becoming much more of a problem as the young stars are drawing an audience around themselves. I would venture to say that few kids knew who Britney and Christina were when they were on the Disney Channel. But how many of them know Selena Gomez, Victoria Justice, Ashley Tisdale, and Vanessa Hudgens? And of course, Miley Cyrus.
Part of the problem is the common challenge young actors have as they get older: they don't want to be seen as kids. Many, like Joseph Gordon Levitt and River Phoenix, played more "mature" parts, like that of male prostitutes, in order to shed their childish image. But this is even more common for young female actresses. But it is worse than this phenomenon by itself. There is a concerted effort to sexualize these young women as soon as possible.
Let us take a look at Miley Cyrus. Unlike Britney or Christiana, she was already a big name with her Hannah Montana show. Parents liked the inoffensive programming. Young girls liked the colorful hijinx and the peppy music. What little girl watching that show would want to be Miley as she got to play dress up and have adventures as a superstar? Miley herself seemed like a safe role model, espousing good morals and saying things like "I believe in being pure before marriage."
But then two public things happened. First was the semi-nude photo of Miley taken for Vanity Fair by legendary photography Annie Leibovitz. The then 15-year-old starlet showed off her bare back, covering her front by a bed-sheet. It didn't show any real nudity, but it was provocative enough to be clearly sexual in nature. Leibovitz claims her photo was mis-interpreted. But how many of us buy that? Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems clear that Leibovitz was moving Miley into the transition from sweetheart to sweet tart.
The second incident a year later was her debut performance of her hit song "Party in the USA." The song itself is not explicit, though it leans heavily on references to raunch from Britney Spears and Jay-Z. But her performance on stage at the Teens Choice Awards was more overtly sexual in style than anything she had done before.
Many people who were uncomfortable with the photo spread and the icky dance number that were told that they were reading too much into what was there. They were seeing their own fears and hang-ups in this girl. And if these prudes saw that in these things that Miley did, its spoke more to their own pre-occupation with sex.
But look at the trajectory of Miley then to Miley now and tell them again that they were off base. Her latest song and video is an ecstatic embrace of hedonism, lust, and shamelessness. This is from the girl whose poster graced millions of young girls rooms around the world.
My point is not simply to point out the tragedy of a corrupted youth, but to point out that this is something cynically gauged by the entertainment industry.
Does anyone else notice that Nickelodeon is owned by the same company as MTV?
MTV has ceased being a television station about music. It exists to promote a lifestyle. That lifestyle involves self-centered, perpetual adolescence that eschews responsibility and embraces the pure pleasure principle. But even if it was still focused on music, it would still be the same. The music industry glamorizes all kinds of abhorrent behavior from drugs, to violence, to sex in order to titilate and entice those whose hormones are just waking.
What better way to ensnare these young ones into your to bait your trap with the happy friendly faces they idolized as children? How much easier it is to sexualize the young ladies of the world by showing that behavior in their stars from Disney and Nickelodeon?
I see so few good role models in the popular culture for young women. And even when I do, I worry that they will also lose their minds Amanda Bynes-style and corrode the character of their fans. I look at someone like Taylor Swift who as of right now seems to be a very level-headed, kind, dignified young woman. But I cannot restrain the cynical thought: "How long till she goes nuts." Swift once said: "I think it's my responsibility to know it, and to be conscious of it. And it would be really easy to say-- you know, I'm-- I'm 21 now. I do what I want. You raise your kids. But it's, that's not the truth of it. The truth of it is that every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation. So make your words count."
I think she understands very clearly the influence of pop culture on the young.
So what is the solution?
I don't think this is the place a lengthy discussion on winning the culture war. But at the very least, parents should remind their children that we can admire someones talent and skill, but that we should not model our lives after anyone who doesn't bring us closer to God.