(originally published June 29,2009)
As a teenager you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you.
~ Fran Lebowitz
Simply skimming. Images of youth in popular culture. Not Toddlers and Tiaras (2009) about toddler beauty pageants, which makes me sick or the 20-something hot bods in the new Star Trek (2009), I am such a Cougar - "an older woman who sexually pursues men at least eight years her junior."(Wikipedia) I am discussing teenagers and tweens - "the stage between middle childhood and adolescence in human development, generally in the age range of 10 to 12 years of age." (Wikipedia).
"High School Musical is a Disney movie that tells the story of some high school students - Troy [Zac Efron], Gabriella [Vanessa Hudgens], Sharpay [Ashley Tisdale], Ryan [Lucas Grabeel], Chad [Corbin Bleu], Taylor [Monique Coleman] - as they audition for, and react to their friends auditioning for, their school's Spring musical."
I looked at all three High-School Musicals and the Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert films in addition to many others. Briefly about Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: "The fictional pop star [Hannah Montana] was created in 2006 for a Disney Channel comedy series about an ordinary teenage girl leading a secret double life. Before long, the manufactured Hannah was very popular with genuine audiences, generating the onslaught of merchandising opportunities expected of a post-Lizzie McGuire hit." (ultimatedisney.com). In Hannah Montana: The Movie "Disney's tween sitcom hits the big screen, sending Miley and her dad back home to Tennessee.,...For those not yet in the know, Cyrus plays a fictionalized version of herself on the Disney Channel's wildly popular series "Hannah Montana." (Daily News)
In a very utopian way, I imagined things would change for kids. Not only was I wrong but so disappointed. The gender division is enormous. Boys play sports and are ridiculed for being artistic in the High School musicals. Someone discussing gender equity in high school sports on the internet said, "In high school, traditionally, boys' sports are seen as important and girls' aren't. Example: In "High School Musical" the boy wins a sports game and everyone is freaking out but the girl wins an intellectual championship and no-one cares. This way of thinking is all over the country and has existed for as long as school sports. Recently, however, there have been lawsuits over giving equal time and facilities and funding to girls' sports. Here in Michigan, some girls' teams won the right to play basketball during the typical basketball season instead of during the boys' offseason." (Yahoo.com)
It is ironic because these films are predicated on singing and dancing yet the subject-matter finds these activities contentious.
The gender division has a metaphor; in the cafeteria the so-called "brainiacs" sit together, same with "surfer-dudes" and jocks. All sing about maintaining the status-quo while one from each group "confesses." A "brainiac" likes rap, a "surfer-dude" plays the cello and wears a tie, and a male jock bakes. I wanted them to break the rules and escape the mold. No such luck even with confessions.
I watched the uber-delicious, Zac Efron (born October 18, 1987, behave Romy!!) in 17 Again (2009), where like in High School Musical 1, 2 and 3 he plays basketball in High School. "Zac Ephron -- the David Cassidy of the 21st Century -- makes his grown-up movie breakout in 17 Again, a movie about a middle-aged guy who's disappointed in his life and magically becomes young again so he can return to high school and make things right." (DOSE.ca)
In High School Musical the following dialog takes place:
Chad: Have you ever seen Michael Crawford on a cereal box?
Troy: Who's Michael Crawford?
Chad: Exactly my point! He was the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Now my mom, she's seen that musical twenty-seven times. And she put Michael Crawford's picture in our refrigerator. Yeah, not on it, in it. So my point is, if you play basketball, you're gonna end up on a cereal box. If you sing in musicals, you're gonna end up in my mom's refrigerator.
We need to validate how fabulous it is for young men to enjoy musicals and for young women to play sports. The divisions we have created are damaging and false. There is a spectrum for femininity and masculinity. Sports do not automatically belong to males and musicals - females. You do not have to be a gay male to like musicals or a gay female to like sports. One can be gay but these activities do not define sexual preference.
"We now must talk about Zac Efron, whom we meet in the first scene [17 Again] as Mike, a high school basketball star in 1989, shooting hoops with no shirt on and preening in the manner of both a high school athlete and a movie actor who is painfully aware of his own appeal: hey everyone, I'm acting. Nice pecs, huh?" (DOSE.ca) It is so hard to watch him as an actor when his celebrity status and gorgeousness is so foregrounded. Certainly he can act, but who cares?
I want to discuss sexuality. Teenagers have sex. "The sexual activity took place at a number of places. And probably the two most common places for sexual activity to take place were either at the home of one of the adolescents. A lot of the adolescents had parents who worked, were at home alone, had parents who put in 40, 60, 80 hour work weeks...," noted Claire Sterk. (SoundVision.com) Many of the images portrayed try to contain sexuality.
Miley Cyrus has commented on the sexual Vanity Fair pictures taken by famed photographer Annie Lebovitz, "The photos, appearing in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, were taken by Leibovitz, a renowned celebrity photographer whose edgy, silver-toned portraits have included subjects such as Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and a naked, pregnant Demi Moore."Lebovitz said, "I'm sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted," Leibovitz made a statement released by Vanity Fair. "Miley and I looked at fashion photographs together and we discussed the picture in that context before we shot it. The photograph is a simple, classic portrait, shot with very little makeup, and I think it is very beautiful." (FoxNews.com) Sirus said, "I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about." (FoxNews.com). Get over it, I say.
CBN.com claims, "Some say High School Musical is the young generation's Grease. With a G-rating, it is definitely a much cleaner version of high school love illustrated through catchy songs and cool choreography." The image Disney seems to want to portray is of teenagers being mega-clean cut. All three High School Musicals and the Hannah Montana brand are squeaky clean: "The Disney Channel, which airs Cyrus' TV show "Hannah Montana," was also critical of Vanity Fair." [A] situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines," (FoxNews.com).Oy and a half.
The emergence of chastity rings speaks to an emphasis on abstinence;
"Selena Gomez (from Wizards of Waverly Place) and Demi Lovato (from Camp Rock) posted a Q&A vlog on youtube and talk about purity rings, being in love with Shia Labeouf/William Beckett, and stuff. oh and then they sing Hannah Montana." (LiveJournal)
"The Jonas Brothers are an American pop boy band. The band gained their popularity from the Disney Channel children's television network. Hailing from Wyckoff, New Jersey, the band consists of three brothers: Kevin Jonas, Joe Jonas, and Nick Jonas. In the summer of 2008, they starred in the Disney Channel Original Movie Camp Rock. They have released three albums." (Wikipedia) The extremely popular boy group have joined the band-wagon;
"The Jonas Brothers have vowed to abstain from sex until marriage.
The popular band of brothers wears purity rings as "promises to ourselves and to God that we'll stay pure till marriage," Joe, 18, tells Details magazine in their March issue.
The rings are "just one of our ways of kind of like being different than everybody else out there," Nick says.
"I got mine made at Disney World," Nick, 15 adds. "It's pretty awesome."
Oldest brother Kevin, 20, has a ring from Tiffany's. "It's pretty rock and roll," Kevin tells the magazine. "It's getting banged up a little bit because of the guitar."
Though Nick tells Details that he loves the trio's fans - the "screaming girls are awesome," he says - the brothers have told Usmagazine.com they enjoy being single." (Usmagazine.com) Yup.
"Miley Cyrus, 16, says she wants to keep her virginity until she marries, implying her 20-year-old good Christian boyfriend Justin Gaston's dry spell may last another 10 years!" (SawfS News) Uh-huh.
Is it too radical too suppose these kids could have education about STDs and have a healthy sex life? In the popular high school film Twilight (2008) the lead characters are in love but do not get it on because he is a vampire and is scared he might kill her. I am sensing a disturbing trend.
There is a gigantic market aimed at tweens and teenagers. "Rock & roll may never die, but you know it's been eaten by the consumer culture when you see Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert, in which the bouncy diva of prepubescent bubblegum pantomimes every rebel-yell gesture in history, all to exalt girl-power attitude as something you can acquire." (EW.com)
Did you know that there is a website that markets to tween girls? It's called "TV & Pop Culture Fan Gifts for Tween Girls." Talk about getting them early on many levels. To be a tween girl, according to the branding on this website, is to buy into the following description of items: "Be A Star With High School Musical's Games, Fashion Angels Crafty Kit, Totally Bananas Harajuku Perfumes, Beautify Your Bratz Dolls for Budding Fashionistas, Hip Disney Fashions for Girls, "The Princess Diaries" Books & DVDs..." (TV & Pop Culture Fan Gifts for Tween Girls) etc.
My impulse would be to show the power young girls have but I think that the gender stereotyping outweighs that. Undoubtedly, that the girls have buy-power is great. However, look at what they can buy. I personally love that stuff but I am fortunate - I can make an informed decision.
Images of teens in popular culture are problematic. The problems have an upside though. They often shed light on what needs to be fixed.
17 Again. Director, Burr Steers, Offspring Entertainment, 2009.
Camp Rock. Director, Matthew Diamond. Disney Channel. 2008.
May 4, 2009.
Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour. Director, Bruce Hendricks. PACE. 2008.
Hannah Montana: The Movie. Director, Peter Chelsom. It's a Laugh Productions. 2009.
High-School Musical. Director, Kenny Ortega. Disney Channel. 2006,
High School Musical 2. Director, Kenny Ortega. Walt Disney Pictures. 2007
High School Musical 3: Senior Year. Director, Kenny Ortega. Borden and Rosenbush Entertainment. 2008.
May 1, 2009.
SoundVision.com < http://www.soundvision.com/Info/teens/pbs.asp> Accessed May 1, 2009.
Star Trek. Director, J.J. Abrams. Bad Robot. 2009.
The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com
The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/
The Quote Garden. < http://www.quotegarden.com/teenagers.html> Accessed May 2, 2009.
Toddlers and Tiaras. Reality-TV. Authentic Entertainment. 2009.
TV & Pop Culture Fan Gifts for Tween Girls. Accessed May 4, 2009.
Twilight. Director, Catherine Hardwicke. Goldcrest Pictures. 2008.
Usmagazine.com > Accessed May 1, 2009.
May 1, 2009.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia Accessed May 6, 2009.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
May 1, 2009.
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
May 6, 2009.
Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online.
Romy Shiller is a 3rd Wave Feminist according to the book Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts it in a Box by the head of women's studies at South-Carolina U.