Sunday, May 11, 2008

What's REALLY inappropriate

No. Not this picture of Mylie Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana. This picture is beautiful, haunting, reminiscent of a Renaissance painting. I don't believe it is at all inappropriate. It captures both the innocence and the self-conscious, ambiguous emerging sexuality of a teenager. It says look, but don't touch. It says I want to be sexy, but I don't necessarily want to have sex. It shows the vulnerability and raw emotion that are inherent in teenagers. It is a brilliant image of a teen-aged girl.

And that's what Mylie Cyrus is, a teen-aged girl. Annie Liebowitz, whose photography I always have mixed feelings about (sometimes I think she's brilliant, sometimes I think she's a hack, sometimes I think she is the most astoundingly brilliant hack that ever lived), has captured the million subtle intricacies that make up a 15 year-old girl.

Of course, the problem is that Mylie Cyrus is not merely a 15 year-old girl. She is a Disney Channel star. And Disney is extremely invested in making teenagers, particularly teen-aged girls, marketable to 6 year-olds and palatable to their parents. This is what's really inappropriate in my mind.

When Sugar was little we got hooked on the Disney Channel. When PBS just wasn't cutting it for us (like when Calliou was on - I can't STAND that show) we would check out what was on Playhouse Disney and we found plenty to like. Shows like Bear in the Big Blue House, Stanley and Out of the Box - none of which are on anymore - were our downtime companions. What I liked about the Disney Channel is that there are no real commercials. Just promos for Disney shows and movies. Unlike Nick Jr. which had fun, preschool shows but too many commercials that seemed to embed themselves into my child's mind in remarkable and frightening ways.

Parents juggle with trying to create a balance between TV and other activities and with finding TV that seems age-appropriate and fits with the ideals and values we want to teach our kids. Disney became part of that juggling act for us and it worked well through Sugar's preschool years. But around the time she started kindergarten that all began to change.

Sugar outgrew the shows she had loved for so long. Bear teaching Ojo and Treelo how to share no longer held much interest for a kid who had mastered the art of either sharing her toys, or putting them away out of sight before a playdate. The arts and crafts Vivian and Tony made in the cardboard clubhouse had been done again and again. Even Stanley and his romps into the great big book of everything started to pale in comparison to having a real snake in Sugar's classroom. It was time to move on to new TV viewing that entertained her now broadened view of the world. Stories that dealt with social interactions, teasing, making new friends, dealing with bullies.

I was dismayed to find, however, that the shows that dealt with these issues were almost exclusively shows peopled with teens or at best pre-teens with one toe in the teen-aged world. Suddenly my five-year-old no longer watched cute animated characters who looked like her and her friends (or like bear, otter and lemur versions of them). Instead she was supposed to relate to live action, tight-jeaned, make-up wearing 13, 14, and 15 year olds. Even the animated people, like Kim Possible, are teenagers. And in addition to dealing with things like making new friends that a 5 or 6 year old can relate to - these characters are navigating the world of dating, fashion and getting over on their parents - not stuff I really wanted my six-year-old (who has now grown into my nine-year-old) thinking so much about.

But the choices were to ban TV or let her watch. I wish I could say I had the fortitude to ban TV, but I can't. I let her watch. So, Bear was replaced with Lizzy McGuire, Out of the Box with the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Stanley with Raven. And I have watched along with Sugar and to encourage her to understand that watching teenagers and being ready to be a teenager are two different things.

But I think it's getting harder these days and Hannah Montana represents that turning point. With Lizzy McGuire and even Raven, there wasn't this push by the Disney media machine to encourage young girls to BE the characters they were watching. The merchandise associated with the teens we first watched were things like notebooks, t-shirts even accessories like purse with the character's pictures on it. They were ways for kids to show they like the character they see on TV. But the Hannah Montana merchandise is different. There are wigs, and microphones, and clothing that emulates hers. The idea is not just to LIKE Hannah Montana, but to want to BE her. To take on her persona and to dream of living her life.

Is it any wonder that when Mylie Cyrus acted a little bit too much like real teen instead of the shiny, clean, pre-packaged, teen-image Disney has already started drilling into the psyche of little

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