Saturday, June 28, 2008

Surprisingly good article on Kit Kitteridge

My apologies for being a little less than attentive to this blog over the past week or so, but I've been butting up against a few major deadlines (the kind that have to do with my getting tenure, and so my job security depends on them -- you know how it goes) and the blog had to pushed down on my list of priorities. However, the New York Times published -- as I'll repeat from my really boring headline above -- a surprisingly good article reflecting on the American Girl phenomenon in general and on the new "Kit Kittredge" film. Unsurprisingly, this is written by A.O. Scott, one of the best critics out there, in my opinion. Here's a link to the whole article and an excerpt is pasted below. Enjoy:

"... Look at one of the dolls, and you see a kind of anti-Barbie, a sturdy, nonsexualized body whose proportions are more or less those of a real girl. (Since 1998 American Girl has been part of Mattel, which is also Barbie’s corporate home.) Her clothes are both practical and authentic, and her activities are a healthy mix of chores, games and career preparations.

While some of the historical adventure books acknowledge that opportunities for girls — especially poor and nonwhite girls — were limited in earlier times, they emphasize optimism, good will and self-reliance as the ever-available antidotes to injustice or deprivation. This is certainly the lesson of “Kit Kittredge,” which does not shy away from showing some of the hard realities of the Depression, including homelessness, unemployment and the scapegoating of the poor.

It celebrates, in the midst of hard times, an appealingly ordinary brand of heroism. Kit is brave, smart, determined and kind, but never off-puttingly full of herself or intimidatingly superior. You would want her for a friend. You could easily imagine yourself in her place.

Which may be at least some of what girls want, and what they get from American Girl. As the son and husband of feminists, I can’t entirely suppress a tremor of unease. Is the brand reflecting tastes, or enforcing norms of behavior? Is it teaching girls to be independent spirits or devoted shoppers?

Probably all of those things, and more. I have spent a lot of time, over the years, with Felicity and some others of her kind, and I still haven’t figured her out. She doesn’t say much, and even though her expression is always fixed in a pleasant smile, she seems to change according to the moods and interests of her playmates. She is an athlete, a musician, a clothes horse, a bookworm, a pet owner, a loner and a confidant. A typical American girl, as far as I can tell."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

MTV's 'True' Look at Young Women Online

I have to admit that I generally tend to like MTV's attempts at documentary work in their shows, "True Life" and in the very early episodes of "Made." (And I could write at length about "My Super Sweet 16," "The Hills," and some of their other finer programming, but that's an entirely different post. Or maybe 100 posts.) This recent episode of "True Life," which one of my students alerted me to, particularly piqued my interest:

(below is just the first segment):

While the storytelling is fairly good, and while I don't think the producers gloss entirely over some serious emotional and psychological issues that each of these girls has (perhaps one more than the others), they completely gloss over a couple of other really important points. 

First, why three girls? In the case of Judy, what about the creepy dudes who offer to pay a girl's rent in exchange for her walking around naked in front of her webcam? Or in the case of Maleri, what about the guy on the other end who just asks for it for free? Does our culture not find that fascinating as well? Why the focus on girls? And why is sexuality such a huge part of this equation? The case of Amy the musician was different, but you do realize from one of her answers that she was asked by a producer about whether she tried to make herself look better in Second Life (her avatar looks about the same, actually). So even if she were trying to remove appearances and sexuality from the equation, MTV just pulls it right back in there. Not that it should surprise us, I suppose. It is MTV, after all. 

 Second, it seems we get to only see the semi-exploited in these cases. OK, you can argue that each of these young women makes a choice to use the Internet and that perhaps they are getting something in return (that is in fact, what each argues -- one for money and a chance to interact with someone without aggravating her social phobia and the other for a chance at falling in love), but the producers at MTV don't really explore the other side. They show Judy taking her antidepressants, but they don't even ask her about whether she thinks her depression and agoraphobia have any relationship to her web site. I'd frankly like to hear what she thinks. (The storytelling in this case is also incomplete. Is it a pornographic website that people have to pay to access? Or does she just take her clothes off for one of the patrons, who wires her rent money right afterward?)  Missing from each of these mini-documentaries is any real critical reflection what this all means, culturally and individually to these young women, which is a shame because MTV had a chance to do some good here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Berry, Berry Troubling

So, as you can see, the latest toy from my girlhood, Strawberry Shortcake, has gone through the equivalent of Stacy and Clinton's three-way mirror and come out looking a little more like Hillary Duff than Raggedy Ann. At least she doesn't have cleavage, I suppose (I'm not sure whether her hair still smells like strawberries -- or strawberry Crush, which is what it really smelled like -- but I would be very disappointed if it didn't). Her cat has been replaced by a cellphone because of course, we should be teaching our 4-year-old daughters the importance of being in constant contact with the rest of the world at the earliest age possible. Modern, indeed.

There is something ultimately icky about this, in my opinion, though: We're talking about a doll who NO ONE thought of actually emulating when we had her as kids. She was a cute little mini-figure -- a nice alternative to Barbie who could hang out next to my Smurf figurines -- as I suggested, a 1980s rag doll/Raggedy Ann/funny looking little girl who lived in a fantasy world. She played with a friend whose hair smelled like apples and rode around on a giant turtle (oh, Tea-Time Turtle, what will they do with you? Turn you into a purse dog?). 

Marketers apparently have decided that she would be more appealing in the new millennium if she is dressed in clothing that little girls might actually want to wear and talking on a cell phone that little girls might actually want to talk on, too. So really, the fantasy world is gone and we're left with a product that looks and acts like a real little girl. 

Get it now? This isn't about modernization of a nostalgia product. It's about marketing to girls who are younger and younger in order to get them to literally buy into their role as a consumer at the earliest age possible. (By the way, I fully expect agencies to come up with a way to target beauty products at fetuses within the next few years.) 

I know, I know. Some people out there would say that I am going to be the meanest mom alive if I don't get my little girl the new Strawberry Shortcake doll (or Bratz, or Barbie, for that matter), and what other options do we have for dolls anyway? Nothing is realistic, after all. I really do think that we have the power to stand up to this blatant product whoring to children, and I do think that we can turn against images that portray little girls (and dolls) as sexualized, adult, cell-phone-addicted mini-women. Just don't buy (into) it.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Girls Strike Back through Project Girl

I just saw an article in my local paper, The Star Tribune, about an art show/film screening being put on tomorrow night by adolescent girls in which their original works convey their feelings about harmful and stereotypical media messages about girls. This seems like a fantastic project in so many ways. Although this is a local group being featured, they are part of a national organization called Project Girl, which was founded a couple of years ago with the goal of empowering girls to critically understand mediated messages geared toward them and to counteract the effect of those messages by producing their own art and programming about them. This again reminds me of M.C. Kearney's book, "Girls Make Media," that I discussed in an earlier post, and I love that this organization places the girls directly in the role of producer rather than consumer or even analyst (though of course, analyzing is an important part of the process). In a lot of cases, the programs are happening in conjunction with YMCAs so girls from many racial and class backgrounds tend to be involved, which is also cool and frankly, very important.

It looks like Lyn Mickel Brown is the keynote speaker for this event. She and Carol Gilligan co-authored one of my favorite scholarly books about girls (and one of the earliest ones that I know of since it came out in 1993), "Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development," which was this great ethnographic portrait of girls experiencing adolescence.
I still have to read her more recent "Packaging Girlhood" that she co-wrote with Sharon Lamb (I have to admit that the language used to market this book really turned me off: "A parent Guide to protect girls from marketers and media." I realize this is probably just the publisher's way to market the book to worried parents, and that makes me wonder if parents need a book to protect them from publishers' and the media's overzealous marketing efforts that play on their own fears. I'm not sure if you followed that, but basically, the marketing of this book about marketing bugs me.)

As much as I'd personally be psyched to see Mikel Brown, I wonder if the girls themselves might have been better served by bringing in Diablo Cody or Ani Difranco, given the mission of the project. Just a thought.

(Photo above is from The Star Tribune and shows some of the film producers for this Project Girl event.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

SATC Mania: Are we really all vapid consumers? Is it really just 'crushing sameness'? Can I really not be a feminist who loves blue Manolos??!

I generally like David Carr's column that runs in the New York Times' Business section on Mondays, and at first reading today, this one struck me as quite smart, too. It's basically about how the media business community is finally taking notice that women are particularly strong web community users and that it can translate into dollars for them. 

But it also takes issue with the idea that this demographic has used its strength to literally buy into the idea that their buying power (of shoes, of clothes, of the wonderful lives of four women in New York...) is real power rather than just a means to keep corporate structures (often run by men) and sexist stereotypes (women love to shop) in place. The argument against this is that perhaps, through new media and the revolutionary discourses that could be created through new media, women's web sites might lead their community of followers into doing something new and more revolutionary than Manolo envy.  Even if this is somewhat unrealistic for reasons I'll talk about later, this is a great point. In fact, this column has one of my single most favorite quotations about women and new media production that I've read in a long time from Caterina Fake, one of the founders of I'll give you the excerpt leading in, too:

...Besides, I realize we are all, like it or not, having a moment with “Sex and the City,” 
no more or less frivolous than the Super Bowl. It’s just odd that while there has been a significant advance in sites by and for women, much of what is being produced replicates, rather than revolutionizes, the template set down by women’s magazines for decades.

“The lack of evolution is disappointing to me,” said Caterina Fake, one of the founders of “Back in 1996, it was going to be this brave new world where women were finally going to take control of their stories, and to me, it is often more a crushing sameness.”

Even so, she is unsurprised that in an era built on communities of interest, women are on the rise. “It is a rule of Web development that if you want a vital community, it has to start with women. It is just a higher level of discourse and behavior. If a site starts male, it stays male.”

(This is me talking now:) We should acknowledge that try as we might, it is pretty difficult to manufacture and rally around exciting new paradigms that transcend any stereotypical gender norms (to quote a really awful stand-up comedian in "The Nutty Professor" with Eddie
 Murphy: "Women be shopping!" Really, is there a stronger message about femininity than the fact that we love to buy shoes? "SATC" just mirrored and celebrated this. The show and film definitely didn't come up with it.)

But I grapple with this notion that our consumption of popular culture, and our celebration of the fantasyland portrayed in "SATC," is all bad, which is the main thing that I get from this column.  Yes, we could and should do more with the online medium and indeed, if you believe that we can truly and fully escape hundreds of years of cultural ideas about what it means to be female (as a follower of Foucault and Althusser, I have my doubts), then yes, the fact that beyond-snarky Jezebel live-blogged from the "SATC" premier in New York is a little depressing. However, the fact that we can indeed rally and celebrate media and make sense of it on our own and use it to our own ends is something. Actually, it's something important. (The whole phenomenon of "SATC" community is startlingly like Janice Radway's ethnographic research on romance readers and how they used the act of reading in their lives.)

Bringing it back to the younger girls, though (that is what this blog's about, after all): Are the arguments the same? Hannah Montana is probably a far bigger franchise with a far more rabid community  (of consumers) than Carrie Bradshaw when you think about it. Again, girls are not necessarily using online communities or new media to transcend dominant cultural discourses to counter Hannah's own stereotypically girly image, but they are actively making sense of her and using this imagery in various ways, both helpful and possibly harmful (I'd argue that buying and listening to Miley Cyrus' music could be doing harm to anyone's ears who happen to listen, but this is from a person who played in a Def Leppard cover band in junior high, so what do I know?).  Even if it is "crushing sameness," I like to think that it's not totally without merit. Then again, it's difficult to counter that we aren't just grooming today's Miley Cyrus fans to be the"vapid"  "SATC" fans of the future.