NewBlackMan: The Tweening of America: The Disappearance of Age-Appropriate Television

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Tweening of America: The Disappearance of Age-Appropriate Television



The Tweening of America: The Disappearance of Age-Appropriate Television

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

What started as an ordinary conversation about marriage between my partner and our 7 ½ year old daughter (Rea) concretized our ongoing frustrations and precarious relationship with popular culture. Following a role-playing game that ended in a pretend marriage between Rea and Sam (our son, who will be four next month), my partner asked Sam if he knew what marriage meant. Unsure, Rea intervened with a very elaborate description that went something like this: it is when two people meet and then start to date. If they like each other, they continue to date for a while until they are ready to get married. At the wedding, the promise to follow the rules for married people. While her description actually encompassed a few more details, it was clear that she not only understands dating, relationships, and courting rituals, but the institution of marriage and the associated vows. At the age of 7 ½ , she is well versed in both the fairy-tale and happily-ever-after narratives of marriage.

Over the last year, my partner and I have struggled to help Rea find age-appropriate, and most importantly, empowering television shows. In her mind, she is too mature and grown-up for those preschool/kindergarten shows. You know that ones that emphasize language skills, inter-personal skill development, symbolic reason, and cultural literacy: Sesame Street, Arthur, Sid the Science Kid, Word Girl, and Martha Speaks. In her estimation, these shows are neither cool nor sophisticated enough for her; her brother yes, but definitely not for a 2nd grader. Simply put, those shows are boring and, worse, beneath her. Instead, she would much rather watch shows like ICarly, Victorious, Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, Good Luck Charlie, or countless other tween shows.

According to Gary Marsh, a top executive at Disney Channels Worldwide: “It’s always been presumed that animation is the gravy train. Nobody quite understood you could create lifestyle franchises out of live-action tween shows.” Similarly, Peter Larsen, in “TV’s Tween Scene,” describes this cultural shift as not only economically significant but culturally important as well: “What they discovered was that kids in that age range didn’t want to watch shows for little kids, and didn’t want to watch their parents’ shows. Instead, they wanted to see themselves and their stories on TV.”

While trying to attract the 9-14 age consumers (25 million in the United States, representing a 50 billion dollar industry), tween shows universally tell stories of TEENAGERS. ICarly chronicles the trials and tribulations of Carly Shay and friends, now in high school, who have their own webcast. One Nickelodeon executive identified the show as one about “relationships and humor” a fact that illustrated by a list of Carly’s “boyfriends, dates and crushes” on one website. Victorious similarly follows high school kids at a performing art school in Hollywood, CA. It, like just about every other show, explores the issues of relationships, getting-in-trouble, boyfriends and girlfriends. While focusing on the experiences and stories of 13-16 year olds, the dearth of shows dealing with the experiences of 6-10 year old kids, along with marketing efforts directed at these younger consumers, results in gravitation to shows that are more teen than tween.

Our discomfort with her watching shows that focus on dating, boys and materialism, looking beautiful and being cool isn’t simply about age appropriateness and our desire for her to define her identity and otherwise imagine her own childhood outside of teenager themes and issues. The focus on dating sends a message that coolness and acceptance comes for girls who have a boyfriend, who guys think are attractive, and who has been kissed. Likewise, too much of these shows chronicle the struggles of girls to be accepted, to feel good about themselves, and part of this comes from the struggles to get a boyfriend.

According to a 2009 study from True Child, school-age television shows lag significantly behind preschool shows in terms of offering representation of confident and self-aware girls. Compared to 94% of preschool shows, only 42% of shows geared toward school-age kids like my daughter exhibit characteristics like confidence, assertiveness, and high-self esteem. Similarly, the report found that “49% of shows feature at “82% of shows feature girls primarily with long hair”; “60% of the shows feature girls who are underweight with skinner than average waists.”

The questionable messages about consumerism, gendered-identity, and appearance-determined coolness run against the presented image of the Disney and Nickelodeon shows about girl power. As example, True Child celebrated several tween girl shows for “breaking through gender stereotypes.” Similarly, David Bushman argues the importance these shows in giving girls something to watch that indeed is about confident girls:

I think Nickelodeon has empowered kids in a lot of ways … but I think they’ve specifically empowered young girls, and that’s a really important thing that Nickelodeon deserves a lot of credit for. This whole idea that you could not make girl-centric shows because boys wouldn’t watch them, they disproved that theory (in Banet-Weiser).

Yet, visibility and even challenging stereotypes isn’t the only issue to consider when examining these shows. Visibility doe

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: The Tweening of America: The Disappearance of Age-Appropriate Television.

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