Category Archives: kid culture

Marketing. Period.

A week ago, as the mom of a tween girl,  I got some information in the mail from Kotex announcing their new line of sanitary pads (nice euphemism) for tweens.  I found no coupon as expected, so I was a little confused.  But rather than provide a discount on their products, the folks at Kotex were offering to help me “prepare for the talk” and letting me know that the average age for girls experiencing their first menstrual period (or menarche) has dropped dramatically in recent years, hitting some as early as at the age of eight.

I reacted, briefly, with the horror intended.  How do you talk to a second grader about this?  How do you tell her to put down the Fairy Secret Barbie and listen to you tell her about the many years of cramps and bleeding that lie ahead of her — without freaking her out?  Kotex is there to help and suggests planning a day for the talk and maybe also doing something girly to commemorate it, like a day of mani-pedis and then shopping for Kotex’s new line of tween pads!  The three moms on the online video, sponsored by Kotex and Disney, offer lots of other suggestions and stress the importance in no uncertain terms of having the talk (and, presumably, some Kotex pads in the bathroom cabinet) .  If your daughter’s hit the age of eight, ladies, she’s ready to blow.  And until Mattel introduces Menstrual Barbie, it’s up to you to get her through this.

This corporate suggestion is at least somewhat admirable.  Since the days after the female camaraderie of the Red Tent, women have absorbed the idea through various cultural and patriarchal messages that their periods make them unclean, dangerous, and, at best, are just plain icky.  Whether it’s the Curse, Your Monthly Friend, or the Visit from Aunt Flow, it’s not something most women look forward to, and the idea of explaining this entry into womanhood to our daughters is quite daunting.  (Mine looked at me in disbelief.  It seemed like too raw a deal for her to be true, despite my best efforts to make it seem empowering and affirming).

So the good people at Kotex have found a way to make your first period fun, the KotexU tween maxi pad, with a smaller fit, “designed with flair”.  These pads, as you can see, sport stars and hearts on their traditional white exterior and the wrappers come in fun colors!  The stars are outlined in blue and the hearts in purple.  

I don’t know if they change color like the straws at Friendly’s when they contact fluids, but certainly a red hue added by said fluid to the stars will create a patriotic tableau, of sorts,  as your tween moves proudly from all American girl to all American woman.  But do the purple hearts mark them as casualties of patriarchy?

While Kotex’s website emphasizes the earliest age on the scale of menarche onset — one of the moms in the video has a menstruating eight-year-old, and I don’t doubt that — it also acknowledges that that range  actually covers the ages of nine to sixteen.  I have heard, as many people have, that periods are coming earlier due to chemicals in our environment and bovine growth hormones in milk.  There’s a bit of a mild panic about “precocious puberty”, which Paul B. Kaplowitz and Stephen Kemp, writing for Medscape Reference at, define as the “appearance of physical and hormonal signs of pubertal development at an earlier age than is considered normal.”

But  my search for statistics or studies about menarche hitting early elementary school girls didn’t reveal much evidence of this.  According to the sociology site, the average age of menarche is slightly over twelve, and agrees that twelve is far more typical than eight for the onset of menstruation.  An article on the site for the National Center for Biotechnology and the National Library of Medicine , written by two researchers at Johns Hopkins, also finds menarche occurring most commonly between girls aged twelve to thirteen.  And in 1982, the New England Journal of Medicine noted the “secular trend of earlier age of menarche”, but it did not present that age as earlier than twelve.

So is this just a  ploy on the part of Kotex, grabbing for a market that may be developing, trying to get brand loyalty for their products as early as possible? That’s quite likely, though there is laudable information on their website concerning information for girls and their moms about the physical changes of puberty and a discussion site about “Demystifying Unhealthy Media Messages” for girls.

I’m not sure how many girls are going to jump on this bandwagon, though.  My daughter thought fancy pads are pretty silly, especially when you consider what will happen to them.  Maybe younger girls will be attracted to the funky designs and start wishing they were menstruating even earlier than Judy Blume’s Margaret (Are you there God?  It’s Me, Kotex).  Talking honestly about how our bodies change as we grow is obviously a good thing. However, marketing products like this to mark those changes commodifies them in ways that I can’t imagine are good at all.

Image of Trotula of Salerno, who wrote a medieval medical guide for women

The Tweening of America, or The Week Justin and Jonas Hijacked Grownup TV

I  thought it was just us, at first.  I thought that my husband and I were unique in totally surrendering our entertainment choices to our children. It happened little by little.  Instead of hearing NPR or the Clash when I’d start up my car, Raffi or Elmopalooza would blast out of the speakers.  I learned that I prefer starting my day with Sesame Street, in a happy multiculti world where everyone gets along with one another and can count to five in several languages, rather than watching the depressing reports on the news, and I grew to like PBS kids shows like Arthur even more than my kids did.

But soon kid entertainment became my entertainment.  Any punk /rock cred I may have ever had is gone; the last concerts I’ve seen were Laurie Berkner and the Jonas Brothers.  The last movies I’ve seen in an actual theater and not through the magical confluence of Netflix and Wii were Despicable Me and Megamind, and I have a date with my son to see Rango when it comes out because the only way I can get any Johnny Depp in my life is to hear his voice come out of an animated chameleon — at least until Pirates 4 comes out this May.  I knew when I had kids I would not spend my Saturday nights out in bars or clubs or smart restaurants.  But I didn’t know I would spend them watching  iCarly or True Jackson, VP (two funny shows, actually) or, worse still, Big Time Rush, and then collapse into bed exhausted or, maybe, stultified.  (At least I still have a grown up vocabulary).

And it turns out it’s not just me, because other parents have admitted to the same devolution of their entertainment (devolution? remember Devo and Mark Mothersbaugh?  He now scores lots of kids’ shows and appears drawing funky things on a whiteboard on Yo Gabba Gabba). And this week, the teenage dreams came for the shows we grownups hold as a beachhead of sorts against the tweening of America:  Justin Bieber returned to CSI and Nick Jonas appeared as a narcissistic brat rocker on the new Matthew Perry vehicle, Mr. Sunshine.

Now, I don’t  really think the tweens are taking over and preparing to hold the whole world hostage, binding us tightly by silly bands, for two reasons:

First, most parents of tweens probably didn’t let their kids watch CSI last night and both CSI and Sunshine are on after 9:00, when most tweens are or should be in bed.   (Guilty admission:  my daughter likes The Office and it’s acceptable enough family fare for me to skip the bedtime battles with her brother and let them both stay up on a Thursday night to see what “that weird looking guy”, Dwight Schrute, is going to do.)  Because while Nick and other 24/7 kid networks solved the problem of what kids can watch after 5PM, there’s still a lack of things kids and adults can watch together, with the exception of those optimistically-named talent shows like American Idol and Live to Dance (I watched the latter and was torn between rooting for Kendall and the brilliant and comical tangoing pair of DeAngelo and Amanda).  Such shows have proliferated for this reason of shareable viewing, I think — the only other alternative is Wipeout, if you have a high tolerance for watching adults in wetsuits being pummeled by padded rotating paddles or jettisoned by machines with names like the Ball Buster.  My seven-year-old loves it, but if it weren’t for the commentary of John “Skunkboy” Henson from Talk Soup I’d be wishing the show’s Strike Zone would take me out, or at least strike me insensible.

And second, the tween stars’ appearances  on these shows mark, more likely, their bid for respectability as serious multi-talented performers, or they provide a means for them to invite those fans at the top of the age demographic to join them in the next phase of their careers —  though I doubt that Justin Bieber is going to be the next Ray Liotta when it comes to playing charming psychos.*

The first inkling  this sweeps week that the networks were going to leave it to Bieber occurred on Tuesday on Glee, a family-hour show that is not really family-hour fare, as I’ve discussed in earlier posts.  Bieber did not grace the halls of William McKinley High with his adorable golden mop of hair, but the similarly blond and mop-topped Sam (Chord Overstreet) made a bid to win back the heart of Quinn (Dianna Agron) by donning a purple hoodie and singing “Baby” to her.  The girls loved it so much the other males in Glee Club, except Finn (Corey Monteith), wanted in, and the Justin Bieber Experience was born.  (Puck even covered his Mohawk with floppy bangs attached to his hoodie).  Even though they didn’t want to like him, or even acknowledge him, the men of the glee club were forced to recognize that Bieber is a force of nature that no girl can resist.  The tunes are just too catchy, the hair too perfect, the smile just too adorable.

On Wednesday, at the request of Matthew Perry**, Nick Jonas played a teen rock star with an enormous sense of entitlement and the show took a shot at the Biebs by making the jerk teen rock star’s hit song “Baby No Baby.”  (Check out a clip at .) Perez thinks Nick “shines”, and Nick does put his sourpuss expression to good use here as a brat who boasts “`I cancelled a concert in Toronto once because they couldn’t find me a spicy enough crabroll.  And I hate seafood.”  Lines like that and “`Here’s the problem:  I wasn’t parented well and I’m very rich and that’s a brutal combination'” can make even a novice actor look great, as long as he delivers them right, and Nick’s got experience in the  Theat-uh (Les Mis), so it works.  Next month, tweens can decide if he’s a better actor than his brother, Joe, as they duke it out at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards for Best  Actor (against the the Sprouse twins, Dylan and Cole). While Disney dropped Jonas LA, despite its being in the Top 5 programs in the tween (9-14) demographic, Joe Jonas also hit the sitcom circuit back in August as the son of Valerie Bertinelli’s character on TVLand’s Hot in Cleveland.  This show made fun of Justin Bieber, as well, making me wonder why these Jonas guys are so anxious  — Joe’s character corrects Betty White’s for thinking Bieber is a girl, but Betty remains skeptical (“They keep saying it, but I’m not buying it.”)***  You can watch dueling clips of the boys and vote on your fave JoBro’s acting skills at if you can’t wait til March 1 to vote on

Finally, on Thursday, there was Bieber himself, back on CSI as troubled teen Jason McCann, out to avenge his brother’s death that occurred in the season opener.  He played a member of a radical group accused of bombing a police funeral in both episodes, with an airtime of two minutes in the premiere expanded to four or five minutes in last night’s episode.  As has been widely reported, the Biebs’ character goes out in a hail of bullets, but both before and after, his hair remains perfect and the bruise on his cheek does little to mar his adorability– it looks more like some inexperienced makeup artist applied too much blush and chose a shade  too dark.

So while it may make you scream like Bieber below, the tween stars are ready to make their mark on “grownup” pop culture.  Miley’s finished filming  a movie in which she plays an FBI agent (who goes undercover in a sorority house) and her (former) Disney cohorts are making their own forays into the mainstream.  Funny or Die’s “F-Bomb of the Week”  featured Joe Jonas, and while he didn’t literally drop the F-bomb, the other actors did (as well as the word “bitch”, though Joe warned them not to go there with a cautionary, “Dude!”).  Joe looked abnormally scruffy in this video he uploaded as part of his bid to be a comic star, and this more masculine, more adult scruffiness seems to be the wave of the future, marking the end of squeaky clean and the beginning of something a little more grownup.  (After all, Justin Bieber’s girlfriend, Disney wizard Selena Gomez, has reportedly taken off the purity ring).  I’m not sure yet who the new, more mature heartthrobs will appeal to, so stayed tuned. We may have no other choice.

* According to Marc Malkin’s blog on, Bieber’s costar George Eads called the Biebs a “cool kid” but noted that “he has a lot to learn” about acting, even though he was “fine for what he was doing there. . . It’s CSI. It’s four or five lines, it’s not a Rubik’s cube.”

** TV Guide‘s website reports that Nick got the call from Perry while on tour.  He “`walked back into the bus and . . . [his] brothers were like “What happened to Matthew Perry?” They thought he had died, and [Nick] was like, “No, much better than that. He asked me to do the show.”‘”

***Reportedly, Joe found “`watching Betty knit. . . just so adorable'”, according to, and if Joe had to be a Golden Girl, he’d be Rose, though he seemed a little insulted by the question (not to mention unfamiliar with the show).

Mastertween Theatre: Nick’s House of Anubis

Nickelodeon’s House of Anubis is on hiatus this week, so I thought I’d get in a quick post about a series that has captivated many of the fifth-grade girls I know*.  Based on a Dutch-Belgian series (Het Huis Anubis), House tells the story of an American girl named Nina Martin who begins classes at a British boarding school and stumbles into a mystery surrounding treasures from King Tut’s tomb that may be hidden in the students’ dorm house  that involves possible mummies’ curses, kidnappings, sacrifices, and an elixir of life that prevents people from aging.  It’s the first Nick offering filmed outside the US , made in Liverpool during the summer of 2010, and provides American Nicksters with a good Brit-based soap/thriller, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre lite.  Like most Euro shows, its episodes come in 11-minute installments, and Nick has been showing two back-to-back, usually five nights a week.  This week, they’re letting the tension build as we wait to discover how Nina and her cohorts will solve the mystery after the only person who could help them has passed away.

The theme song gives us our first clue that this is not going to be a scare fest.  There’s no weirdo Dr.Who-style music or some kind of bizarro take on Egyptian sounds — just an upbeat tune that tells us we’re in for more of a romp than an exploration of the dark side.  (Perhaps the conspiracy theorists at should have waited to the hear the theme, if not to watch the show itself, before declaring it a dangerous means of luring impressionable American tweens into the world of the Illuminati that presents an “evil agenda” and represents “an abomination in the Lord’s eyes.”)

The show focuses on the eight students who live in Anubis House and offers realistic teen delights and dilemmas alongside the mystery — in fact, several of the students are not even aware that there is anything creepy going on in the basement of Anubis House (weird pseudo-Egyptian rituals with people in cloaks and dog masks?  Quite possibly. We’re waiting to see).  Mick, for instance, just wants to survive academics long enough to embark on a sports career, Mara wants to be liked (especially by Mick) as more than the house brainiac, Alfie is obsessed with aliens, and Patricia, at first, just wants to know why her friend Joy suddenly left school.  The first two to catch on to the mystery are Nina and Fabian and are encouraged by the addled Emily from the local nursing home, who turns out to be Sarah Frobisher-Smyth, the daughter of two of those involved with the opening of King Tut’s tomb.  When her parents died (presumably of the curse associated with the opening of the tomb), Sarah came to live in the home that became Anubis House, along with a slightly sinister young boy named Victor Roddenmeyer, who is now the housemaster for the students.  But why does he look as young as he did in the Twenties, while Sarah has aged?  Victor’s a malevolent sort, to be sure, and not just because he makes the kids go to bed at ten — he just may kill and preserve stray cats and seems to be the master of spooky ceremonies in the basement held with other faculty members like the headmaster, Mr. Sweet, and an English teacher, Ms. Andrews.

Francis Magee, well known to Brit TV watchers for his role on the long-running soap Eastenders, makes a wonderfully creepy Victor.  As many viewers have pointed out on message boards about the show, not all the actors on House are as convincing in their roles. Nathalia Ramos, who played teen model Dakota North on True Jackson, VP,  is rather wooden as Nina and as Patricia, Jade Ramsay seems to be working under the assumption that if she says everything really loudly and with great emphasis, it will take on some kind of import. But Eugene Simon brings some spark to the snarky Jerome Clark, who seems aloof and even cold but just may reveal hidden depths of sensitivity if he can get over his parents’ abandoning him at school, and Brad Kavanagh’s Fabian Rutter is the sort of kind, supportive, low-key and handsome boyfriend many viewers would want for themselves.  While her character is a bit schizophrenic — typical blonde mean girl one episode, sweet ditzy friend in the next — Ana Mulvoy Ten’s Amber Millington is probably the most amusing character, and a favorite of the girls I know who watch the show.  She schemes to get Mick back from Mara, believing that someone as pretty as she is deserves a boyfriend who gives out as many gifts as Mick does, but she’s also somewhat helpful as the founder of the sleuths’ group “Sibuna” (Anubis backwards) and seems dead right that Victor has to be the head baddie because “he has such evil hair.” The odd kids out, at least at first, are the students of color, Mara Jaffray and Alfie Lewis, and many viewers can relate to the struggles to fit in and be accepted that lead them, at times, to allow others to take advantage of them.  Consequently, we’re  happy when the smart, reserved Mara ends up with two suitors (Jerome and Mick) but we hold little hope that Alfie will either win Amber’s heart or discover the aliens he is convinced have taken over his school.

Check out the trailer at and catch House of Anubis next week, two episodes at 7 EST.  It’s fun, a decent mystery, and an excellent introduction to the breadth and variety of English accents.

*This blog has been on a sort of hiatus as well, not that anyone has noticed.  Since I started it in part to establish a "web presence" and provide a sort of "platform" for myself as a YA writer, I thought I ought to get back to a little YA writing myself.

The end of “both worlds”? Hannah Montana Retires

For the first time in years, there were no Hannah Montanas in the Blueberry Hill Elementary School Halloween parade.  Usually there are at least five, so maybe everyone is moving on, along with Miley, whose decision to hang up the blonde wig of her alter ego after four seasons has been much publicized.  My daughter and her BFF went as Hannah and Lola, Hannah’s BFF, one Halloween, but now they find the pole dancing Miley to be too “weird” to comprehend, let alone emulate.

This past Sunday, November 7th, seemed to mark the airing of the series finale of the Disney show (though Jason Earles,who plays Miley’s brother on the show, has apparently tweeted that “there are like five episodes left”. ) Whether in optimism, a bid to sell some last- minute Hannah merchandise,  or as reassurance to young fans, Hannah Montana was renamed for this final season as  Hannah Montana Forever.  And despite Miley’s obvious eagerness to put aside childish things and be an adult performer in her own right, the finale and the episode leading up to it presented both a working metaphor for her decision and closure for fans.

The final season began with Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), her songwriting dad/manager Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus), and her goof-off older brother Jackson (Jason Earles) trying to recapture their Tennessee roots by ditching the Malibu beach house and moving a to a palatial ranch.  They were motivated to recapture their past after a visit back home when Robby Ray noted how much Miley loved her old preteen bedroom and tried to reproduce it back in California.  Miley was horrified by this blast from her pre-star past and mortified by the idea that her friends would kick off their senior year with a sleepover in this mausoleum to her early adolescence.  The lesson was clear:  you can’t recapture the past.

The rest of the season propelled us toward the inevitable moment when Miley would weary of living her double life and reveal to the world that she is Hannah Montana, thus, effectively, retiring Hannah forever.  Along for the ride are guest stars Angus T. Jones as the brother of Jackson’s bikini model girlfriend; Christine Taylor as the school nurse whom Miley tries to set up with her dad; and, inexplicably, Ray Liotta as the school principal who has to inform Miley that her dad forgot to register her for her senior year somehow and now she can’t go to school.  It all works out for Miley in the end, after she fails to survive a day at school as Hannah (who for some reason can enroll there) when all of her classmates turn into rabid fans, proving to her that her double life was once indeed necessary.  There’s a salute to military families featuring videos made by families to their soldier relatives overseas and Hannah singing “I’m Still Good” (even as Mikey was raising eyebrows in hot pants and a steamy video for “I Can’t Be Tamed” — the contrast between the two song titles seems to say a lot about the paradox that Miley Cyrus has lived for at least a year now — see the first post  ever on this blog for more about that.)

In the penultimate episode, Miley’s record company refuses to a release a song that everyone admits is awesome but with its hip hop flavor, it just is “not the sound her audience expects from Hannah Montana.”    Angered, Miley counters that they are “afraid to let an artist grow” and assures the producers that she “believe[s] in the song and trusts [her] fans.”  But a focus group proves her wrong — her fans do not want to grow with her, even when she tells them “change can be scary but it’s part of growing up.”  There’s a clear parallel here between Miley Cyrus and her tween fans, who aren’t ready to embrace her dancing round a stripper pole, and shouldn’t.  But Cyrus is ready to move on, and her real life and TV father tell her, in true Disney fashion though the move is antithetical to all that Disney represents, to “listen to [her] heart” and ignore the “naysayers.” Miley Stewart records the song as a duet with Iyaz, after he hears it and tries to buy it from her — to give to his protegé Taylor Swift. A torch is being passed here, it seems, as Miley acknowledges how talented and hardworking Swift is (“Does that girl ever sleep?” she asks).

In the hour-long finale, Miley’s life gets more complicated when her musician boyfriend Jesse refuses to aid in her double life.  He kisses her on The Tonight Show and Jay Leno announces that Hannah and Jesse are “America’s New Sweethearts.”  So when Jesse is seen out with Miley, he’s accused of cheating by the press, his five-year-old niece,and his grandma.  To make matters worse her BFF Lilly gets into Stanford (which they pronounce “Stan Ford”) because of her awesome extracurriculars, while Miley appears to have done nothing all through high school– because she was busy being Hannah Montana.   Lilly agrees to wait a year so they can go to school together and Jesse relents, but Miley faces herself in the mirror, sees Hannah, and realizes that she is asking a lot of her friends.  Robby Ray reminds her that “nothing lasts forever — kind of like a mullet” (the last mullet joke he’ll make on the show!)  and Miley recognizes what she has to do.  She goes to her huge hidden Hannah closet and each outfit triggers a memory, seen in flashback, as Miley’s voice sings a poignant song called “I’ll Always Remember You”.  She is “thankful for the moment/so glad I got to know you” and any viewer over the age of three realizes that she is singing to them, to those who have loved Hannah for years now.  But as Miley sings back on The Tonight Show — as Miley Stewart, not Hannah –she is “moving on, letting go/Holding on to tomorrow.”  It’s a bittersweet farewell that acknowledges Miley Cyrus’ need to move on and still respects the fans, even those that feel, as the girl in the focus group did, that they “don’t want [her] to change.  [They] like [her] just the way” she is.”  Even my daughter, who had disavowed Miley, watched the last episode eagerly and cried at the flashbacks.  She cried a little more as she went to bed, putting a small piece of her childhood to rest.

Miley Cyrus will be eighteen in a few days and she has already been living the life of a wage-earning adult for many years.  Like most eighteen-year-olds, she is ready to say goodbye to the last days of childhood and carve a space for herself in the world, on her terms.  She wants to grow up, and to show us that she is grown up.  She did this years ago, in the infamous Vanity Fair spread,( when Cyrus’ camp blamed Annie Leibowitz for tricking her into posing semi-nude (personally, I found the draped semi-nude shot tasteful.  It was the shot of Miley and her dad lounging like lovers that seemed far creepier to me).  It was all retracted and we could go back to believing that our little Miley would never do such a thing as pose somewhat in the altogether.  But her most recent videos and TV appearances show that yes, she certainly would (last week posted stills from”another raunchy video” ).  Miley is moving on.  She is making the rounds of European awards shows now and, according to Perez Hilton, will soon star in the film So Undercover as a “`tough, street-smart private eye hired by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority.'”  At best, this could mark her as the next Sandra Bullock in a Miss Congeniality-type comedy.  At worst it could be exploitive trash.  But either way, Miley Cyrus is moving on.

Unfortunately for Cyrus, she is doing so in the midst of scandal and heartache, as her parents are in the process of divorce and rumors point to her mother’s affair with Brett Michaels as the source. Others say their attention to their daughter’s career left them no time for their marriage, and Miley Cyrus is making no comment, while Perez Hilton posts that “Miley Parties to Cope with Parents’ Divorce” and Popeater claims “Miley Cyrus Would Trade All Her Success to Fix Her Parents’ Marriage.”  Her on-again-off-again relationship with movie co-star Liam Hemsworth is over, according to the tabs, so Cyrus has a lot to sort out right now.  Maybe Miley Stewart had it right after all in creating an alter ego to protect herself and her privacy, so she could live the life of a normal teen and still be a pop star.  Miley Cyrus never had that chance. Disney is taking care of many of the show’s other stars.  Mitchel Musso (Oliver) wasn’t present for much of the final season because he is on tour, his second CD drops soon, and he has a new sitcom on the channel.  Emily Osment also has a CD out.  I’m not sure where Jason Earles will get work unless there is a remake of the Back to the Future franchise, but he is likely to land on his feet.  Miley Cyrus has opted to go it alone, for better or worse.  Her current fans are unlikely to follow — at least until they grow up a little, too.

An open letter to Demi Lovato

Dear Ms. Lovato:

I write to you today not as a snarky pop cultural critic, but as a feminist, a mom, and a former eighteen-year-old girl.  I don’t know the whole story behind your leaving the tour with the Jonas Brothers — and neither do most of the people who are blogging and writing about it.  For that reason, I don’t blame you for shutting down your Twitter page, though there are many many girls out there who would like to tweet you well.  (There are some sweet wishes and sound advice on, such as “stay away from guys who play mind games.”)

If you’re not aware of it, I’m sure you can guess the speculation that’s out there. The words “celebrity” and “rehab” send people into fits of schadenfreude, a great German word that means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.  Another Hollywood teen on drugs?  A Disney teen on drugs?  Even better!  But I’m betting drugs are not the problem here.  Lots of other sources, from People to TMZ say it’s the return of your old nemeses, cutting and eating disorders, that have sent you away.  These symptoms are produced by the kind of self-doubt our culture produces in young women.  All young women, on some level, know what it’s like to not measure up — to measure too big, perhaps, or fail to meet the standard in some other way.  But most of them don’t have to pass or fail this standard  in the public eye, as you do.  Some would say that you chose to do so, to live your life publicly, and that is certainly true, as far as I know — though one could wonder at what age one could competently make this decision with a full understanding of exactly what public life entails in this era of instant celebrity and constant scrutiny.  If one could ever have the wisdom or foresight to see what this would cost them.

I don’t know about the alleged physical attack on a dancer or threats to Joe Jonas’ girlfriend or any of that.  But I do know what it’s like to be tired — really tired — and have to carry on anyway because people are depending on you.  With a tour and a television show and a clothing line and everything else you do, why wouldn’t you be exhausted?  Couple that with the staggering depletion of the soul produced by being watched and judged by everyone with access to the internet and I don’t know how you do it, how anyone would do it, at such a young age. You probably don’t feel young, though.  I didn’t, at eighteen, and my life was much less that of an adult professional than yours is.  I was a pretty typical college freshman. I made my mistakes with only friends and classmates around, and they were making their own mistakes right along with me.  It’s hard crossing that bridge from kid to adult, and, sadly,  some of us don’t make it.  I had friends who didn’t, and the news is filled lately with stories of kids who took their own lives because they couldn’t take the pressure of what was being said about them in school, on the internet, and, they felt, just everywhere.  To them, it feels like that, that the scrutiny is everywhere — in your case, it’s actually true.  I cannot imagine how hard that must be.

This summer, I took my daughter and her friend to see the Jonas Brothers Camp Rock 2 tour and they loved it.  They loved you.  And  as I hear the shallow analysis of your “case” on shows like Today and The Talk, I can’t help but also hear the lyrics to your song “LaLa Land”.*  Girls I know love you for singing “I’m not a supermodel/I still eat McDonalds” and “Who said I can’t be single/I have to go out and mingle”.  That’s empowering for them.  The lines “Some say I need to be afraid/Of losing everything/Because of where I/Had my start and where I made my name” are cautionary, even prophetic perhaps, but I can tell you that all the girls in the audience at Hartford were right with you when you sang of bucking the “La La Land machine” and not “changing anything of [your] life.”  You’ve probably already had to change so much to be where you are today.  You “still have [your] moments”?  We all do — you just have yours in public.  I’m glad I didn’t have that pressure, and I wouldn’t wish it for my daughter.

What I do wish, as a feminist and a mom and a former eighteen-year-old girl, is that I had some wisdom to give you, something to say that would make it all better for you and other girls like you.  Ultimately, the many things I could say would all boil down to something pretty simple, but something that took me a long time to learn myself:  Take care of yourself.  Because, ultimately, no matter how great your family and friends are, they can’t know what it’s like to be you.  And they can’t always know what’s best for you.  Neither can you, all the time, but you have to listen to yourself; in those few quiet moments when it’s just you, just listen.  Over the years, I finally found that more often than not, I knew what I needed and wanted.  I just didn’t know I knew.

Get better, first for you, and second so you can be that role model you mentioned dreaming of, so you can start that “foundation” you mentioned in People , “or something that’s for girls feeling confident, to empower them.”  Because they could really use it.

Proof that Disney boxes and sells their young stars like products?  Not exactly — it’s a (sadly ironic) shot from the Sonny with a Chance holiday special, coming up in December.

*music and lyrics by Joe Jonas, Kevin Jonas, Nick Jonas, and Demetria Lovato

iJump the Shark

Guppy is just a symptom.  Plus, read on for exciting news about a great YA author!

Most mainstream news sources are in agreement:  Nick’s Dan Schneider-created hit iCarly just keeps getting bigger (and, according to some logic, better).  It first aired in September of 2007 and is now, according to, phenomenally popular; in fact, “On cable, iCarly is outnumbered [in viewers, presumably] only by sports and Jersey Shore.”  And while I would still choose to  watch Carly, Spencer, Sam, and Freddie any day rather than Snookie and her cohorts skanking it up down the shore, I think a little of the magic has been lost despite — or because of — its popularity.  Yes, the show has spawned its own Silly Bandz and the spaghetti taco craze has been acknowledged by the New York Times, but I contend that the fresh anarchic tween spirit of the early seasons has been replaced by a sort of narcissistic nastiness, a refreshing lack of which once marked this show as a standout, especially among Schneider productions (see past posts on VICTORiOUS and others).

When my kids and I first discovered iCarly, we loved it.  I thought it was one of the best written shows on television (all television, not just tween-0riented tv).  The three main characters, Carly Shay (Miranda Cosgrove), her semi-delinquent friend Sam Puckett (Jennette McCurdy), and tech nerd Fredward “Freddie” Benson were well-drawn and believable, and the actors playing them have great comic timing.  Middle-school-and then high-school-aged Carly lives with her older brother Spencer (Jerry Trainor, who worked with Cosgrove before on Drake and Josh) because their father is serving the country on a submarine somewhere.  No mention is ever made of their mother, which is curious, unless you consider the underlying misogyny and motherphobia of many Schneider productions.  Spencer, a law school dropout with no visible means of support, manages to keep himself and his sister in a funky three-story condo, makes sculptures out of found objects –and they often blow up or catch on fire — and encourages the three in their production of their own web comedy show, the eponymous iCarly.  All of these details explain the popularity of the show — a lack of parents, seemingly inexhaustible financial and media resources, creative free reign over one’s life and one’s increasingly popular web show?  What’s a kid not to like?  And I liked it because Carly, Sam, Freddie and their friends were not easily classifiable in the pantheon of standard t(w)een tv cliches.  They are not the most popular kids at school nor the “freaks” looking to fit in.  They are intelligent but not necessarily booksmart (though Carly gets mostly As, which Spencer commemorated in a sculpture made of found As).  They are attractive but not preternaturally beautiful, and they do not suffer traumas that are hastily resolved in the space of 30 to 60 minutes (can I get a holla for Brandon Walsh’s gambling addiction?  Anyone?  Anyone?).  If they are smartasses and skeptical of authority, as all true tweens are, it is because most of the authority figures around them are buffoons.  When they do meet someone worthy of their respect, like Principal Franklin, they generally treat him with respect, especially by tween tv standards.  These things were all true of the first seasons and made the show a standout in the world of t(w)een tv.

And then it slowly started to change.

We all know the telltale signs of shark-jumping, beginning with the introduction of an ungainly character from out of left field (think The Flinstones‘ Great Gazoo, the Bradys’ cousin Oliver, or the execrable Scrappy Doo).  But Noah Munck’s increased role as the shirtless Gibby only enhanced the show’s gentle wackiness in episodes such as the one in which the gang helped him try to impress a girl at a dinner date at the Cheesecake Warehouse (home of salads and slices of cheesecake that dwarf their consumers).  The would-be girlfriend flees, but Gibby ends up dancing, gloriously shirtless, on the table, determined to just be himself.  He is joined on that table by one of the rare appearances (before Groovy Smoothie entrepreneur T-Bo) of a black person, a young girl who “like[s] [Gibby’s] moves.”  I know that “Be Yourself” is a stock message in kids’ shows, but it may be needed now more than ever as kids are deciding at an alarming rate that being themselves, particularly if that means being gay, just isn’t worth it — and can even prove deadly, if not simply soul crushing.  But the beauty of the iCarlys, as their arch rival Neville calls them, was that they accepted themselves and their friends for who they are.  Freddie may have an overbearing mother who insists he wear Cloud Block for skin protection and feeds him cucumber slices as snacks but he’s also smart and funny and even Sam accepts him, despite her constant ridicule of him.  And Sam, in turn, is accepted despite her juvenile police record, disturbing love all forms of meat (she carries baggies of ribs, both beef and pork, in her bag)  and her tendency to solve interpersonal problems by flying at her enemies and wailing on them with her fists and feet.

All of that has changed in the past season, during which the popular show has focused too often on the popularity of the iCarlys and their growing disdain for all people un-iCarly.  For example, in the episode “iPsycho”, the gang reluctantly takes pity on a fan who invites them to appear at her birthday party because otherwise no one else will come.  She locks them in her basement because they present her only chance at social interaction besides her chicken.  In other words, she represents the hopeless dweeb who can never hope to be as cool as the iCarlys and she richly deserves it when she is TKOd by Gibby, who has brought along his shirtless but uncharismatic little brother, Guppy (played by Noah Munck’s real brother!).  Last night’s episode, “iDo”, raises the stakes even higher in the game of cool versus uncool.  When fans invite the gang to their wedding — the groom pays for their flights, including Spencer’s — they do little but complain about having to go to Wisconsin, home of cheese with beef in it, which you would think would be right up Sam’s alley.  They sneer at everything, even the hapless groom whose bride-t0-be falls for Spencer at first sight, and they engage in self-involved complaining about fishsticks without tartar sauce and Sam’s insult about the flatness of Spencer’s butt when they should just walk away from the wedding they have derailed.  But they can’t as the episode is essentially a setup so the once sweet-but-not-sticky Carly can sing the song the erstwhile groom wrote for his beloved, which is actually the next single off Miranda Cosgrove’s album — she is embarking on her first concert tour imminently.

Even more disturbing is the subplot, which like most of the subplots lately, is, to use an iCarly term, full of chiz.  Gibby and Guppy discover a five-dollar bill in a tree and get a frail old lady to help them retrieve it.  She collapses on the sidewalk, face down, as Gibby gloats over his new found riches.  When he finally recognizes the dead or at east severely injured woman (she does croak at the end, “Aren’t we going for coffee?” so she might survive the fall), Gibby tells Guppy he saw nothing and they hightail it out of there.  I am all for dark humor, particularly if it involves poking fun at the elderly, but this seems more mean spirited than funny, especially in the context of the recent Scientific American study that found today’s college students to be significantly less empathetic than their counterparts of decades past.  Elementary and middle schoolers and other fans of the show are hardly likely to be any more compassionate, especially if we look at the evolution (or devolution) of sensitivity on iCarly from 2007 to the present as symptomatic of this general lack of concern for others.

Nonetheless, compared to other tween shows, iCarly is still superior, and by its own standards, certain episodes are still genuinely funny, especially when Jerry Trainor is given more to do than mug for the camera and throw himself on the floor or over a piece of furniture in the hope of gaining some traction in the laugh department.  The cast is still likable and talented, though as the show’s writers acknowledge, lines are being written now less for the characters and more for the actors themselves, who are no longer anonymous tweens themselves but busy and successful young Hollywood stars.  For this reason, fans were relieved and a bit surprised, perhaps, that Miranda Cosgrove signed on for more episodes, despite her other pursuits which involve movie offers (she’s a voice in Despicable Me), concert tours, and perusing college catalogues (she likes USC but may go to New York for a change of pace).  The legion of fans grows, and no doubt will continue to grow, especially with the upcoming episode “iStart a Fan War”, based on fan responses on blogs and the iCarly wiki, in which it may or may not be revealed (again) whether Freddie’s love is really Carly or Sam — the Creddie and Seddie fans are somewhat evenly split on this and are “flipping out” on the blogs at  Jack Black will guest star on this one, adding even more cool cred to the show.  (For Jack Black fans with younger kids or a high tolerance for preschool funkadelics, check him out on Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba.  It will blow your mind.)

Still, even a guest star like recent Emmy winner Jane Lynch couldn’t save the “iSam’s Mom” episode for me.  Jane Lynch as Pam Puckett, Sam’s oft-discussed trampy mom, who once drove her car into the school while picking up Sam because she didn’t want to rest her eyes after Lasik surgery, who once packed Sam Cheezwiz for lunch, for which  Sam was grateful she had even thought to pack anything?  Seems like a winner, especially since Lynch plays the uber bully Sue Sylvester  on Glee, a character whose sharp tongue could lacerate Sam and her tween friends into ribbons.  But Sue Sylvester’s character, unlike the ones on iCarly lately, has more than one dimension. She’s mean, to be sure, but we are learning this season that her meanness is rooted in despair, that she cannot believe in God, for instance, because she cannot believe in a God who would allow her sister with Down’s syndrome to have been treated so abysmally by the kids around her.  One can only wonder what the once affable Gibby would do with a woman like Sue’s sister and some money stuck in a tree.

It’s entirely possible that as a middle-aged mom I am too out of touch with what’s truly funny and that I write a blog that might as well, like Marge Simpson, demand that Itchy and Scratchy get along together and share a nice glass of lemonade.  But I also live in a world in which kids who feel bullied and tormented and undervalued commit suicide — two of them did so in the past year in my part of New England alone, one of them famously and one not so famously (and as the Worcester, MA  paper pointed out, it is no wonder that the famous case was the suicide of a pretty white girl, the less publicized the suicide of a gay black male).  It would be absurd to lay the blame for such tragedy on iCarly or any other tv show, especially since iCarly is not irredeemable.  But it is fair to say that what kids watch affects how they expect to be treated and how they expect to treat others.  Maybe we don’t need Itchy and Scratchy sharing lemonade, but we could use something between that saccarine portrayal of friendship and delighting in the crushing of the unpopular or the death by falling of helpful old ladies enticed by coffee and the promise of friendship.  Something like iCarly used to offer.

And now, for the big YA news!

A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz hits the stores today.  It’s been praised by critics and writers like the venerable Ellen Hopkins and is her second novel for YA readers — her first, The Dust of 100 Dogs, was released in 2008   and nominated for a Spring 2009 Children’s Indie Next List Pick for Teens.

In a future post (soon!) the fabulous A. S. King will provide a video chat about her work AND demonstrate exactly how many Oreos she can stuff in her face in three minutes.  You won’t want to miss it!

Guaranteed personality: A look at Nick’s VICTORiOUS, with apologies to the Clash

“I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily/I came in here for a special offer/Of guaranteed personality” — “Lost in the Supermarket, the Clash

Dan Schneider, a former teen actor who played the chubbiest nerd on Head of the Class, had developed five series for Nickelodeon when he was approached by the Nick execs to create a music-based show.  Given the popularity of High School Musical, they charged Schneider with creating a new show that would “follow where the kids are.”   VICTORiOUS, the story of a talented teen who joins her fame-obsessed sister at Hollywood Performing Arts High School, promised to speak to kids’ desire to express themselves musically just as iCarly, another Schneider-crafted show, spoke to every YouTube-loving kid who wanted to host his own web show.   And while it’s gone downhill this season, iCarly was once fresh in its writing and performances, giving us quirky but realistic enough characters, especially in those played by its three likable teen stars.   Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, and Nathan Kress are funny and believable as kids who produce a show we would all want to watch because they are kids we all want to watch. They are bright, attractive without being plastic, and their comedic timing is spot on.

VICTORiOUS , on the other hand, falls flat.   Because despite its intentions, it’s not so much about talented kids with an awesome creative outlet so much as it is about annoying kids who want to be talented — or, better yet, to be famous. Schneider has said, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids today. . . it’s that they all want to be famous”*, and he developed the series when Marjorie Cohn was Nick’s executive VP for original programming and development.  “Every kid thinks they’re five minutes away and one lucky circumstance from being famous,” Cohn has said, and with these thoughts in mind they began to develop the show, which also promised to provide the long-awaited showcase for Victoria Justice, who was signed in 2008 to work on what would become VICTORiOUS.

When Schneider cast Justice at the age of twelve to play a character attractive but otherwise devoid of personality on the execrable Jamie Lynn Spears vehicle Zoey 101, he told the bigwigs at Nick that he had just met their “next star.”  And Nick cast the likable but unremarkable Justice in as many vehicles as they could, and on shows like iCarly and True Jackson, VP she garnered more special guest spots than even Heather Locklear in her heyday.  Nick promoted VICTORiOUS relentlessly and gave it a sweet time slot for its “sneak preview” premiere — right after the Nick Kids’ Choice Awards on March 27, 2010, making it the most watched debut in Nick history.  Critics gave it mixed reviews at best, however, and there is little evidence that fans have latched on to the show the way they have to iCarly or True or even Big Time Rush, Nick’s bid at a boy band sitcom.

This may seem surprising, since Nick and Schneider follow a winning formula with VICTORiOUS in concentrating on a small cadre of teen friends and a sibling or two on a fairly static set (an apartment with its web studio and an occasional shot at the lockers in school for iCarly; the offices of Mad Style and an occasional classroom for True Jackson, VP; a home and a movie theater where one of the brothers works on Drake and Josh).  But unlike the  charismatic teens those shows were built around (Miranda Cosgrove, Keke Palmer, Drake Bell and Josh Peck), Victoria Justice’s Tori Vega is a black hole personality-wise; she’s at best a straight (wo)man in her own life story as the wacky kids perform around her like she’s a circus ringmaster. Except she doesn’t direct any of the action at the circus, or even comment on it.  Mainly, she passively witnesses it all.

Now in some ways, this narrative move or device, if it can be called that, makes sense.  Tori is, in basic terms, a placeholder, the person we in the audience can identify with, the classic outsider or fish out of water – at least in the first episode.  She becomes a student at Hollywood Arts by accident; when her diva sister, Trina (Daniella Monet), drinks some Chinese herbal tea and has her tongue swell up so that cannot perform her song at a showcase, the talented songwriter Andre (Leon Thomas III, who played another talented teen composer on iCarly) begs Tori to step in and sing in her place.   Andre and his friends then encourage her to transfer to their school, despite Tori’s protests that she is just ordinary and they are so “crazy talented”, a premise that would, arguably, work better if she weren’t so ordinary, if we could come to believe that she deserves to be at Hollywood Arts, too, because she is both humble and crazy talented, but we don’t get to see much of that talent beyond her singing occasionally.  In theory, though,  we navigate the wacky halls of Hollywood Arts as an outsider like Tori and marvel with her at the assorted oddballs, which include a barefoot (!) acting teacher who likes coconuts because they”give [him] visions” and the Screechesque dork Robbie (Matt Bennett) who hides behind his more dashing ventriloquist’s dummy, Rex Power, even though everyone finds Rex even more annoying than Robbie.  There’s the aforementioned wackily narcissistic sister Trina and the spacey redhead Cat, who spends obsessively on Skymall purchases in one episode, which sounds funnier than it actually was, and the supposedly tempestuous romance between the cute and down-to-earth Beck (Avan Jogia) and his nasty girlfriend Jade (Elizabeth Gillies), who just seems unpleasant for the point of being unpleasant.  At one point in the unfolding season, Beck dumps Jade, and it seems like he will discover that he really belongs with his much less violent and bipolar friend, Tori, but the narrative backs off of that like it was on fire.  Which is a shame, because that would have had some dramatic potential and given Tori some semblance of a character.  As it is, she is only defined by what she is not:  kooky, like Cat; bitchy, like Jade; or self-involved, like Trina.  But Tori is not alone in this respect, at least in regard to what makes them anything BUT kooky or self-involved or bitchy.  With the exception of Andre, it is not clear what makes any of these people talented, though they do seem to want to be talented. In a show about a performing arts high school, with actors that have appeared on Broadway and other venues in the roles, this seems sadly ironic.  Since it was created as a response to High School Musical, VICTORiOUS could re-present the most positive message put out by Disney:  with hard work and belief in oneself, dreams can come true.  “You don’t have to be afraid to put your dream in action,” Tori sings in that fateful showcase number, “You’re never gonna fade/You’ll be the main attraction.”  But the song continues to promise the young audience that even without hard work or talent (two elements that, say what you want, Disney’s Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and Jonas present as necessary to success) they can gain a kind of fame — at least, that’s how I interpret these somewhat cryptic lines — “You know that if you’re living your imagination/Tomorrow you’ll be everybody’s fascination” — that reduce the “dream” to a narcissistic fantasy that somehow everyone around you wants to celebrate about you.  In this way the show cynically provides what Schneider and company say kids want most — the promise (at least vicariously) of fame, without talent or substance.  (And one could snidely wonder why, in the era of reality tv and Balloon Boy, VICTORiOUS hasn’t resonated with more people).

With its cookie cutter characters and tepid narrative center in the form of Tori Vega, the show manages only to deliver a paradoxical message typical of teen shows, and one that can be said to mirror the paradoxical message American culture presents to adolescents — be a rugged individual, but do try to fit in. This paradox of American and TeenNick identity can best be demonstrated in the “Bird Scene” episode.  In this installment, Tori wants to try out for Andre’s musical but learns she can’t until she nails the “bird scene”; it is a rite of passage for all Hollywood Arts performers.  She takes the script, rehearses, and presents her scene competently — it’s a monologue a la Trifles about a lonely prairie woman with only a bird to keep her company, though Tori, fortunately, doesn’t have to act out the part of a murderer as in Susan Glaspell’s play.  She finishes the scene but no one says anything.  Unnerved, she asks if she did it “right”, and that loopy coconut-obsessed teacher  tells her she needs to do it again.  She does, this time with a backdrop of a farm behind her, a fake bird, and a pair of glasses; again, she gets no response.  She begs everyone to tell her the secret to the bird scene and they refuse — it is a gauntlet all Hollywood Arts thespians must run honorably.  She pulls out all the stops for her third try, using scenery and costumes and props and even training a cockatiel to play the bird.  Again, she gets no response.  Finally, she gets fed up and insists that she worked really hard and that she thinks it was good.  Everyone applauds.  The lesson?  It doesn’t matter what the audience thinks!  Perform for you.  This nice lesson in marching to the beat of one’s own drummer is undercut, however, by a subplot about another Hollywood Arts tradition, the decoration of one’s own locker to express something personal and, as Beck puts it, “deep.”  Everyone mocks Tori for her plain grey locker,so she gets the brilliant idea to affix a white board with a cup of pens on it so people can doodle or write notes, and everyone gags at the banality of this.  The single pink stripe she paints (or puts up with tape — it’s hard to tell) receives similar disdain.  Clearly there is an audience in this case whose opinion does matter; decorating a locker is a form of performance, too, which eventually Tori recognizes when she paints a super cool nightscape on her locker with “Make it Shine” written in stars —  there are even star-shaped lights she can turn on and dazzle everyone in the hallway.  Again she receives applause for accepting  this contradictory message of “be true to your art, whatever you think it is”/”give the people what they want.”  The tension between the twin cultural imperatives of individuality and conformity is never resolved for Tori, and, in fact, never acknowledged.  But one could easily argue that this tension underpins much of pop culture aimed at adolescents, going back at least as far as the first Beverly Hills 90210. It just seems particularly pernicious a theme on this show because there is little else happening.  Maybe what VICTORiOUS ultimately tells its viewers is “We all know you WANT to be famous.  Just don’t be tacky enough to look like that’s what you want.” Don’t look like you care, and don’t try too hard.  These mantras are dissected so well by YA writers like John Green, who called “famous. . . the new popular.”  Better to read his Will Grayson Will Grayson (coauthored with David Levitan) if you really want a teen story about musicals and alienation and love and friendship, all of the stuff this show hints at but can never really address.  (And it’s a whole lot funnier, too).

Ultimately, VICTORiOUS presents kids as Schneider and the Nick execs imagine them, empty of personality (except some exaggerated approximations of personality in the gross caricatures of most of Tori’s classmates) but desirous of fame, as if fame itself could confer character.  To this end, the show’s webpage is formatted as a version of “the Slap”, the  social networking site for Hollywood Arts students to post continuous updates about their every mood and thought, as many kids (and adults) do on Twitter or Facebook.  This tie-in seems especially apt for a show that sees kids as pathetically hungry for recognition, a show that takes to a new level of cartoonishness the self-consciousness and self-dramatizing of typical adolescence.  As teens, most of us had, at times, the simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating feeling that everyone was watching us  and were relieved years later to find out that no one really cared that much.  If Schnieder and company are right, today kids want to be reassured that everyone is watching them, or, at least, that their every move or emotion or thought is worthy of capturing and presenting to the world as a status update.  Or maybe they just want to be reassured that like Tori — who has yet to reveal herself as anything special, as far as we can see —  that their stories and lives are worthy of attention, at least to the others around them.

Nick wants VICTORiOUS (and Victoria Justice) to be its next big thing, just as Schneider promised.  But it’s going to have to acknowledge that “where the kids are” is a little more sophisticated than the one-dimensional fame-driven characters the show presents.

* all quotes come from Wikipedia’s VICTORiOUS page; other VICTORiOUS blogs seem defunct