New Global Family:
Cheryl and Zoe’s Stories
By Cheryl Paley
Taking on the Disney Channel...
s I watch my daughter grow and develop I often think back to my own childhood. As a child of the 60s, I grew up in the throes of another historic "call for change," and with that, a deeply held belief that we were going to, and actually could, change the world. Sure, we were naïve, but in that there was a wonder, a lack of the kind of jaded indifference that has become embedded in our culture today.
It was the “golden age of television” and as we watched the Kennedys and Martin Luther King speak to us on our black and white Motorola television sets, with the bad antenna reception and snowy screens, their words penetrated our subconscious. On Saturday mornings we watched Mighty Mouse save the planet singing opera. The world was still a scary place, but those examples became part of us, and had a significant impact on our dreams and goals, and who we aspired to become when we grew up.
Don’t get me wrong – I was still a kid. I was in love with Davey Jones of the Monkees and squealed in delight when I heard the Beatles, much like my daughter does when she sees The Jonas Brothers. But a media-fed virus has emerged over the past decade, creating an uber-obsession with addiction, entitlement and dysfunction. And in the mix, celebrity has become sadly connected to the lowest, basest aspects of our collective human nature.
We have, I believe, fallen asleep and allowed the glorification of addiction and corruption to become big business. And our children are being raised in the midst of a culture dominated and run by this obsession. Even as the financial markets tumble, the fascination persists.
Which leads me to The Disney Channel.
About a year ago, sitting at my computer on a Saturday morning while my 6 ½ year old daughter watched Hannah Montana, I asked her to turn down the volume. In the process of doing this she absentmindedly tipped over a full glass of chocolate milk. As it permanently stained my new living room rug I turned, in full panic mode, and screeched, “Ahhhhhhhhh – quick, go get a napkin, I’ll get the stain remover!” She turned to me, hand on hip, other hand towards my face and shot back the following: “Like duh… if you didn't make me jump I wouldn’t have done that, so… whatever.”
Whoa. Excuse me? She had the mannerisms and the script down to a science. And as I went into parental convulsions, Hannah Montana, at that very same moment, on the screen in front of me, said, “Like duh, if you weren’t such a pea brain maybe, like maybe, you would have heard me, so… whatever.”
Like duh. Okay - I think I got it.
I have to say it actually helped. At least I knew why my 6 1/2 year old was acting like she was being held hostage by a mutant from hell. It was right in front of me. Role modeling.
See, they create and design some of those shows for "tweens," 10-13 year olds who are pre-teenage-mutants themselves. Just at the cusp of the “terrible teens” where that kind of unsavory behavior is, at least, developmentally predictable. Inappropriate, but understandable. And yes, the way Hannah talks, that’s the way they talk. Hannah, Zack and Cody, Drake and Josh - our children are watching them. Watching and learning.
It’s clever, well executed, accurate and even cute… in the beginning. But then the tweens grow out of it and move past Hannah and Zack and Cody and Drake and Josh and the guys who make those shows need to keep the money train going, so they create "product." And suddenly, guess who’s watching Hannah and Zack and Cody and Drake and Josh along with the tweens? Guess who’s buying the lunch boxes and pj's and backpacks and sneakers? Yup, 4, 5, 6 and 7 year olds. And it’s EVERYWHERE. If you don’t believe me walk into the toy department at Target.
Turning off the TV doesn’t really work as an antidote unless you tie your children up, blindfold them and never allow them to leave the house. My kid goes to school with the other kids who are watching those shows and “talking with the hand” and rolling their eyes and saying “whatever.” It’s no use.
Those marketing guys, they are very, very smart. They know all this. And so they make more "product," I would bet, for the 4-7 year olds than they do for the 10-13 year olds. And the “whatever,” “talk to the hand,” snarky behavior becomes standard fare for the 4-7 year olds. Institutionalized backtalk. And we are buying it, hook, line and backpack.
Scarier still there is a logical progression, as the tweens who are growing out of Hannah and Zack and Cody are moving on, to magazines highlighting Lindsey Lohan’s latest stint in rehab, and Jamie Lynn’s teen pregnancy, and whatever sad malady of the month her sister Britney has gotten herself into. And then they become young adults and watch Amy Winehouse destroy herself all over magazines and on the Internet as we scratch our heads and can't figure it out. It is a mystery to us that, on any given week, there are hundreds of thousands of staged girl fights on YouTube. I actually went online and found 137,500 entries under "girl fight." Go to YouTube and do a search – it will blow your mind. And the cycle continues.
So today, as we initiate a new "call for change" I pray that our children find the wonder again with new role models to emulate, who reflect that wonder. Maybe Lindsey and Britney and Paris Hilton and the like will get on the Obama train and perhaps, even be replaced on the cover of teen magazines by Sasha and Malia, daughters of the new, 44th U.S. President doing something awesomely meaningful, somewhere in the world. I am excited and encouraged that President Obama is focused on youth activism and service and that my daughter can watch him and his young family for the next 4 or 8 years. My daughter needs a role model. All children need good role models and if we can’t give them an alternative, the TV will.
Who knows, maybe the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and the media will see this new movement as a marketing opportunity and create creative programming that supports the best in us. Maybe they will manufacture lunch boxes and pj’s and backpacks and sneakers out of that. Maybe they will begin to pay a bit more attention to the role models they are so skillfully modeling.