WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Anne Elizabeth Moore

Anne Elizabeth Moore is the author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity, Hey Kidz, Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People and Stop Reading This: A Manifesto for Radical Literacy. She also edited the Best American Comics series and Punk Planet magazine, and has been published in The Onion, the Chicago Reader, The Stranger, The Progressive, and the Journal of Popular Culture...

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Anne Elizabeth Moore's Blog Introduction

[PLEASE NOTE: Anne originally blogged for WIMN's Voices on the Women, Media And... "Girls and Queer Youth" beat, and the introduction below relates to that beat. However, in the summer of 2007 she switched to the "Commercialism" beat. Her posts from that time on reflect this switch.] Women, Media, AND... Girls & Queer Youth

This summer, Disney gleefully announced it would be shortly entering the cell-com racket with an exciting new youth-themed series of mobile telephones. The phones would come in colors like X-Ray and Bubblegum, provide optional tracking features, be preprogrammed to dial only certain numbers, and display animations and educational software for your child’s down time. This news was met with little surprise on the part of media trackers or youth organizers; Disney was merely following toy giant Mattel—for once—who some months earlier had released a Barbie-themed cell phone for preteen girls.

The announcement prompted speculation—and near admiration—on the part of newspaper writers and on-air broadcasting personalities the nation over that this expansion of the Disney empire would quickly and efficiently lower the median age of all cell-phone users.

The day of the announcement, no concerns were raised in the news media about early childhood brain cancer development, no worries were expressed about who will pay the monthly bills given the rising debt most families are accruing, no brows were furrowed over the new potential advertisers might have to reach youth directly, and no alarm went up over the tacit admission that preteens might have expansive amounts of unsupervised time during which a cell phone might be necessary. Instead, the news media plainly and simply bowed to Disney’s life-squelching grip over youth culture.

Media critics like Ben Bagdikian, however, have expressed unease with just this. In his introduction to The Media Monopoly, he notes the Walt Disney Company’s “overwhelming power, not just over the media marketplace, but over youth culture in the United States and globally.” It doesn’t take another highly respected media critic to realize he’s right: Prince Charming, Disneyland, Extreme Makeover, the princess phenomenon, The Bachelor, and the oft-described “Disneyfication” of various mythological stories and locales (not to even get into the fact that one of the primary political agenda-setters in this country is Disney-owned ABC news) —all of these cornerstones of our culture yield influence over our language, our conduct, and our desires from an extremely young age. And all emanate from the same corporate entity, whose history displays a profound dedication to profit and an equally profound disinterest in social welfare.

Not that this is unique to Disney: large corporations seem to simply not care about people. The 2004 film The Corporation succinctly described how the interests of big business—and the Walt Disney Company is one of the biggest—have veered from the interests of the public: “All publicly traded corporations . . . are required by law to place the financial interests of their owners above competing interests,” the film’s narrator explains. “In fact, the corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line ahead of everything else. Even the public good.”

Despite an increasing awareness of corporate influence over preteens in the last year, few have attempted to pin down what Disney might be doing with its stranglehold on youth culture. Surely Disney promotes a specific worldview. It’s cute and cuddly, occasionally rebellious, youth-oriented, and very, very fuzzy. It relies on the basic principles that we have come to associate with Disney: that someday your prince will come, and he will save you, and you will no longer have to work, and he will kiss you once on the mouth and you will be happy for ever after. If you are differently abled, or just “different”—a mermaid, for example, or an Indian—you will become “normal”: you will get some shapely human girl legs, or marry a white man. Maybe you will marry another Indian, but he will be a leader of Indians, and therefore better. If you happen to be a lion, it’s the same, but for lions. The process of learning, in Disney films and animations and books and characters, on ABC TV shows and Disney’s cable channels, is a process of socialization and homogenization. Whatever else Disney may be, tolerant and respectful of difference is not one of the things.

Lest you think I’m limiting my concerns to the entertainment media created by the Disney empire, let’s take a gander at what passes for journalism on Disney-owned ABC News. A quick search for news items dealing with “girls” at ABC News.com reveals these top hits:

  • ABC News: The Difference Between Boys and Girls
  • ABC News: Study: Friendships More Vital to Teen Girls
  • ABC News: Fast-Shrinking Teen Queens Influence Young Girls
  • ABC News: Girls Behaving Bravely

    Even more revealing, Y!SM—whatever that is—pops up with this helpful list of relevant items:

  • Find Single Girls at AllPersonals
  • Target.com: Girl’s Coverup
  • Date Beautiful Succesful Single Girls
  • Find Single Girls at Mate1 — $1.95
  • Girls at Lavalife

    There are differences, of course, between an investigative piece describing the experiences of real girls within the criminal justice system and, say, the scene where the stepsisters make Cinderella do all the work and she almost misses the ball. But Disney’s tolerance and respect for properly socialized, fully homogenized young “normal” women—exploited by troops, available for your dating pleasure, horrible at math, and above all, distinctly different from boys, shines through all of these stories, whether journalistic or animated.

    Which really only began to bother me personally when I realized as a young girl that I was a little bit different from the other girls who genuinely were waiting for their princes to come. I wasn’t sure I was quite prepared to wait, and if he showed up, I wasn’t sure what I might want to do with him. I came to figure it out eventually, but if I am to be perfectly honest, hanging around the other princesses while we waited for the princes to arrive always seemed like the most fun part of the process. Keep in mind, this was a few years before VCRs made the repeated home viewing of princes arriving a mandatory rite of passage for contemporary youth. And a few decades before Disney’s trademarked “Princesses” line of dolls, toys, clothes, lunchboxes and accessories made princessing a legitimate, corporate-sanctioned, youth-targeted after-school activity.

    The Walt Disney Corporation has always provided a rich fantasy life, exquisite dreams on which to hinge our spiritual and emotional desires. Now, it will also be charging young people by the minute for tools to make those dreams come true. And for an extra fee, parents can purchase tracking features to make sure those dreams are being properly pursued—and to squash those dreams parents might consider inappropriate. Talking romantically to another princess, maybe, or a peasant boy with no secret majestic blood. Or a lion.

    That Disney happens to be the easiest target of such criticism (and jokes) does not excuse Mattel or any of the other companies that are hitching their rising stars to the youth-marketing bandwagon. Mattel’s Barbie line and American Girl brand are equally egregious defenders of light-skinned, upper-middle class, heteronormative cultural superiority. Their lines of licensed characters alone leave much to be desired in terms of diversity of skin tone, class background, sexuality, and language, and it is the responsibility of the media to critically intervene on their influence over youth.

    But according to our news media, Disney is the one we can hold responsible for lowering the median age of all cell-phone users. In my cross-promotional nightmare scenario, the Disney ads that herald the new mobile service will feature all sorts of cute Disney characters finally connecting with their true loves via, say, text-messaging, or picturephone technology, or in what is now fast becoming the old-fashioned manner, calling each other. The prince will call Snow White, or Ariel, or the boy angelfish will call up the girl angelfish and ask her on a date, or whatever. Perhaps Ken will call Barbie, or Barbie may even call her modeling agency. If Barbie calls Midge, you can guarantee they’ll gossip about boys.

    And every single girl who picks up her cell phone and feels a little tingle—a heart flutter, a twitching in the pants—when she discovers Jennifer called, or Lisa—or Ariel!—will be reminded whenever she sees an ad for her cell phone that her feelings are wrong, that that’s not what the technology is for, and that she should ignore her own pleasure and go back to waiting for her prince to come.

    Left unchecked, the news media will continue to report these phenomena as evidence of a healthy economy, note a general return to traditional values, and of course, point to a sudden spike in the box-office takes of Disney animated films. Or, when charged to run a not-so-feel-good piece, the news media will ponder the ever-lowering age of sexual activity, provide rising teen pregnancy statistics, and yearn for a day when youth could grow up unfettered, carefree, and fully surrounded by an environment totally dedicated to their joy—like Disneyland, maybe, or Celebration, Florida.

    (Think I’m kidding? Michael Eisner, soon to step down as Disney’s CEO, had a telling post-September 11 plan to lessen the collective grief of Americans. As he told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re going to use our own media companies to make sure the word gets out that it’s a good idea to have a good time after a period of mourning—to come to our parks, movies, and buy Snow White on DVD.”)

    My argument here would seem to be an imprecise one taken straight out of the environmental movement: we cannot be sure what effect is being perpetrated by current all-pervasive youth marketing ploys, initiated by entertainment media but further disseminated, wholly unchanged, through the news media, but there’s a strong chance it’s not good. Except that I am telling you from personal experience: it’s not good.

    In the best of times, entertainment media provide us the sensory fulfillment of what we can imagine we want. Our innate ability to imagine what we want, however, has been damaged, shifted: sold to us through ever-rising box-office ticket prices, ever-increasing television commercial ad lengths, and ever-sneakier product placement spots. Our aptitude to explore what we may want from this world—the very task youth are charged with—has been limited to what might be available from a small handful of companies with strong PR teams. Even our critical capacity to address these matters has been constrained, a muscle unexercised in news media or educational systems.

    It is odd, but it is true: youth no longer want something sweet, they want a Kit Kat bar. They are no longer thirsty, they crave Mountain Dew. When they go out to play, they put on Nikes—or if they care more about fashion than sports, Adidas. Protein means Big Mac; healthy living means Subway. Naomi Klein documented in No Logo how thoroughly branded youth culture has become: without a logo to attach to their desires, youth place less value on them.

    I repeat: without a logo to attach to their desires, youth place less value on them.

    Which really only begins to bother me personally when I realize that other girls just might secretly be waiting for their princesses to arrive. And, finding no validation of their desires in their increasingly marketing-saturated environment, and no criticism whatsoever of the messages or the media making up this environment, youth will refrain from pursuing what they want.

    When entertainment media offers both the medium and the intended message, individual will can be easily overrun. Now that Disney is in the business of providing us both the imaginative capabilities for our desires and the means of making them reality, stricter monitoring of media aimed at, or describing, youth—with an awareness of queer, transgendered, and non-white issues—is necessary. In fact it is vital. For this reason, the aim of my blog will be to monitor youth issues as they are reflected in major news media. I’ll be looking closely at stories that address the demands and tribulations of queer girls, and I’ll investigate how the media (mis)represents youth activism. (This is an expansion of the blog I’ve been running for close to a year on youth issues called Pocket Full of Wishes—but which, sadly, I’ll be discontinuing for the sake of this project.)

    As Neil Postman noted in Technopoly, describing how the proliferation of media has influenced culture, “Technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines ‘freedom,’ ‘truth,’ ‘intelligence,’ ‘fact,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘memory,’ ‘history,’—all the words we live by. And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask.”

    If we can do nothing else to change this fact right now, at the very least we can take a moment and pause to ask who is redefining what. Already freedom, fact, and history have been rewritten by Disney, many times. Mattel too. And they’ve sold it to kids throughout the world in films, toys, and now, phones. And none of the news departments at ABC, USA Today, or FOX has reset the record since.

    Without a voice of dissent raising concerns and awareness about the true content of the media messages aimed at, and describing, our youth, they will quickly lose their ability to discern and pursue their interests, desires, and needs. And the next generation of women will be stuck, staring at their cell phones, waiting for their princes to call.

    This space is devoted to voicing that dissent.

    Anne Elizabeth Moore's Biography

    Anne Elizabeth Moore is the author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (The New Press) and Hey Kidz, Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People (Soft Skull Press) and Stop Reading This: A Manifesto for Radical Literacy from Seattle Research Institute (2004). She also edited the Best American Comics series and Punk Planet magazine from her home in Chicago, where she rides her bike, pets her cat, and cheers on the Chicago Sky.

    First published at the age of 15, she has since seen her work in The Onion, the Chicago Reader, The Stranger, The Progressive, and the Journal of Popular Culture. Her work on these and other projects has been lauded by Entertainment Weekly, Time, the Washington Post, Time Out New York--Kids and more than one business magazine. She has also given commentary for CNN, NPR, and local radio and TV affiliates. Moore resides in Chicago and is 37, although she still falls off her bike sometimes.

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