There’s a post over at the main blog about the Cheetah Girls as a symbol of the Girl Power movement. As a Disney Channel creation–a made-for-TV-movie based on a book series spawned the real girl group and various merchandise–they’re definitely relevant to the tween market right now. There’s a lot to positively acknowledge here–they’re closer in age to their market than a lot of other girl groups (such as the Pussycat Dolls) are, they present themselves more age-appropriately while still being ‘cool’ and fashionable, they have a ‘sisterhood’ message as opposed to girls being pitted against each other for men’s attention (again, look to the Pussycat Dolls’ breakout single, ‘Don’t Cha (wish your girlfriend was hot like me)’, and most importantly I think (especially in light of my recent post about tweens and race), they’re diverse–racially, body shape, ‘image,’ etc.
Here is a song/movie clip from the first Cheetah Girls movie, “Cheetah Sisters”:
I think this song has a really great message for young girls who are at an age when they probably start feeling like they need to compete with their friends for boys and popularity. It emphasizes unity, no matter how different girls are from each other: Cuz we are sisters we stand together / we make up one big family though we don’t look the same our spots are different / different colors we make stronger, that ain’t ever gonna change, and it even emphasizes global unity with We’re from everywhere all around the world. Furthermore, I think the fact that the girls are fashionable and show off their dancing skills without being sexualized is really important–it’s letting girls have fun without introducing them to things that they’re not ready for yet. And astonishingly enough, all of the girls seem to matter in the group, with their own personalities–everyone brings something to the table, and everyone has something that makes them special. In this way, the song teaches girls to trust in themselves more: Got the brains got the power and we speak the truth.
So what problem do I have with “Cheetah Sisters”? Well, I wonder if it doesn’t emphasize unity a little bit too much. The girls don’t just benefit from having each other around, they depend on each other for the strength to follow their dreams: There’s a time when we all choose / To either quit, or follow through / To just loose faith, or trust your heart somehow to lead you through the dark / We’re not the only one who’s dreamin’ / Who needs help to carry on / We might geet lonely but we’re not alone. Saying that the girls need help to carry on departs so shockingly from the other Girl Power narrative we’ve been looking at this semester: the one of the individual woman, underestimated by society, who fights her hardest and maintains her composure, in order to be accepted in a (traditionally male) position of power, e.g. G.I. Jane.
However, the individualistic narrative of ‘girl power’ can be troublesome too, because it so often involves a woman fighting for her own right to occupy a traditionally male role of power, almost always without regard for other women, and often even at their expense. So the ‘sisterhood’ message of “Cheetah Sisters” seems pretty great for what it is. I actually wonder if the unity message isn’t so strong precisely because all the characters/singers/actresses are at least part Black and/or Latina (see character descriptions). Oppressed by the double constraints of gender and race, there is more incentive for women of color to ‘stick together.’ I have a hard time imagining a girl group marketed toward tweens consisting of only white girls or women emphasizing a ‘sisterhood’ message in this day and age. Another reason for why this might be is that it’s probably harder for nonwhite singers/actresses to break into certain markets if they go solo; we all know Raven (who did not join the Cheetah Girls group that was filmed after the first movie became a success) is still in the tween market, even though she’s slightly older than Hilary Duff, who has gained wider pop cultural fame. But for now, it seems that Disney’s got the young girls and young-girls-of-color-market hooked.
Which brings me to my bigger problem with the Cheetah Girls. I usually wikipedia things before I write about them, and when I looked up ‘Cheetah Girls,’ I was expecting to get to the page for the [first] TV movie (I didn’t know about the sequels), which I had seen advertised incessantly on the Disney Channel. However, I instead came to this page. A book series, movies, CDs, DVDs, a video game, concert tours and the associated merchandise, a doll line, even a Cheetah Girls toothbrush–it becomes very clear that the Cheetah Girls, just like most things, are meant to get our money first and foremost.
I mean, I think it’s great that the Cheetah Girls are successful. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that if they weren’t, Disney wouldn’t have kept them around. Buying Disney merchandise for young girls isn’t only empowering them to be strong and confident, it’s also acculturating them to society. By acculturation, I don’t only mean gender norms (the girls are all feminine and ‘acceptable’ on an aesthetic level), but also the consumerist society that we live in. Tweens develop part of their sense of who they are through consuming, e.g. ‘I’m like Aquanetta so I’m gonna buy her doll!’
Considering the alternatives, though (once again, the Pussycat Dolls), the Cheetah Girls still stand as good role models of who/what young girls are looking up to, identifying with, and buying into. Here’s a video of another one of their songs from the first movie to leave you with, appropriately titled “Girl Power”: