Considering my previous posts about Kiri Davis and the beauty standard, Mattel’s Dolls of the World, the Cheetah Girls, and the Bratz dolls, I’d like to point out a trend in tween consumerism: multiculturalism. (See also this post involving a Hilary Duff music video)
What is multiculturalism? Wikipedia provides a comprehensive summary of its history, but it’s basically the idea that modern societies should “embrace and include distinct cultural groups with equal cultural and political status.” Basically, it’s the ‘melting pot’ (or more recently, ‘mosaic’ or ‘salad bowl’) ideal of American society that I know I grew up learning about in school. The multicultural idea posits that a society should not only ‘tolerate’ different cultures, but that people can in fact benefit from diversity, as we saw in the examples of “Cheetah Sisters” and Bratz the Movie.
The multicultural phenomenon in popular culture really took off in the mid-1990s in the U.S., which makes sense demographically, given the rising numbers of immigrants, especially from Latin America and Asia–remember when Madonna wore a bindi? And remember the macarena? Well, a decade later, we have ample evidence that marketers have kept multiculturalism in mind while creating products for tweens to consume:
- May I point out the more obvious examples from the 90’s, Pocahontas and Mulan? And Princess Jasmin, Aladdin’s one true love?
- More recently, Disney announced plans to create its first black princess, Maddy, featured in the upcoming movie The Frog Princess. Set in New Orleans during the Jazz Age, the film will be Disney’s first hand-drawn one since 2004. Reappropriate and Racialicious both express hope and some apprehension about this. On one hand, why didn’t this happen sooner? And will this end up being stereotypical (Racialicious mentions the possibility of “jive-talking frogs and voodoo priests”)? But on the other hand, isn’t putting a black lead character that girls from all backgrounds will presumably relate to (since Disney will no doubt market it as best as it can) a step in the right direction?
- Also recently, Nickelodeon has announced plans to create an animated series called “Ni Hao, Kai-lan,” in which viewers will follow young Chinese-American Kai-lan around as she interacts with the world and with her multigenerational household. According to this article that describes the process that found the voice of Kai-lan (to be played by Canadian 10-year-old Jade-Lianna Peters), the show will be “about what it’s like to be bicultural in America.” And much like Dora the Explorer teaches kids basic Spanish, Kai-lan will teach kids Mandarin Chinese.
So through these examples (which are just a limited sample of a much bigger field), I can see two beneficial effects of consumerism. For one, it seems like the use of ‘multicultural’ characters, no matter how big a role they play (though ideally, different characters could play the lead no matter what their background was), can positively influence the development of young nonwhite girls. It seems pretty simple: seeing yourself represented on screen (or as a doll, or in a magazine) tells you that you exist, and that people like you matter. This applies not only to race, but also to different body types and personal styles. By incorporating this ‘diversity’ into media in a nonstereotypical manner (e.g. without Kai-lan and her family being portrayed as the ‘yellow peril’ about the take over America, or without fat women in the media always being portrayed as crazed for sex), society can come closer to making everyone feel welcome and appreciated.
But critics will ask, ‘Why does it matter if there’s a cartoon character of such-and-such race? Doesn’t that just promote the idea that people should only relate to people who look like them? Why can’t they relate to the characters we have already?’ First of all, Continue reading
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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 Continue reading
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