My Super Sweet 16

Mysupersweet16“It’s Shika, bitch.” A burst of glitter dances off the screen to reveal this week’s featured sixteen-year-old on MTV’s series My Super Sweet 16. It’s the network’s teenage answer to inexplicable hits like Toddlers in Tiaras and Jersey Shore, a visual escape into the real lives of entitled teenage girls. Reality TV remains popular with teens and particularly girls. It’s a way to see outside of their own social circles into the glam of someone else’s. But for all the show’s ritz and drama, it’s worth a shot for teenage girls to question why this thing is on the air.

On the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with following around a teenager in party-planning mode, chronicling her journey from little girl to the momentous and sexy destination of womanhood. The coming-of-age for girls event is widely celebrated in American culture, reaching everywhere from the sweet sixteen itself, to the religiously grounded bat mitzvah, to the culturally significant quinceañera. There’s a lot to be said for gathering friends and family in a show of mutual support for girls as individuals, a celebration that’s totally separate from the only other big celebration in life: marriage. That said, this isn’t really what’s going on in My Super Sweet 16. And the effect is profoundly damaging.

Today was my first experience with the show, and aside from the major feminist red flags of excess, vanity, entitlement, and overall bitchiness running rampant through the docudrama, the most glaring pitfall about the show is its mode of delivery. The show is billed as reality TV—a term I use very loosely. It’s fairly common knowledge these days that all reality TV is just a big, scripted mess that only exists because some TV producers stumbled upon a gem with shows like The Real World that underpaid aspiring actors to fumble through some day-to-day drama while purporting to be “just living” in front of the camera. Most adults are familiar with the drill: Executives churn out these shows faster than most of us can watch them, and when you compare today’s reality TV with that of the nineties, it seems that the production value is steadily decreasing. The drama is all staged, and the people in the show are just acting, a dimension that seems particularly transparent when you have to find high-school-age contestants. Everything feels fake, and the scripted drama fails to land, giving the educated adult viewer little reason to believe that what she is seeing is real or even worth taking in.

For kids, though, it isn’t quite as clear cut, and that’s where the damage comes in. While it’s valid for girls to want to see other girls their age starring in their own TV shows—as a nod to the fact that their voices are being heard on an international scale—it’s manipulative for adult executives to market a disingenuous product like My Super Sweet 16 to them. Many teenagers are smart enough to see through the facade (that the diva who demands a $150k diamond necklace isn’t really as diva-ish or unreasonable as she performs on screen). But, the show is insulting to those girls in its assumption that it will be viewed as “reality.” In addition to selling girls short, shows like this one do a disservice to the girls who don’t fully understand the show’s fabrication by showing them that it’s okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want (the party). It takes the positive ideas of something like a quinceañera, a celebration of coming of age and a loving tribute, and uglies it up into a falsely progressive world where the girl is taught to get what she wants using extremely negative means. In the Yashika episode specifically, the party’s theme is Diamonds Are Forever, a campaign that could just as easily be a corporate-driven ad placement (I’m looking at you, De Beers) as the misguided infatuation of teenage girls who are not only tied up in the idea of matrimonial diamonds but also have zero regard for the cost—not to mention the politics—of owning something that exists only to bestow value on its wearer.

More than the obvious damaging content (the diva, the fake drama), the peril ultimately lies in the fact that this is what MTV thinks of their teenage girl market. With all of MTV’s experience breaking out as a new and subversive media outlet for teenagers, this is how they see half of their market?

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Erin Learns a Lesson

Kirsten arrived on Christmas. She was a pretty blonde from out of town, sporting a blue prairie dress and an amber necklace. She was smart but a little hard to understand through her thick Swedish accent. Plus, she’d been grieving. Her best friend had been claimed by cholera on her way over and was buried at sea, so even though Kirsten tried her best to have a good time in her new home, anyone could tell that she had a lot on her mind.

The moment I laid eyes on the American Girl books, I was hooked. I remember milling around my grade school library, an eight-year-old looking for something smart to read. It was a tough age when it came to picking out books. I was too big for picture books but not quite ambitious enough for the Brontës or even Louisa May Alcott. But I liked history. And I did not like reading about boys all the time. When I saw a cover featuring this blonde Swedish girl smiling up at me from her life in the 1840s, I knew these books were for me.

KDMC_main_1The Kirsten books were my first experience with the enormously successful American Girl franchise. The doll came later. Having burned through stories about Kirsten, Molly, and Felicity, I found myself sleeping over at a friend’s place—who, looking back, was one of two children and came from a family that was used to spoiling itself. My friend walked around her family’s Midwestern farmhouse with Samantha, the Victorian doll, tucked proudly under her arm. “She comes with the checkered dress, but I also got the party outfit,” Erica said, beaming. “I’m asking for the sailor outfit for Christmas.” A few weeks later, my first American Girl catalog arrived in the mail, and I made a weekend of circling what I wanted and placing my notes indiscreetly before my mom’s dinner plate.

When I look back on my first eighty-dollar doll and her pricey wardrobe, I’ve bounced back and forth about whether I should see American Girl as a positive or negative force for girls. Like anything marketed to children, the company seems to offer good ideas mixed with bad habits.

It’s no small accomplishment that American Girl has been responsible for lighting a flare for reading in little girls. The chapter books are an easy read and have enough illustrations to keep even beginning readers interested. The books dwell in history, revealing social and political dimensions to girls who may not otherwise receive those messages in context. My first time reading Molly I was introduced to the concept of gender stereotypes (Molly’s World War II–era class donated to the war effort by having the boys collect scrap metal and the girls knit socks), and my first read through Samantha showed me the disparate conditions of the wealthy heroine and her best friend, who had to work at a factory so her family could eat. Today, an American Girl reader can learn about girls from the 1760s onward, with a variety of races and traditions represented. The dolls offer diversity that is both historical and contemporary, and the catalog even takes a whack at ableism by offering a doll-sized wheel chair. When a girl connects strongly with her book, she buys the doll, a tool for helping her to actualize the positive stories she’s read and become actors in the drama of play that helps girls develop into who they’ll eventually become.

In addition to the books and dolls, American Girl released a magazine in the early nineties, featuring articles on how to be better friends and community members—just like the figures in our American Girl books. Growing up, I owned an American Girl play kit, complete with script and prop suggestions, so I could gather my friends on the playground and act out a scene that was both historical and good for our collective self-esteem as growing girls. That day I played with girls who I didn’t normally play with but who loved American Girl, so the play helped me build the confidence I needed to expand my social circle.

All of this says a lot for a contemporary toy company, but it makes sense to a feminist critique to dig a little deeper. While I still position the books as extremely positive and fairly diverse tools for girls’ intellectual development, I struggle to look beyond the idea that the books are really just ads for toys. While most every middle-America kid can name the author of Harry Potter, most would be hard pressed to name just one of the American Girl writers, whose names are de-emphasized for the sake of promoting the brand as a monolith. The cynic in me catches on this minimizing of who actually wrote the literature as well as the dolls’ push for materialism among the youngest of female consumers. American Girl has a handful of megastores in the United States, each one catering to what seems to be mostly affluent, mostly white families who can afford not only the pricey doll and endless permutations of accessories, but also the cross-country trip involved in the visit.

“The place was packed, and everyone had their dolls. They brought one out for me to have tea with,” my dad said, after taking my younger sisters to the Chicago store. “It was unreal.” The underlying message issuing from the stores is that American Girl is a special rite of passage, that middle-class American families can be expected to provide this enormous expense for the sake of their daughters’ happiness. My dad saw the store as a fun experience that you sort of owe to your daughters to provide (at least in his case, where the store is only an hour away). And he may be right—it’s all just a good time. But the materialism behind it all tells me that I should at least be careful, if not outright damning, about the message.

The doll itself also comes with gender and social expectations that can be confusing for girls. For starters, the original three dolls were all white and all came from the middle (or upper) class, an idea that clearly illustrates who American Girl thought of as the “American Girl.” The dolls also present girls with the ever-present programming of learning to be mothers over their toys instead of interacting with them as peers—the dolls emulate tween-age girls but look more like toddlers with their adorable tooth gap and self-closing baby-doll eyes. Finally, the whole point of the dolls is to make money, and it’s staggering to realize how much parents are willing to spend to give their daughters a slice of the American Girl experience. This idea instills, at an early age, that not only is shopping fun but it is also necessary in order to fit in with a desired peer group. American Girl seems to have taken an age group that was relatively unmarked by fashion must-haves and expensive fads and introduced an expensive product that these girls must own in order to fit in.

At the end of the day, I see the franchise as, for the most part, another benign addition to aisles of girls’ toys that teach them to perform femininity, and teach boys not to (unless you’re in your fifties, taking your daughters and their dolls to tea). For all the good the books brought me, and for the little bit of socializing that came from owning the doll, I’ve always seen American Girl as more of a positive force in my life than a negative one. But I still wonder why all our parents’ eagerly bought these tokens of affluence and social belonging for us, when just a few years earlier, they would have waved away our requests for some other piece of eighty-dollar junk. Is the doll and the superstore something I’d do for my daughter? Are the dolls really a special rite, or just eighty-dollar excuses to take people’s money? I’ll probably always have questions. Either way, today I’m a feminist, with fond memories of my pint-size Swedish immigrant, lazing in the closet with her anachronistic saddle shoes and a doll-sized iMac.

Sixteen Going on Married

“Lo, and behold, you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him.” The phrase coos through Julie Andrews’s lips with a buttery smoothness that almost makes me forget what I’m hearing. After all, it’s a comfort to sink into a classic. Musicals were never required viewing at our house, but after seeing my first real Broadway show in middle school (well, “touring-cast Broadway”) I was hooked for life. Ragtime, Little Shop of Horrors, even Disney’s recycled and inflated stage venture Beauty and the Beast—I was dying to see them all. Yet somehow, even while scribbling “Brett and Erin 4-eva” on my planner’s margins during free period one afternoon, I failed to engage with The Sound of Music as it blared from a roll-away TV at the head of the classroom.

And yes, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is the song that did it. Forget for a second that I was thirteen and nowhere near my current feminist desire to claw apart anything that told me to get married for a living. The song just felt a little ahead and to the side of itself. Why was this sixteen-year-old girl listening to some “older and wiser” boy croon on about his superiority? Why was Maria assuring Liesl tenderly that soon she too would be chosen for marriage? I lacked the vocabulary to spell out why this song rubbed me the wrong way, but it still felt obvious that something crucial was out of place.

To be fair, The Sound of Music is a historical piece that’s widely divorced from the politics of the twenty-first century. Then too, the iconic movie adaptation hit the scene in 1965, when the average American feminist was still dressing like a dowager and shunning the Lavender Menace. Given the franchise’s time, it’s unsurprising that “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” would strike an essentialist note for girls. But instead of dismissing the song’s message as a relic of a crappier era for women, it’s worth analyzing what’s going on in the scene and questioning whether girls should watch it today without being asked what it means.

The reprise between Maria and Liesl is particularly annoying to a feminist critic. It’s an assurance, from the older to the younger, that soon all of Liesl’s boy woes will end. Right now, Liesl is obviously “waiting for life to start,” poised to “jump up and go” when this boy is ready to take her time and company seriously. Inevitably, even if he doesn’t ask her to marry him, someone will. If not next year, then the one after that. And then, she’ll be his.

It’s not the marriage or romance itself that upsets me but the idea that it’s all been laid out for her. The implication, spelled out clearly, is that marriage will be Liesl’s vocation. Because she has to wait for a boy to ask for her hand, her lot rests in staying put—and trying no to be too fidgety—while she waits for someone else to give her the okay to start the next phase of her life.  A lot of movies aimed toward children and families work hard to sell the idea of compulsory marriage, and girls internalize the message most when they’re being told, directly, that marriage is the thing they’ll grow up to be best at. A boy today might view this same sequence and gather that he’ll need to get married, but he learns from the exchange that he decides when and whom to ask. A girl assumes the passive role, learning from this oldish movie that it’s probably a good idea to sit still and wait. Further, the sequence, at its face value, puts the idea of marriage at seventeen or eighteen on a girl’s radar in the first place, leaving boys at least an extra year or two to go and be bachelors (like the earlier part of the song suggests) while girls stand idly by and wait.

So why is all this a big deal? I like to think that most girls today are educated enough to spot the dated concepts without flinching, but I think the most damaging part is how a message like this flies right under the radar for most people. More than a few women I know saw this movie before they were old enough to talk, and reached adolescence with the songs already memorized. When a message is internalized and repeated in a sing-song mantra before an age when reason and critique come into play, it’s a little late to go back and re-program.

A girl might not grow to adulthood thinking she is required to get married by eighteen, but I feel like these messages seem to find a back door in women’s brains. Some years back, I was single and bought my first house, inviting my then-roommate to come and rent a room from me. She excitedly obliged, but when we went furniture shopping to get the things we each needed, she balked a little. “I’ll just get, like, a plastic set of drawers from Walmart,” she said, taking her hand off a polished wood dresser. “I mean, what if I get married?” She didn’t even have a boyfriend but was waiting for the Big Day before buying anything nice or permanent for herself. It was like she was afraid to set up shop and live her life as the established, successful adult she was because, as an un-married person, she wasn’t supposed to. Not yet.

Of course, it’s totally up to her where she keeps her underwear, and it’s entirely possible that I’m reading too far into my friend’s frugality (although she did ultimately walk away with a nice mattress and a pine dresser). It just gave me pause to think about how this woman in her late twenties felt like she had to live a sort of temporary, disposable life until someone emerged from the shadows and gave her permission to start living, like Liesl two years or so from her duet with Maria. My roommate’s hangup probably didn’t come from The Sound of Music, but the movie does present an idea for girls to come along and absorb like scented lotion. The Message comes from all over, but when placed in a popular movie, inflected by Rodger and Hammerstein, and trilled to girls by the would-be nun herself, it’s as catchy as it is ensnaring.

An Introduction

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Hello to all of you! My name is Erin Seaward-Hiatt, and as I write this I am seated in my home office beside my pet shih tzu, Archie. You can learn a lot from a person by looking at her workspace, so here is a brief list of the things that are currently on or around my desk:

  • An artist’s contract for a publisher in Minneapolis
  • A 1950s Russian postage stamp commemorating Sputnik
  • A giant clothespin grasping a Canadian Thanksgiving card
  • A few Instax snapshots of cats
  • Several Kate Spade pocket journals
  • A Soviet-era cinnamon tin with pennies in it
  • The Devil in the White City
  • A Toulouse-Lautrec–style painting of someone’s butt
  • A book about magazine writing

I feel like all of this together paints a reasonably faithful portrait of who I am, which is a freelance graphic designer (and sometimes writer) with too many pets and at least a passing recognition of Canadian holidays. The journals are earmarked as Christmas gifts for friends I haven’t seen since before the late-December publishing-world monsoon hit, and the tin with pennies is just something I shake at the new husky when she’s being too barky. I’m from Chicagoland (with Newfie roots on my dad’s side) but currently live in good, old Provo, Utah, with my screenwriter husband, Neil, (who wrote this Studio C sketch about Santa’s elves forming a union).

For the past year (as of next week) I have been working solo in my home office designing books, books, the occasional flyer, and then more books. The goal was to work unfettered, and leaving my former paper craft design job—of close to seven years—was a necessary first step in both getting where I wanted to be as a book designer and, of course, digging deeper into graduate school. I’m pursuing a master’s degree in English and creative writing, and I occasionally write articles, like this one, about how feminist criticism has a knack for crashing right into religion. I’ve been published sparsely, but my goal is to grow the now-malnourished writing side of my little creative studio. This course will help with that and has the added perk of counting toward the graduate certificate in women and gender studies at Utah State, a credential that won’t scare off any potential feminist clients. I consider myself a feminist on a variety of levels and believe in questioning hegemony, whether we’re talking about a deep, political level or just in everyday subtleties. This course will be an interesting look at what we teach girls and how that information affects them as they grow into their roles as either perpetuators or squashers of negative tropes.

My interests are kind of all over the board, but some of my favorite experiences have been rescuing and caring for our new husky, flipping open the pages of a legit book to read something that I wrote, discovering Anne Brontë and Wax Fang, and watching this scene from Top Secret on a loop.

Oh, and you’re probably wondering whose butt is in that painting. No idea. But it’s a replication of an earlier White Elephant butt painting that my co-workers and I all fought for the Christmas before I resigned. I won but left it in the designers’ mock-up room as a mark of my existence and a commemoration of my tenure as their plucky leader in the unrelenting tempest that is paper crafting. The artist painted me a new one as a going-away present.

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