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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2 thoughts on “My Super Sweet 16

  1. You make an excellent point that shows like this make it appear “it’s okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want.” This is seen in shows like Bridezillas and Say Yes to the Dress too, twisting what should be a focus on the celebration into a focus on expensive items. These shows also combine to present a very negative picture of feminine desire – sending the message that women/girls are petty, demanding, materialistic, and short-sighted.

    • Totally true about the analog to wedding shows. When I was working on my undergrad, I worked as a seamstress (seamster?) in a bridal shop and did come across a few bridezillas. However, even the most zilla-ish brides I dealt with (the one who sunk to the floor in her dress pouting because she’d gained five pounds, or the one whose mother reported that the wedding had been ruined because another girl at Temple Square had the same dress as her daughter) were absolutely nowhere near what these “reality” shows depict as everyday drama for young women. Most reasonable people know that these shows are staged, but their networks know that women watch them to feel superior, to be able to say, “Can you believe that?” So I think in a way, even though we know they’re scripted, we still watch them and get a subliminal idea that some people are really like this. To boot, I’ve known more than one smart high school–aged girl to have watched this kind of thing regularly and then go about demanding things like cars and high-end clothing from their middle-class parents. It doesn’t help that even though the viewer is meant to get a sense of the unreasonableness of the star, we see the diva surrounded by droves of friends who love this terrible character anyway because of her popularity and “great parties”—approval that most teenage girls crave for themselves. So on some level, the message of excess and compulsory bitchiness is definitely translating, and it creates a false sense of strong femininity that does a disservice to girls and to the feminist cause.

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