All of your efforts to raise your kids to believe that boys and girls are on equal footing and equally capable of anything is being screwed up by letting your kids listen to Katy Perry. Well, not just Katy Perry. Pretty much any pop music, but especially recent pop music and especially pop music sung by women. Sure, pop music has always been treacherous for shaping the identity of young girls. It’s an industry and audience dominated by men. And there’s a whole history of parents lamenting – like I am – that their kids are listening to lyrically vapid, formulaic, auto-tuned and cliched commercial product. As if music intended to entertain young people at parties and old people at Zumba classes should be anything else.
It’s also too easy to say that pop music is terrible for girls in particular because it shows them that their path to success is via their bodies. That’s true for a lot of entertainment and has probably always been true for pop. Less true for other music, I suppose. Where do I submit the suggestion that the euphemism”she has a great personality” be replaced with “she has a body for folk music?”
Anyway, I’m sure looks have mattered more as YouTube videos and reality competitions become a bigger deal in the success of female pop stars. One day, I’d like to sit down with my nieces and show them pictures of Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Mary Robinson and tell them “it’s entirely likely you will grow up to look like one of these women. They ran entire countries! Commanded armies! Changed the world! Theirs are names that will be known for generations! And they had wholly unremarkable boobs!” (Note to my sisters-in-law: I will not actually do this).
What’s especially curious about this is how pop completely undermines the other forms of entertainment we feed our kids. At one point during a recent movie night, my older son (7) stood up, threw down his arms and said “why does every movie have one character telling another character they just have to believe in themselves?!” We told him to sit down and be quiet. Adversity is going to have build his character if the movies aren’t.
There is almost nothing in print or film that we share with our kids that isn’t a moralistic cascade of encouragement and empowerment. It cracks me up that the creators of the godawful Veggie Tales think that they need to anchor their products in religion to “teach meaningful life lessons.” Have they seen any animated movie in the last twenty years? Who needs God when you have a sassy animal sidekick who tells you what’s what in a delightful and idiosyncratic Afro-American dialect? It’s not just the movies. Read any Little Critter or Berenstein Bears? The Bible barely registers on the Didact-o-Tron compared to those books. And Sister Bear isn’t just moral — she’s tough. All of the Disney Princesses are moral and tough, too. The little girl in Brave was so tough that the Walt Disney Co. didn’t think they could sell her as a doll without cheek implants and an eye lift.
So like a good liberal progressive second-wave feminist, you show your little girl Mulan or Brave and let her read The Hunger Games and then completely undermine all that by letting her listen to music that:
A. Fails the Bechdel test. This was originally intended for film, and tests whether a piece of fiction features two or more women talking directly to each other about something other than a man. In pop music, you can’t chart if your song isn’t about of loving a boy, leaving a boy, having a boy leave you, or the imminent onset of one of these three states. Through careful research on YouTube (which involved closing my door, turning off the lights and putting on headphones so no one could hear) , I learned that sometimes the songs are also about parties. Parties at which you will have a good time, presumably by meeting a boy, loving a boy, leaving a boy, etc. etc. Did you teach your daughter to be her own person with Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed only to have her find out a few years later that her world, her happiness, and her self-image should revolve around boys?
B. Teaches her that success is about fate and/or luck. Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks, Carly Rae Jepsen, and a bunch of other pop stars owe their success to winning talent contests on TV. Jepsen hit the lottery twice, by winning Canadian Idol and then having her song go viral on YouTube. Don’t let your daughter read The Miracle Worker. And A Bug’s Life is a stupid movie to show kids. What kind of chump makes friends and allies, is inventive, and works hard against adversity? I’m going to tell my nieces that they have one shot at greatness and everything depends on it. And if they blow it when the big chance comes, there’s always drugs and hooking (see note to sisters-in-law, above).
C. Has nothing positive to say about life for the 60 or so years after she turns 30. You know what’s weird about Carrie Underwood? She actually went to and completed college. Of course, it was in Oklahoma, so there was no science, but still. Lady Gaga dropped out of college. Carly Rae Jepsen never went. Beyonce just got her GED last year. Across the country, we’re throwing money at any organization that promises to teach little girls STEM skills and then showing them women who will need to rely on others to keep them solvent once their boobs and bank accounts shrivel and dry up. Look at the bios on Wikipedia for all of these singers. They note their vast range of skills by pointing out that they’re singers AND models AND fashion designers. That’s ALL THE SAME THING! Beyonce, when your shimmering voice and lustrous thighs are gone, what do you know how to do ASIDE from being Mrs. Jay-Z? I would love for one or all of my nieces to become successful artists. But I would also love that they learn a few other skills so that they have a source of income and good insurance when they need their first procedure at 47. (note to sisters-in-law: it will be a low-risk outpatient sort of thing. Promise.)
I started thinking about this after two conversations in twenty four hours with friends whose daughters were listening to Katy Perry. I haven’t been so depressed about what we’re doing to young girls since I read this article about the marketing of Bratz dolls in the New Yorker a few years ago. Thank God I have boys. They’re still too young to pay attention to pop music, and most of their pop culture is about superheroes, whether Percy Jackson or Batman. To them, being an adult male means having yourself physically altered by a supernatural force or psychologically destroyed by unspeakable tragedy.
So that’s positive.
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