I recognize that, even coming from a father of two preteen daughters, that might sound alarmist, so let me elaborate—the Disney Channel and its prime competitor, Nickelodeon’s Teen Nick, are a pox upon our tween nation, corrosive forces that impart more awful messages than any of Disney’s retrograde princess films (and attendant merchandising).
If the Mouse House’s recent, quickly reversed decision to “beautify” Brave‘s redheaded warrior heroine Merida was a sad commentary on pop culture’s continuing endorsement of ridiculous feminine ideals, that incident remains a minor blip compared to the loathsome lessons being taught on a daily basis, in 22-minute form, by Disney Channel sitcoms like Shake It Up, Jesse, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Austin & Ally, and Teen Nick’s similarly noxious (and, mercifully, just canceled, albeit endlessly replayed) Victorious and How to Rock.
At first, these might seem to be disposable comedies about navigating school and teaming up with friends to triumph at love, popularity, and the arts. But if you actually watch them, you’ll see that the latest breed of girl-targeted tween sitcoms — more than either their milder predecessors (Zooey 101) or their blander boy-centric compatriots (currently, Disney XD’s testosterone-y Lab Rats and Kickin’ It; Nickelodeon’s goofy Bucket & Skinner’s Epic Adventures) — promote an adult-free universe in which (as SNL nailed in this spoof) wise-cracking tartlets mug for the camera in too-revealing mall-wear while prevailing over social obstacles through a combination of you-go-girl obnoxiousness and slapstick idiocy. That the shows aren’t the least bit funny — I dare anyone to laugh — is inarguable. Yet far more distressing is the unpleasant lessons they teach about humility, civility, individuality, and what it really means to be an adolescent girl.
F for Attitude
Sitcoms may be predicated on a constant stream of one-liners, but Disney and Teen Nick take that formula to the next level, offering nothing but witless witticisms delivered with maximum grinning-jackass hamminess. The reigning queens of this routine are Bella Thorne and Zendaya, the preternaturally perky and affected starlets of Shake It Up, who’ve assumed the mantle recently abdicated by Victoria Justice and Victorious‘ strenuously wacky supporting cast.
The problem, however, is endemic to the entire genre, which is built on smug overacting, and which celebrates as a virtue the practice of caustically putting down rivals and sarcastically mocking friends. In each of these programs, everyone is endlessly ridiculing everyone else in order to showcase their own playful impudence, thereby equating coolness with smart-assery. Such verbal bluster is matched by hip-shaking, shoulder-shrugging physical posturing and exaggerated facial expressions that are equally repellent, so that an episode of, say, Jesse — which is populated by a multicultural cast of Red Bull-hyper tykes — is a crash course in precocious rudeness, and a veritable competition of put-down one-upsmanship.
Disney Channel and Teen Nick preach the merits of being a brat by creating fictional worlds in which kids operate without — or without any regard for — adult supervision. Embracing the example set by the otherwise more wholesome granddaddy of the genre, Saved by the Bell, grown-ups are either altogether missing in these shows or, in the case of Wizards of Waverly Place and Good Luck Charlie (and the superior, now-canceled, iCarly), infantile sidekicks with no legitimate influence on their mischievous charges. When adults are around, they’re depicted as buffoons, and their threats of punishment are toothless, mere narrative devices designed to provide drama while also underscoring the kids’ awesome and lionized do-what-I-wanna-do behavior.
Wizards, for example, pivots itself around the har-har disobedience of Selena Gomez’s hottie, regardless of any problems it causes or parental castigations it engenders. Still, that’s preferable to Jesse, How to Rock, Victorious, Austin & Ally and Shake It Up (and even boy-band dreck Big Time Rush), where the general absence of mother and father figures — the kids live more or less on their own, in lavish houses or apartments, without having jobs or any notable sources of income — conveys the idea that, with a lot of self-satisfied smirking and pratfalling ingenuity, teens can accomplish everything and anything they want, by themselves, because they always know best.
Sex It Up
Whereas Victorious, A.N.T. Farm and Shake It Up are showcases for stylish fashion, those designer threads often have an adult sexiness that unsuccessfully straddles the line between tasteful and trampy. Worse, that imagery is also accompanied by endless strutting, hair-tossing and sensual stage moves — all of it performed, of course, by preternaturally tall, skinny, perfectly coiffed mini-beauties. While guys are allowed to be quirky and weird-looking, girls are (save for a few, random exceptions, like Raini Rodriguez on Austin & Ally) uniformly cast from the same Bratz-doll mold. They’re singing and dancing robots designed to exude youthful, tacky sexuality that’s safe and “subtle” (first kisses are the extent of the stories’ huffing and puffing) yet absolutely omnipresent. Following the lead of contemporary tween-oriented pop music — a link made depressingly plain, and unholy, by an episode of Victorious featuring Ke$ha — the shows’ eroticized elements are intrinsically linked with coolness. Conveying the irresistible-to-girls notion that acting older than one’s age is attractive and desirable, the shows function like boob-tube narcotics, pushing all-in-good-fun pleasure while silently corrupting from within.