I wrote a book

My book, Schooling New Media: Music, Language, and Technology in Children’s Culture, was published by Oxford University Press in May. I started the research for this book in the fall of 2007, so this is just about ten years in the making. Learning about and with and from kids changed my life, and I am so grateful to the kids who were a part of this project. I hope it offers an honest reflection of their values and experiences of being kids in 2007 and 2008. There’s a preview on google books, and also here.

Hannah Montana and tween postfeminism paper for #SCMS13

This is the text of a talk I presented yesterday (March 7) at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Chicago, as part of a (really wonderful and exciting) panel on the “Problematics of Postfeminist Girlhood” organized by Amanda Rossie.

“The Best of Both Worlds”: Hannah Montana, “having it all,” and postfeminist tween domesticity

In this talk I want to think about the problematic of postfeminist girlhood specifically as a question about the intersections between gender and age, and how musical and televisual representations of childhood deploy discursive repertoires adapted from postfeminism. I’ll focus on conflicting representations of domesticity and publicity in the Disney Channel sitcom Hannah Montana. In the show 14-year-old Miley Stewart lives a secret life as pop star Hannah Montana. The show’s narrative conflict centers on tensions between Miley’s personal and professional lives, and episodes dramatize the disruptions that her public life creates for Miley’s “normal” childhood. In this paper I’ll focus on the pilot episode from 2006, in which Miley’s concealed celebrity leads to a crisis with her best friend Lily.

Here I’m especially interested in two themes that are central to postfeminism, and which are redeployed in interesting ways in Hannah Montana. The first is the tension between public and private, which takes various forms, but in particular I’m interested here in the concern that women’s move into the workplace presents a threat to intimate relations—especially, but perhaps not only, to the private sphere of the family. I think we can identify the classic postfeminist resolution to this problematic as being to just assume it away; that is, postfeminism recommends either that you make your personal life your work (as for example with Carrie Bradshaw, whose job is to write columns about her sex life) or make your work your family (as, say, with Ally McBeal, whose workplace is the site of a robust and caring group of friends).

From this perspective, the postfeminist take on conflict between public and private is to ask “Conflict? What conflict?” But what it actually does is to ignore the original problem of the family, instead displacing intimacy onto non-familial relationships. Friendship is the key alternative, and I think we can say that a valuable (though by no means unique) contribution of postfeminist texts like Sex and the City or Ally McBeal is to highlight friendship as a relationship (Jane Gerhard [2005] argues a queer relationship) that accommodates care, dependence, emotional and financial support, stability, and affection outside of heterosexual marriage.

The other theme I want to trace is domesticity. In the canonical postfeminist works like Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, despite the protagonists’ rich personal and professional lives, the narratives revolve around (or at least repeatedly return to) their deeply felt lack of and desire for children or husbands. This is often framed in terms of a tension between feminism and femininity, where the former is what allows for personal and professional success in the first place, but which seems in the same stroke to foreclose the sort of essential or authentic femininity embodied in roles like mother or wife.

So on the one hand postfeminism presents a superheroic reconciliation of public and private; and on the other hand it laments a field of naturalized gender identity that is left behind. Hannah Montana is built around an almost identical problematic, except the desired but unattainable role is not marriage or motherhood, but friendship itself. Rather than friendship being the intimate relation that allows for reconciling public and private, as in classically postfeminist texts, friendship here is the mode of intimacy that is most threatened by publicness. So I want to argue for two contrasting readings of Hannah Montana: in one, deep contradictions between public and private are reconciled by the ideological deus-ex-machina of consumption and “love conquering all.” And in the other, the problematics of postfeminism are repurposed as a specific problematic of postfeminist girlhood—even perhaps, of consumer childhood more generally—in which not so much femininity as childhood is at stake, and rather than narrating a simplistic morality play of gender-identity retrenchment the show can be read as struggling with what it might mean for children to have real public lives.

So, to lay my cards on the table, I am primarily interested in thinking about childhood and its contradictions, for which I find the tools of feminist analysis overwhelmingly useful. But that also means I run the risk of appropriating those tools and leaving important questions about gender behind. My goal is to start from intersectionality. Childhood and femininity are deeply co-constructed categories: women are infantilized and children are feminized; female youth and sexual purity are fetishized while childhood innocence is profoundly eroticized (Kincaid 1998); women are historically treated as legal and social minors subject to paternal power, and the infantilization of women ipso facto subordinates actual infants and children.

What’s more, the sphere of children’s entertainment that is emerging the most rapidly is directed to “tweens,” who a category that is presumptively (if not categorically) made up of girls. The term, which is a cutesy play on “teen” and “between,” emphasizes an age-based tension between grown-up autonomy and childhood domesticity that resembles nothing so much as the postfeminist tension between feminism and femininity. So talk about tweens is always already gendered. It’s also always already white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist, but then childhood also, as it’s hegemonically constructed, is itself presumptively feminine, white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist. So I want to leave at least a little breathing room for the possibility that, in narrating problematics understood as specific to childhood, the most semiotically efficient route—that is, the framework that draws the most coherent boundaries around childhood as an identity—is this one that is evacuated of marked racial, class, geographical, or political signifiers.

So that’s a lot of preliminaries, sorry! But this is my first presentation on a relatively new project for me, and I want to do my due diligence. On to the show itself:

In its theme song, titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” Hannah Montana poses two worlds, and asserts that you can have the best of both of them.

You get the limo out front
Hottest styles, every shoe, every color
Yea when your famous it can be kinda fun
It’s really you but no one ever discovers
In some ways you’re just like all your friends
But on stage you’re a star

You get the best of both worlds
Chillin’ out, take it slow
Then you rock out the show

You go the movie premiers
(Is that Orlando Bloom?)
Hear your songs on the radio

Livin’ two lives is a little weird
But school’s cool cuz nobody knows

Yea you get to be a small town girl
But big time when you play your guitar

Pictures and autographs
You get your face in all the magazines
The best part’s that
You get to be who ever you wanna be

Who would of thought that a girl like me
Would double as a superstar?

(lyrics by Matthew Gerrard and Robert Nevil, © 2006 Walt Disney Music Company)

On the one hand we have lyrics that emphasize authenticity: “a small town girl,” “a girl like me,” “like all your friends.” On the other hand there’s an exuberant celebration of the joys of celebrity. There’s a hint of tension in the mention that “living two lives is a little weird.” But keeping the two worlds secret—“school’s cool cause nobody knows”—resolves the tension simply and completely. Being a small town girl like all your friends is directly incompatible with being a celebrity pop star with your picture in all the magazines. But the song performs the classic postfeminist move of simply assuming the contradiction away. Who cares if they’re incompatible: do both!

There’s another, more indirect tension around the idea of an authentic self in the first place: the phrase “it’s really you,” which would imply that there is a real you, might be read against “The best part’s that / You get to be whoever you want to be.” And looking closely, the “small town girl” line reads “you get to be a small town girl”; that is, even that identity might also be a choice. Combined with “hottest styles, every shoe, every color,” we can see another classic postfeminist trope of individual choice and empowerment through consumption, where choosing which of two contradictory identities you might want to wear at any moment is as simple as choosing a pair of shoes, and Miley is lucky primarily because she has a bigger closet full of shoes and identities.

So the theme song presents the “situation” of the sitcom as a classically postfeminist and unsatisfying reconciliation of two worlds, one public and one private. If “Best of Both Worlds” is arguing that it’s possible to “have it all,” the “all” encompasses celebrity on the one hand—something like, but a lot more than, a job—and school and friendship on the other. That’s a rather different “it all” than “work” and “family,” and I think this matters for how we think about how Hannah Montana is working through something like a postfeminist problematic within the specific context of childhood.

By contrast to the theme song, the show itself spends a lot more effort fretting about the tensions rather than assuming them away. The pilot opens with Miley’s best friend Lily, who doesn’t know the secret, inviting Miley to see Hannah Montana in concert. Miley declines (she can’t very well attend her own show), and Lily is reasonably upset that her best friend won’t join her to see their favorite act. Miley’s dad advises her to tell Lily the secret, but Miley anticipates horrible results.

“No one would treat me the same”; “I’d never be ‘just Miley’ again.” Now rather than it being a simple matter of “school’s cool cause nobody knows,” the possibility of Miley’s secret being discovered presents an existential crisis. And that crisis framed relationally: “just Miley” is Miley’s identity to Lily: “if she knew the truth, I’d never be ‘just Miley’ again.” The rest of the episode plays out around Miley’s efforts to conceal her identity from Lily. When she finally reveals herself, Lily is upset, but then understanding, and protests that she could never like Hannah Montana more than Miley.

But then Lily gets too excited about Miley’s incredible closet and screws up, calling her “Hannah” instead of Miley.

And finally they reconcile again.

So there’s a lot going on in all of this. Maybe most important is Miley’s own expression of preferences: what she wants most of all is to be Miley, which means specifically to participate in particular sorts of relationships and social roles: to be someone’s best friend and a normal girl at school. Interestingly, her actual family is never an existential problem: more like Ally McBeal’s or Carrie Bradshaw’s group of friends, Miley’s family can be a source of comic relief and sometimes frustration, but they are a stable and unquestioned presence in her life. (So for instance conflict with her brother does not lead to existential fear for the loss of that relationship.) Miley’s friendships, on the other hand, look much more like postfeminist romances: deeply felt and intensely valuable relationships whose stability and continuity is desired but, despite protest to the contrary, not assured, and instead under constant threat and requiring continuous affirmation.

And rather than consumption being the magic tool to resolve all contradictions, Hannah’s material excess elicits an overabundance of desire in Lily that again threatens to destabilize the friendship. We can keep up the comparison with heterosexual romance narratives: overwhelming consumer desire is perhaps the master trope of the cultural definition of the identities of tween girls like Lily. To the extent that that desire is for celebrity bodies like Hannah’s, we might liken this tween consumer desire to constructions of masculine sexual desire. Rosalind Gill {, 2007 #1559} argues that the postfeminist sensibility requires girls and women to internalize the male gaze and self-objectify, resolving the problem of objectification by accepting it as an authentic form of pleasure and subjectivity. This is done primarily through consumer practices of clothing and decorating the body. Lily’s desire for Hannah, which in this scene even revolves around clothing, presents Miley with a similar situation in which a desiring gaze threatens her subjectivity. It seems like if Miley were to follow the scripts of Gill’s postfeminist sensibility she should internalize Lily’s objectifying gaze and adopt Hannah as her full-time authentic self. Whether her strong rejection of that option reflects a critical sensibility toward postfeminism is less interesting to me than the relationships that are filling the postfeminist roles. Friendship here looks a lot like romance.

Finally, the episode’s resolution is basically that true love conquers all: Lily affirms once that she would never like Hannah more than Miley, her actions reveal that to be false, but then she permanently heals the relationship by simply affirming the same thing again. To the extent that this resolution is deeply and obviously unsatisfying, I think we can read the show not as making the simplistic argument that the best of both worlds are easily available, but as instead struggling in a pretty intense way with what it might mean to be part of two worlds in the first place. But then if the second world of Hannah’s fame is such an unrealistic fantasy, it’s hard to find a motivation of all this fraught struggle in the first place? (Clark Kent’s relationship with Lois Lane was never so fraught!) I think in part the unrealistic fantasy of celebrity reflects the real problem that it’s actually hard to picture what it might mean for a 12-year-old girl to have a full public life. But on the other hand, maybe what it means is right in front of us: 12-year-old girls already are full participants in the public sphere of consumption, which is so full of exuberant performances and membership in mass-mediated publics that the figure of a celebrity performer might reasonably stand in as its cypher.

So what I want to stress is that this problematic of public and private, when applied to kids, involves similar structures but different content. That is, if “femininity” is the contrasting term to “feminism” in postfeminist discourse, here something much more like “girlhood” or even “childhood” is set up as the authentic but tenuous identity that is threatened by participation in a public world. Miley Stewart can never reveal her secret identity to the whole world, because if she did so she would stop being a child. You can’t be a be an international pop star and a small town girl who’s just like your friends with a normal school life. But those things are what it means to be a child, just like motherhood and marriage are in some deep way constitutive of culturally constructed femininity. And I think this is confirmed by the larger narrative arc of the show. Miley does finally reveal her secret, but only at the point when she and her friends will leave for college, which is to say, officially terminate their status as children, and being a small town girl with a normal school life no longer exists to be threatened.

To conclude: the children’s consumer and entertainment industries are growing unbelievably rapidly. Participation in the sphere of consumption entails a form of publicity that is in stark contrast to a traditional (if never historically valid) construction of childhood as private, innocent, and islanded in domestic spaces. That problem looks a lot like tensions around gender that media representations have been working through for decades or more. I don’t know if tween media is directly borrowing these discursive frameworks from postfeminism as ready-made tools for narrating its own problematics, or if the postfeminist problematics of intimacy and publicity simply reflect universal problems of identity, so the parallels are just coincidental, or if really what going on is just more postfeminism, where the specific problematics of tween identity are entirely reducible to gender and the fluidities between friendship and romance, and consumer and sexual desire, are just epiphenomena. Probably it’s some combination of the three.

Cited:

  • Gerhard, Jane. 2005. “Sex and the City: Carrie Bradshaw’s Queer Postfeminism.” Feminist Media Studies 5 (1): 37–49.
  • Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147–66.
  • Kincaid, James R. 1998. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. Durham: Duke University.