Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tweening-Up An Icon

Mothers rampaged after Nickelodeon and Mattel announced teaming up to produce a tween version of Dora, as a doll. People like Dora the way she is, an intrepid child explorer. I like her, I've watched enough Dora episodes with my 3yo niece Lilo, who has almost the exact same bowl-shaped haircut.

What's a tween anyway? A kid under 13 that's preparing to be a teenager, someone in between. At least that's how I remember Hilary Duff as Disney's Lizzie McGuire explaining her age group to her mother. Her mother didn't realize tween-hood was a huge niche market for Disney, Nickelodeon, Mattel and similar corporations. I got my first bra at age 11. Is that when it starts, tween-hood? Or does it start younger? I think it started when I belatedly realized that there were "It" things. I was utterly clueless about why one had to have an "It" thing. In our day everyone wore jeans and t-shirts and Adidas Hurricanes. I had a Barbie, a Miss America Barbie hand-me-down in fact, but Barbies were white, and I certainly did not want to BE Barbie. Barbie was just another doll I liked to make clothes for. It's like me not believing in Santa. There's no snow, there are no chimneys in Manila, and there are loving parents and godparents and God who knew whether I was naughty or nice.

What marked a girl's fashion mobility then was her owning (or not) anything produced by Sanrio. I was in that tomboyish stage and, at Grade 4, was suddenly horrified at having been left behind by the Sanrio merchandise bus that I cried for an entire afternoon wondering why my mom didn't think of my welfare enough to get me anything Sanrio. In reality my mom, a full-time biology professor, was as much in the dark then as Lizzie McGuire's mother. She did, however, realize that buying me a Little Twin Stars pencil case would help my social networking with other girls. (Later on, when I'd saved a bit from my allowance I got myself an apple green Tiny Poem passcase for my school ID. I was never the Hello Kitty fan.) Did it cure me of having to have an "It" thing? Well, adolescence was a rocky road to finding out one's true identity and beingness. My beingness today does not require an "It" thing.

What bothered me about tween-dom was the absolute lack of appropriate role models. Just a decade ago, a number of parents worried about their children thinking it was ok to want to look like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Of course as former Mickey Mouse Club members they needed to develop adult careers, but the pervasive media exposure made children believe that wearing too much makeup and dressing inappropriately for their age was acceptable. One time I was in Rockwell with friends from my former airsoft team, some of them new parents. A group of young expat girls passed us as we were having coffee. We were startled by the amount of mascara and lipstick that was on them. Jag was mortally offended by the thongs-and-butt-crack and let-it-all-hang-out-belly display over low-cut jeans. He works in media, and he knows what media considers "pretty". "NOT pretty!" he thundered. "They're not even physically fit! How dare they wear that excuse for fashion?" But do the tweens know that, or even care? Do their parents know that, or even care? (My friends care, and their daughters are pretty, intelligent, secure and well-adjusted. Well done, Jag & Imee, Mike & Kathy!)

What followed was an intense discussion about whether the parents would buy Barbie sandals with heels on them (a resounding NO). Would you let your children wear tube tops that, after an hour or so of rough play, turn into belts? Another resounding NO. If your child were morena, would you let them to wear fuschia/hot pink because that's what the Barbie colors are? Soft yellow, and soft pink, maybe. Would you give them Bratz dolls? What, and have them look like jailbait? NO, NO, NO!!! Some years later I became an aunt, and the discussions - and the answers - were still the same. Only now the Disney role models are Hannah Montana and the High School Musical kids. I don't know. Miley Cyrus sings well, but lately she's been having attitude issues and looks clearly anxious to move onto more "adult" activities. Vanessa Hudgens' nudity boo-boo puts her out of the tween role model race. Demi Lovato... now there's a talented young girl for you. I know that not every Disney girl can become Anne Hathaway, but then they are only children. Greedy managers, lax parents, uneven school experience, they're children without much of a childhood, really.

In the end, Dora will remain the Dora of the tv show. The tween Dora is supposed to be just a doll, meant to accompany their fans through tweenhood. From the published images, the tween Dora ain't so bad. Nickelodeon and Mattel employ a number of parents.

I personally would like to see children look like children, play like children, dress like children. I would like for them to enjoy their childhoods and not hurry up to look like someone they aren't ready to be, or someone they THINK they're supposed to be. I don't have children, but I don't want any child I love to be walking around in a mall mortally offending adults by looking as though her parents don't care about her, who might receive a comment like, "NOT pretty!" But I am not a parent, and parents do not own their children. The very best they can do is to be their children's best examples of how to conduct oneself in public.