When my daughter was barely five years old, I told her the phone number of someone we knew, a number that went something like “8448”. I then told her that the number was special, since it was a “palindrome”, and was the same forward and backwards. She looked up at me, and, without missing a second, said “Like Hannah Montana?” It took me a few seconds to realize that the word “Hannah” in Hannah Montana is, indeed, a palindrome, as it is spelled the same forward and backward. I suspect that they had been talking about this in her pre-kindergarten class, but also realized that she had been exposed to Hannah Montana from watching the Disney channel, one of the last bastions of commercial-free TV (depending on how you define a commercial), besides PBS and one of the few stations that I let her watch. However, it has become clear that the people who brought us Winnie-the-Pooh and Mickey Mouse have now put their energy into presenting shows about teenagers and their angst. I thought of this a few weeks ago as I wrote about lip gloss being given out as a "girl toy" by McDonald’s, and later read the responses to it.
I always try to be grateful to anyone who takes the time to respond to my entries, even when their responses are angry or critical, since I know that they spent time writing a response that could have been spent other ways (an idea might recall from my past notes on “opportunity cost”). I just want to be clear that in complaining about McDonald’s, I did not mean to propose in that entry that McDonald’s is good food for our children (clearly it is not) or that Barbie should be banned from all of our homes. Rather, I wanted to raise the question of whether it was appropriate to give lip gloss to little girls who were still small enough to be filled up by four chicken nuggets and some slices of apple. Could they not have found another "girl toy" to include in the meal?
But what McDonald’s is doing is similar to what Disney is doing, with their marketing of Hannah Montana and other teen-age dramas. And a similar phenomena is happening in the department stores, where a move from size 6X to size 7 means a move from fashion designed for little girls to those designed for teenagers, or even for young women in their early 20s. Often this means having few appropriate options to choose from in selecting clothes for children as young as kindergarteners.
I have taken this complaint “on the road” and brought it up in several groups of mothers that I have found myself in, both academic and non-academic, and I am generally receiving comments that agree with me. One mother of a young teenager said that she can only find padded bras for her daughter, who just barely needs one to begin with. And one grandmother told the story of trying to buy clothes for her granddaughter who was turning six. After going to several stores and being disgusted by the low-cut necklines and shirts designed to show bellies, she finally found one top that was cut appropriately. Just before she brought it to the register, however, her youngest daughter, who was shopping with her, noticed that the print on the shirt was a repeating pattern of skulls. The grandmother gave up and bought a gift certificate!
My daughter will be growing up soon enough, and I feel that the marketing of toys and clothes to her that do not adequately reflect her age is disturbing. Last summer, it was difficult to find a one piece bathing suit for her, and I am sure that next summer, it will be even more difficult. Is there some way to tell the people who make these products that I want appropriate toys and clothes for my little girl? Can someone think of who to boycott to get the message across?
I feel lucky, because, for now, she goes to a school that requires her to wear a uniform, so some of these issues are avoided. However, I cannot protect her from popular culture forever, as evidenced by the fact that she not only knows about Hannah in Hannah Montana, but also how to spell it, forward and backwards.