I was a preteen when my family moved back to America in the fall of 2001. In the pre-Internet age, Israel had been in its own little bubble of eighties music and the occasional American blockbuster making its way to our theaters months after its stateside release. Suddenly, my sister and I had access to all of the movies that the actual Blockbuster could offer. We had access to music when it became available. Never before had I understood why some bands were on tour while others were not, but now I could see it was to promote a new album. We dipped our toes into the shining plastic world of American pop culture and then took a headlong dive into it.
More than anything, though, my sister and I immediately became obsessed with the Disney Channel – even though we were on the older end of its target demographic. We had caught glimpses of it during summer vacations to New York, but never had we been able to turn it on whenever we wanted. We were entranced. Our television watching habits became so bad in those first couple of months that our parents restricted us to three episodes a week. We were addicted to Disney Channel Original Series, devouring the likes of Even Stevens, That's So Raven, and, above all, the queen, Lizzie McGuire. We kept track of when Disney Channel Original Movies premiered so that we could watch Cadet Kelly and Get a Clue as soon as they came out. We must have watched Motocrossed twenty times. I wanted to be in Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century so badly. (It's probably what convinced me that sci-fi can be as good as fantasy.) I left for college the year that Hannah Montana and High School Musical came out and I was secretly jealous that I wasn't "allowed" to like the Disney Channel anymore because I was supposed to have matured. (Didn't stop me anyway.)
For me, the attraction had to be that for the first time I was seeing programming aimed specifically at me. Before experiencing the Disney Channel, I watched Disney cartoons and movies that could have been targeted to anyone. Matilda and Aladdin are generation-spanning stories designed to be enjoyed by whoever is in the audience. The Disney Channel, on the other hand, was made for kids ages 6-14 – and no one else. The shows and movies were about preteens taking risks and getting into trouble, paving the way for their impending adolescence. Someone five years older than me couldn't have enjoyed the programs on the Disney Channel because they weren't created for her.
Of course, they didn't always get it right. It's not like the suits in California had a Skins-like writing staff to inform the old fogies of what's cool and on-trend with the kids these days. But the writers knew enough to give their viewers a prototype of what a model popular girl looks like, and therefore what we could strive to look and act like. Hilary Duff was supposed to be a super-awkward wannabe as Lizzie McGuire, but we all knew that you would have to be crazy to want to be Kate, the ostensible Popular Girl, instead of Lizzie. (That could be because intercut with Lizzie McGuire episodes were snippets of interviews with Hilary Duff, wearing the cutest clothes and generally being the cutest, in a way that was interchangeable with her character.)
Because Lizzie had the greatest friendships around with Miranda and Gordo. As did Raven, with Chelsea and Eddie. And if Even Stevens taught me anything, it was that you could hate your sibling and still be the closest people on the planet. The characters in these shows always got into trouble. They were always mischievous. They were always chasing after girls/boys and obsessing over their pre-sexuality. But the resolution of their bad decisions always ended up leading them to stronger bonds of friendship. In that sense, the writers understood that loyalty would speak to a preteen audience more than anything else.
Nowadays, as a Millennial, the world of entertainment is at my feet, clamoring for my attention and trying to please me and my generation with their programming. I can watch any channel on television and decide if I like what I see. I am the ultimate consumer, molding California studios to my taste.
Oh, you guys like Glee? Here, take Smash, Nashville and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Women in politics! You guys like women in politics! Here's The Good Wife, Madame Secretary and Scandal.
Gays? Bring on the gays! Here's Looking, The New Normal and How to Get Away with Murder.
While it's nice to have more options (and the reminder of how I'm getting older and therefore my mortality), I look back on my encyclopedic knowledge of early 00's Disney stars with fondness and appreciation. The Disney Channel made me feel special. It acknowledged my struggles and gave me a sense of community, that I could be like the kids I was watching – if I wanted to be. I think more than anything, though, the Disney Channel taught me that my opinion mattered before the world decided it did. For that I'm grateful.
Back in the fall of 2008, I had freshly arrived in New York City to begin my college career. I was already writing for the Arts & Culture section of Stern College's newspaper, The Observer, and my section editor informed me that she had been contacted by the press department of a new Broadway musical called 13. We were given prime orchestra seats amid an audience that skewed very young, mostly because the cast was made up entirely of teenagers. Since it was my first time – and only time, so far – seeing a show in previews, I wanted it to succeed. If it did, then I would have somehow participated in the genesis of something great. Alas, the show closed four months later – most likely because the audience that would find the show most appealing was the teenage bracket, which isn't exactly the target demographic of Broadway musicals.
The storyline was cute and familiar: A Jewish boy is about to have his Bar Mitzvah when his parents move him away from shiny NYC to Bumbletown, Indiana. There he deals with the intrigue of adolescence and puberty in a small town. He learns valuable lessons about friendship and the cost of popularity.
That is, I wouldn't remember much about 13 if it didn't have a surprising track record of cast members becoming stars in the seven years since. The biggest alum is Ariana Grande, who played Charlotte. After being a regular on a Nickelodeon TV show, she became an international pop star. Elizabeth Gillies, who played the gossipy gospel singer Lucy (above), also became a TV phenomenon through Nickelodeon and has since moved up to FX. Graham Phillips played Evan, the protagonist of 13, and is now working in both film and TV, including as a series regular The Good Wife.
The musical itself might have been a flop, but I'd like to suggest that as a sample, 13 was wildly successful. Giving legitimate Broadway stage time to an entire cast of underage actors yielded actual results. Maybe the combination of subjects and subject matter didn't sit well with Broadway audiences, but by giving these actors an unheard-of opportunity at such a young age, the producers of 13 clearly jump started the careers of at least three of them. I'd say that if such a production were to be staged again, you'd be able to pick out three more rising stars. So that's my two cents: Stage more young plays so we can have our own previews of the actors who are going to make it big some day.
Stephenie Meyer swapped the genders of Twilight (sigh) in some attempt to change our view of Bella's character as a damsel in distress. I did read the first Twilight (and subsequently subjected my roommates to many a dramatic reading of particularly potent passages) but personally, I have no interest in reading this retelling. My issue with Twilight is not that Bella pined for Edward and needed him to feel validation. Whatever. Meyer is hardly the first to write a passive character. My issue is that Bella did make active decisions in the first half of the novel by rebuffing Edward's advances, but then when she stops resisting him, all of her power is gone. The problem is that the book gets boring when Bella becomes passive, which is why switching the genders won't make a difference to me. That book has been written. (I assume. I only saw the movie:) It's called Beautiful Creatures and once again, one character has all of the power.
Which is why I found it fascinating when the film version of Ender's Game (2013) had this moment that didn't appear with such stark vision in the book. Near the end of the film, Ender leads his team to a victory in battle over the Formics. He's so exhausted, though, that he has to be carried out because he can't support himself. That moment was so cool to me. Even though this kid is supposed to be the hope and future of his society, his own power makes him vulnerable and in need of protection. The people responsible for him recognize that and rally around him.
I found a similar concept in the (painfully ill-advised) movie version of Vampire Academy (2014). The movie itself didn't have much to offer, but the same idea struck me: In their universe the vampires have magical superpowers, but they are completely vulnerable to attack. Their power makes them weak, which requires each one to have a personal bodyguard who can give them physical protection from other vampires and such. While Lissa can bring a person/animal/creature back from the brink of death, she can't stop someone from killing her and needs Rose to do that for her.
Maybe I enjoyed this concept because it balances out the power. Gives the character weakness etc. that makes the narrative more believable. If Edward had a weakness in Twilight that wasn't an actual person – like he's some hitman who's spent years crafting a rough exterior but still has a heart made of flesh and blood that can be pierced with just the right amount of sappy exploitation – maybe we wouldn't take so much issue with Meyer's portrayal of said person AKA Bella. Likewise, I don't think bringing to our attention that the narrative is what needs work, rather than the stereotypes engendered in the characters, is a move that will change our minds.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.