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Interpreting Hannah Montana

My 4.5 year old daughter is really into Hannah Montana now. In case you don’t know who she is: She is a live-action character Disney created. She is a teenage rock-star who leads a double-life as an ordinary high school student when she is off-stage. It’s strange that a 4.5 year old is interested in watching a sitcom about high school students. I’m not sure how much of what goes on in the show she is grasping. At first, she liked the idea of watching Hannah Montana more than she liked actually watching it. This is because she heard so much about it from her friends. The first few times I played it for her, she would get bored and stop paying attention half way into the show. But, then a few days later, she would ask for it again. Now, she seems to actually understand enough to enjoy it, and she is in the process of learning the opening song.

As a parent, there are naturally some questions about whether or not this is good for her. Honestly, I have no idea. My gut instinct tells me that the quicker she consume all the superficial things in life, the quicker she’ll get to more substantial stuff. I mean, let’s face it; she can’t skip ahead to Shakespeare. We all had to go through stages of development that we now consider superficial in retrospect. If we prevent them from enjoying superficial things, I have a feeling that we would simply delay their development.

When I first started graphic design, I was so eager to impress and please people that I would do whatever I thought was the coolest thing, and I over did everything. My work tended to be unnecessarily complex. Now that I’ve matured as a designer, I have enough confidence to understate and keep everything simple. I don’t regret going through the “look-at-me” phase. I had to go through it. It’s a natural part of learning and maturing.

Most of the shows that kids watch at the pre-school level (Sesame Street, Dora, Wonder Pets, and various princess stories) are relatively easy for parents to accept because they are so elementary that it’s beyond being superficial. The things that kids want at that age is quite innocent (ice cream, cookies, etc..), and the morals to the stories are usually very basic, like you have to eat your vegetables.

As our kids mature, their desires and aspirations become much more complex. Hannah Montana’s main appeal is the power of fame. The character is cool because she doesn’t flaunt the power, yet still enjoys it. It’s the stuff that teenage daydreams are made of. Desire for fame is superficial yet most of us parents have never completely grown beyond it either, so if we are not careful, we could easily project our own vanity onto our kids, and criticize them for daydreaming about being famous. In that situation, we would be using our own kids to feel superior about ourselves.

The question for me is: If my 4.5 year old daughter is already daydreaming about fame (becoming a rock star), what would happen when she is a teenager? Would her desire for fame get bigger and bigger? Or, would she grow out of it quicker? I have no idea.

With TV shows and movies, most parents are concerned about “the message”. This seems particularly true for girls. “Sending the wrong message” seems like a big concern. Apparently Miley Cyrus, who plays the role of Hannah Montana, was recently criticized for pole-dancing, or rather, dancing with a pole. The concern here is that it sends the wrong message to teenage girls. I assume “the message” is that it’s cool to be a stripper. But it’s rather absurd to think that mere presence of a pole determines what’s right or wrong. A dancing pole as a symbol of strip dancing is more a message for the parents than it is for the kids. That is, the parents are more concerned about what it means for their own image as responsible parents, than they are about what “the message” does to their kids. Teenagers are not stupid; I’m sure most of them see right through the respectable facades that their parents put up.

Like anything that is powerful, sexuality is powerful because of the danger and the risk associated with it. As teenagers, sexuality is a fear that we need to face and conquer. So, anyone who pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable would sure to get respect from their peers. It’s only natural. Our teenage years are all about being at the edges of the accepted boundaries, but not crossing it so far to the point where we alienate everyone else. It’s that sweet spot that we go after. In my high school days in California, being openly gay was too far beyond the sweet spot, and one guy I knew was constantly harassed and abused because of it. Now being gay or bisexual is within the sweet spot for most teens.

Parents play a big part in creating where the sweet spots are. I would imagine that many teenage girls now have more respect for Miley Cyrus because she hit the sweet spot by pole-dancing. It didn’t outrage enough parents to end her career; she got just enough criticism to win the respect of the teenage peers. What did not kill her will only make her stronger.

But at the same time, being too permissive would be problematic for kids too. Teenagers want to upset their parents. That’s their job. If they can upset their parents, it means that they are beginning to be on an equal footing. It means their existence has an impact on other adults. It means they are becoming ready to join the world of grownups. But if you are too permissive to your kids, your kids could never upset you, which in turn means that they can never get this sense of self-significance. I would imagine that some kids would push it really far just to be able to upset their parents, which could end fatally.

I’ve been noticing recently that most substantial things in life are always catch-22. This is one of them.

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