Let’s Get Critical
Teen Voices sat down with Barbara Card Atkinson, Contributing Writer at MSN Entertainment, to hear her professional opinions on girls in the media. Barbara graduated from Emerson College, where she started out as a writer, became a director, and finally obtained her Bachelors in Mass Communication as a Film Major. As a teen she was a book worm, but also a rebel who needed that extra push in her senior year to finally realize she needed to change her ways and buckle down.
Teen Voices: What does your job entail?
Barbara Card Atkinson: I write about pop culture--celebrities, trends, and news." I watch movies and TV, but not just as a viewer. I watch with (I hope) a critical eye." I ask: why is this movie being so heavily promoted? What makes one sitcom popular and another roundly trashed by critics? I look a lot at what is going on behind the scenes and what messages are being broadcast to the public. That means I also read obsessively--I read Web sites, books and newspapers.
TV: What was your favorite television show as a teenager and why?
Barbara: The most "normal" thing I watched was the original Beverly Hills 90210; I guess some shows just keep coming back!" When I watched Beverly Hills 90210, it was campy--we laughed at how naÃ¯ve the kids were and how the dialog was written by people who had no clue how we talked or thought. I think that still holds true--some shows feel more real or truer than others, and some you just watch for the escape.
TV: What do you think about the way teen girls are portrayed on television today?" Do you think there has been a drastic change in the way teen girls are being portrayed on television? How so?
Barbara: On the one hand, there's a great deal of dramatic programming where teen girls are characterized as sex-starved, power-hungry, vapid fashion statements, without anything better to do than navigate their melodramatic lives. It's almost too easy to beat up on these shows, which honestly isn't fair. Soap operas have always been popular for a reason: people like high drama and "rich kids in trouble" seem to be more fun to watch than poor kids in trouble. The clothes and cars and houses are way cooler. But what's different is that day-time soap operas were escapism* for adults." They were targeted toward women who theoretically knew the difference between real-life problems and amnesia making someone marry their evil twin's long-lost husband. And now these shows, like Gossip Girl, are targeted towards teens, and even preteens, and have the same soap opera qualities, with lots of sex and betrayal." Maybe a younger audience isn't suited for soap opera-level material, not so much because it's "naughty," but because it isn't what teens are really facing.
Where are shows for teens that actually focus on tensions between friends, teen pregnancy, and troubled home lives? Maybe those issues aren't high drama enough to sustain an audience. And, where are the shows for kids that aren't totally sappy? Teen girls are either the "wholesome" type--Hannah Montana, which only entertain up to a certain demographic*--or plotting the downfall of everyone around them while wielding their sexuality just to manipulate others. On the other hand, we've had some remarkable portrayals of teen girls on TV, girls who are smart and resilient and funny, such as Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ugly Betty. We've seen some really great programming with teen girls not just in interesting roles, but frankly, probably some of the most interesting roles ever created for teen girls.
TV: If you had teenage daughters, what shows that exist today would you want them watching?
Barbara: I am all for shows like Project Runway, What Not to Wear, Top Design, Top Chef and even American Idol. People tend to flag this stuff as "reality TV," but that's a huge mistake. People forget that in these particular shows the contestants actually have talent. They can create things, sing, build, plan, and think. These shows have some of the drama elements and suspense that make them successful, but there is also a great deal to learn about a variety of creative lifestyles and vocations, about cooperation, and honestly a ton about what it means to grow up in today's world. "Oh, I actually can be a fashion designer if I want but here's what it takes to be a success, and even if I do everything right, I might not get to exactly where I want."
If my daughter wants to watch the high drama shows, I won't stop her, but I would hope she'd keep an eye on how they portray girls, and guys, as well. I don't think if you watch a show where teens are acting outrageously, you'll immediately go out and have unprotected sex or buy high-end shoes just like they do." But I would really like to see more characters who are funny and smart and who deal with issues of race, contraception, sexuality and navigating the world a little more realistically.
TV: As someone working closely with the television industry, why, from your experience, do you think there's such a big shift in how teen girls are being portrayed? Does it have to do with marketing and the media? Or is it just a reflection of how society's standards and values are changing over the years?
Barbara: I would say the past ten years or so have shifted the image we have of how girls can be, and names like Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Lindsay Lohan, are certainly in the forefront of women who have had some very controversial public images. These have trickled down to reflect the values of teenage girls. I think you can look back further than Madonna's early career, but just starting there, you have someone who was a huge icon*, who was unapologetic about her drive and her sexuality, and she was absolutely shocking at the time." And with the paparazzi you can see photographic proof of these teen icons with different partners, inebriated*, and without underwear. Whether or not those images were representative of those girls' lives, I think that the public fascination with them triggered this "Aha!" with TV execs, where the concept of teens having crazy, dramatic, juicy lives became potential storylines.
Also, teens have more spending power than ever before. While we think of TV as a show with commercials stuck in during breaks, it's really the other way around. TV is supported by commercials; the audience has to be big enough for a show that companies will pay to have their commercials run, to get their product in front of all of those potential buyers, and the show has to bring the audience. If you want to know who watches a TV show, watch the commercials--who are they targeting? As teens have grown as a consumer base, pushing for the hottest phone, and clothes, etc, TV has followed, producing more shows that cater to their viewing interests.
TV: Recently on Gossip Girl, there was a scene showing a teen girl masturbating. Do you think this is going too far with girls on television or is it something that television has the right to address?
Barbara: I will say there has been an interesting shift in how female sexuality is portrayed on television. There are still plenty of shows where girls are depicted as sexual mostly just to "win" or keep the guy or hurt a friend. And yet we're also seeing a surge in girls and women depicted who have "normal" sex drives. There are a lot of teen girls (and women) who have been led to believe an unapologetic female sex drive is freakish. So, it's fascinating to see all of these TV taboos fall by the wayside. And hey, if people want to be grossed out by Gossip Girl, they should be grossed out that these girls have nothing better to do than dress up, shop and play games with their twisted social lives. The fact that that show has a girl masturbating is probably the most real thing that show has ever portrayed.
*Escapism: avoiding reality by absorbing the mind in entertainment.
*Demographic: a group of people defined by a specific characteristic, like age.
*Icon: image or symbol.
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