Miley Cyrus and the Tween Culture by Emily Bruyn

Class: Senior Seminar in Disney and Globalization

Major: TVR & International Communications, Class of 2013

A Study Done on the Cultural Impact of the Disney Channel and Tween Stars

Abstract

The goal of this paper is to present and discuss the controversial topic of modern society’s changing youth culture and the causes of this phenomenon. The controversy of “kids growing older younger,” has gained quite a bit of attention lately as youth culture has been “sexualized” due to the changing media and communication facets. The focus will be on the female “tween” age group which can be described as anywhere from the age of five or six to fourteen orfifteen, and the effect of modern Disney Channel television programs and tween stars; more specifically, Miley Cyrus, her hit TV series Hannah Montana, and her subsequent musical and Hollywood career and stardom. Research was conducted through databases such as JSTOR, LexisNexis Academic, and EbscoHost, as well as Google search engine, searching terms such as “tween culture,” “changing childhood culture,” “The Disney Channel,” “Miley Cyrus and scandals,” “Hannah Montana controversy,” and multiple combinations of the latter. The paper will conclude with a look at the corruption and greed that promotes the immense advertising and marketing geared towards this age group with a final explanation of who and what is to blame for the changing childhood culture.

Introduction

The Disney Channel is currently available in more than 99 million U.S. homes and more than 300 million households worldwide. Further, in 2011 the Disney Channel was the number one network in Total Viewers for children aged six to eleven as well as nine to fourteen-year-olds for their third consecutive year.[1]  Children continue to gain authority as consumers in the media and public cultures, changing societal norms of childhood.[2] As the young brain absorbs more and more television shows, websites, advertisements, and popular culture, their attitudes and behavioral patterns morph to imitate the stars of music and television, who can sometimes display racy and inappropriate behavior. Will the children of the next generation of leaders, fighters, and citizens of our country be corrupt, damaged, or dishonest? And is the media that we all thrive on every day to blame? The blaming game has already begun and The Walt Disney Corporation has found itself in the public eye dealing with accusations that are far from the wholesome, fantastical, and moral image for which they may have previously been known. With stars like Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus getting half naked for photo shoots in adult magazines[3] and dancing scandalously on poles at the Teen Choice Awards[4], one must question the kinds of actions we are teaching our children.

A “tween” has been defined loosely as the group of young people between the ages of seven and fourteen. Some believe the age gap to be narrower (nine-twelve), and some believe it to be broader (four-fifteen) [5]Tweens are the “in-betweeners” of children and young adults, where minds and thought processes are malleable and extremely vulnerable to influences.[6] Tweens are also one of the most media addicted age groups thus, the tween has become a term that helps marketers, advertisers, and media producers further categorize their groups of child target audiences [7]Knowing this, many people think we could be set up for disaster; a Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber, and Nick Jonas crazed generation who think living a “double life” and having a boyfriend at 12 is the only way to fit in and “be cool.”

On the other hand, do popular tween stars actually influence children to grow up to be corrupt and sexualized, with a morphed sense of reality? Will this theory blaming Miley Cyrus and her Disney incorporators for corrupting children be a phase that will prove to be false? Although tween obsession and subsequent imitation of stars such as Miley Cyrus is somewhat to blame for poor television and pop culture behavioral influences, the societal changes in childhood culture due to growing media consumption and the targeting of tween audiences by powerful, profit motivated companies like Disney are the driving force behind the pejorative reputation that children have gained all over the world.

Disney’s Popularity Among All Ages and Global Market Dominance

Childhood is now associated with television programming and, more specifically, the Disney Channel. Recently people have begun to notice and worry about the “kids growing older younger” syndrome, considering it a ‘warning bell’ for societal and cultural changes[8], and saying the “childishness of childhood” is almost obsolete [9]Disney’s youngest target audience is the toddler age group. Disney Junior, aimed at two to seven year olds launched its 24 hour basic cable/satellite channel in March of 2012 and its original series’ have been named number one in popularity for the toddler age group[10] The popularity of Disney Junior has allowed them to create merchandise stemming from their programs such as dolls and figurines for top-rated TV shows such as Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Octonauts [11]The merchandise in combination with advertising during the programs has created a market for toddler consumers, the youngest target audience yet.

What is more is the domination of the Disney Channel in children’s programming around the world. In 2011, the Disney Channel was available in 169 countries/territories in 35 different languages[12] and their reach is only growing. In the past six years, the Disney Channel was the number one pay-TV show in Britain, reaching more than 10 million homes. They are aiming to reach about 40 million Russian households, and 11 million households in Turkey, a number they have already achieved in Spain.[13] The availability of Disney Channel programming throughout the world spreads Westernized youth culture, and the popularity of Disney tween stars.

Summing up Disney’s popularity across the entire children’s spectrum, Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide boasts, “Disney is the number one network for kids aged six to eleven, the number one network for tweens, and even the number one network in the category of ages two to eleven… Year on year, viewers aged six to eleven are up 25 percent and tweens are up 33 percent”.[14] Disney has gained complete control over children of all ages and, although there are age specific programs, younger children are beginning to watch the tween directed shows, therefore causing them to grow older younger. However it is the tween age group that has become so controversial because of their vulnerability to media and advertising, as well the immense and extremely fast-growing popularity that tween stars such as Miley Cyrus have gained.

The Miley Cyrus Phenomenon

At 16, she was called the world’s most successful pop star, TV star, and movie star, who was on the road to becoming one of the world’s most successful brands[15] In the hit TV show Hannah Montana, Destiny Hope “Miley” Cyrus plays a young girl living two different lives at the same time: one as a world famous pop star and the other as normal high school student living in a middle-class neighborhood.[16] Throughout her antics, trying to keep her famous life a secret, she ends up hurting her friends, making mistakes, and realizing what she must do to fix them. When it all boils down, the basic message is the importance of her friends over her stardom [17]The show premiered in March of 2006 and enjoyed 4 seasons of incredible success and viewer ratings through the roof. Throughout the five years it aired new episodes, Hannah Montana was ranked as the number one cable series among children aged six to eleven and tweens nine to fourteen in 2006, 2007, and 2011. The series finale, airing in January of 2011, brought in 6.2 million viewers and the fourth and final season was the series most watched ever[18].

The show’s main themes are not necessarily bad messages, however Hannah Montana and other Disney Channel characters are often portrayed as charming tweens who can get away with pretty much anything.[19] Further, the significance is the obsession tween girls have with Miley Cyrus, the unrealistic matter of the show, and the maturity of the content compared to what tween-aged children were watching twenty years ago. Tween shows actually mirror the old sitcom style in their camera angles, plots, and characters[20], and sitcoms are generally aimed at much older and more mature audiences.  In children’s television programming, the plotlines, themes, and content are extremely important in teaching and displaying appropriate behavior and social interactions because children are very likely to imitate the actions they see their favorite television star making.[21] In addition, the program is supposedly for a tween audience, however it was also the number one cable series in children age six to eleven[22]. Young children watching sitcom style TV shows will not comprehend the unrealistic matter, the unlikely situations, and the fantastical qualities of the show and will find it harder to discern from real life.

After the success of her TV show, Cyrus went on to start her music career and had incredible success with that as well. Her double album Hannah Montana/Meet Miley Cyrus debuted at number one in the Billboard top 100 in 2007, then spent the next twelve consecutive weeks in the top five. After that, her brand started to blossom with her clothing line, which was the top seller at Macy’s when it launched in 2006. Her video game has sold 1.7 million copies in the United States alone, and her autobiography has sold over 30 million copies. In 2008, when she was just sixteen years old, she made it to Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and was number 35 in Forbes list of top-earning celebrities[23] Her popularity has made her one of the most influential young adults in the world, and her effect on tween girls is notably prominent.

After her success as a music star, she started to branch out from her Disney career even more, doing a half naked photo shoot for Vanity Fair in June of 2008[24], as well as getting a little more serious about her popularity as a musician. When she began venturing out she was 16-years-old, and still staring in Hannah Montana; therefore a lot of people felt impacted by her decision to grow up and her new scandalous publicity. Parents all over the world got upset with Cyrus for making “sexually charged” music and videos to which their young tween daughters had extremely easy access. If they loved Hannah Montana and Cyrus’ first music ventures, which were still somewhat appropriate for young viewers, then they are going to continue to watch her and want to be like her, whether it is appropriate for their young eyes and ears or not. One mother from England claims, “‘Cyrus is no longer a good role model. It’s not church-worthy’”[25] By the time she was seventeen, she was wearing revealing, skin-tight clothes, dancing in very sexual and provocative ways, and her lyrics had references to partying, sex, and drugs. When Cyrus first started Hannah Montana in 2006, she was a tween icon, but just two or three years later, she grew up into a completely inappropriate role model for tween girls. How is this distinguishable for twelve-year-old screaming Miley fanatics whose only wish in the world is to meet and/or be Miley Cyrus?

After Cyrus starting getting such bad publicity, it became obvious to Disney Channel President, Gary Marsh, that they lose their child stars fast. Marsh must replace tween stars when they “move on” or begin to engage in more mature and inappropriate ventures such as Miley Cyrus’ scandals.[26] Selena Gomez, popular tween star who in some ways took Miley Cyrus’ place after she grew up, is now growing up herself, branching out from her popular Disney Channel show, Wizards of Wavery Place (2007-2012) to do adult movies. Some of Disney’s more recent tween stars dubbed the “next big things,” include nineteen-year-old Debby Ryan, star of the newer sitcom Jessie; Laura Marano, sixteen-year-old star of Austin and Ally, now in its second season; and their youngest yet, thirteen-year-old China Anne McClain, who stars in A.N.T. Farm, now in its second season.[27] Gary Marsh has a lot to worry about being the driving force behind finding and watching over Disney’s tween stars:

He can never relax because tween stars have a very short shelf life; as they age, they get too sexy or too edgy or just too old. Nude pictures of them turn up on the internet… ‘This sort of thing keeps me up at night,’ Marsh has said. And when Miley Cyrus, teenage star of Hannah Montana, was pictured wrapped in a sheet in Vanity Fair, the Disney world rocked on its axis.[28]

After her photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair fans were outraged and parents said things like, “This girl makes me sick. If she were a dog, I’d kick her in the face”…and, “It’s not OK. This is why teen pregnancy is at an all-time high”.[29]  Backed by Marsh, Cyrus released a public apology:

I took part in a photo-shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed, … I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about. Quoted by (Bone, 2008). [GH1]

However, children still saw fifteen-year-old Miley, who was quite possibly their idol at the time, portrayed as a sexualized, grown up woman. Psychologists say this type of media pushes children through childhood too fast[30]. When their role models are portrayed as much older, they think that is how to act cool and they think that is how to fit in, and fitting in is sometimes the only thing with which the tween mind is concerned.

Miley Cyrus is globally idolized due to the Disney Channel’s worldwide popularity, and the outrage stemming from Cyrus maturing and stepping into the limelight in scandalous ways is also world renown. Malaysian writer Audrey Vijaindren writes about the discomfort parents in Malaysia feel when they see their seven-year-old children dressing in skintight clothes, mimicking Miley Cyrus[31]. These behaviors can be extremely foreign and sometimes appalling to other cultures. Vijaindren says Malaysian kids are maturing too fast in the ways they dress, the music they listen to, and some of the ways they act, but not in terms of becoming more independent.[32] Exposure to Western television programming such as the Disney Channel accelerates the impact of American, tween pop stars and the “sexualization” of children. When Cyrus performed her hit “Party in the USA” at the MTV Teen Choice Awards in 2009, Miley fans around the world saw her very provocative dance, complete with a stripper pole and a revealing outfit[33]. The truth of the matter is Disney tween stars often find themselves in the spotlight of negative attention due to growing out of their tween stardom, and their reach is worldwide. Nevertheless, Gary Marsh has yet to stop tween stars from making these mistakes, and this is because Marsh and the Disney Corporation are much more concerned with perfecting their tween marketing strategy, taking advantage of the age group that is notorious for their extensive consumer habits. [34]

Merchandising and Marketing the Tween

In the past decade or so consumer habits of the younger generation have increased exponentially[35], and this increase in consumption can be directly related to the increasing amount of media and television intake. When tweens begin to watch their favorite Disney Channel television shows every day, and idolize stars like Miley Cyrus, they beg their moms to take them shopping so they can get the new shoes that Hannah Montana has. Further, Disney’s creation of the Hannah Montana merchandise empire including apparel, DVD’s, books, etc… gives tweens even more desire to buy. Part of growing up fast includes the “fostering of new desires and insecurities” and to a young girl who wants to be just like the pretty and perfect stars she sees on TV, shopping will cure those desires and insecurities[36]

Tweens now have more and more pull in what their parents buy, from clothing to items as expensive as the family car.[37] Statistics show that 30 percent of parents of tweens make most of their purchasing decisions based on their kids’ input and opinion[38] In 2009, it was estimated that children spend around 43 billion dollars of their parents’ money in a year in the United States.[39]  Material needs have become so important to tweens that they aspire to be rich in order to buy all the cool new toys, clothing, and gadgets that they think will make them fit in and be popular.[40] It is a natural human tendency to strive to be part of the in-group, but as mentioned previously the ages of nine through fifteen are a very vulnerable time for children, and they tend to be fixated with fitting in with the right crowd.[41] This vulnerability directly carries over to the marketplace.[42]

Sekeres has coined the term “market child,” explaining the correlation between television stars and marketing to children. To be put simply, the market child is a fictional character who essentially represents a brand so much that they are the brand. Miley Cyrus, through her portrayal of Hannah Montana, is a market child. Companies that create a market child subsequently use the character to target and advertise to their young fans in order to generate their franchise.[43] This is exactly what Disney has very successfully done with Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus—she has a TV show, movies, CD’s, DVD’s, video games, books, a clothing line, cosmetics, and other merchandise as well. She has ultimately developed into a mega-brand.

Media moguls have learned that there is a lot of money to be made in tween media consumption, and these companies care very little about their product’s content and the influence it has on children, as long as they are making a profit. Tween girl magazine Total Girl, which is aimed at girls as young as five and seven, have large celebrity gossip sections included to rope in readers[44]. Many parents are appalled at the content of this type of magazine. Children as young as five-years-old are looking at pictures of scantily clad, adult celebrities because marketers wish to make money off of their vulnerability to consume and their influence on their parents consumption. Disney uses this same technique.

Websites directed specifically to children, like the Disney Channel website, are stocked with advertisements and “encourage children’s interactions with branded products”.[45] Some studies claim that children do not fully understand the differences between advertising and entertainment until they are teenagers or tweens[46], but by that time they have already been brainwashed by Disney advertisements, thriving on their susceptibility to consume. The popularity of Hannah Montana among tweens causes a want or a need to associate with her by watching and buying her products. As Armstrong notes, these girls are “consuming their way into an identity” [47]which is promoted by Miley Cyrus. The popularity of a Disney market child such as Miley Cyrus all around the world also homogenizes childhood culture as technology globalizes and spreads their brand across the globe. Cyrus fanatics are found all over the world, watching her TV show and movies, and buying her products.

This marketing technique may be very concerning to psychologists and parents, but does not concern profit driven companies like Disney whatsoever. One of the many myths about the Disney Corporation is their primary goal as a company; they do not care about providing educational and wholesome morals to children. In 1981, CEO Michael Eisner said, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective”.[48] The Disney Corporation to this day cares solely about profit. Gary Marsh is fully aware of the changes in television and media intake in the past decade, and the ability to market to tweens:

The programmer’s task is to focus on specific groups. More children watch TV without their parents, so shows aimed at them can indulge them a bit more…The answer is to build franchises that can be leveraged across multiple lines of business: music, films, publishing, stage shows, online and console games, and theme parks. And that means hundreds of millions of dollars come in the door.[49]

This lack of concern for tweens’ enlarged consuming habits can be seen as the root of the changing childhood culture.

Conclusions

The United States can be considered a “money-centric,” consumerist society, which has filtered its way down into childhood culture.[50] Tweens are so enthralled in television programs and so obsessed with tween stars like Miley Cyrus that they lose sight of the carelessness of childhood and have premature insecurities, worries, and desires. Marketers and companies such as the Disney Corporation then take advantage of this vulnerability and target tweens through multiple facets of media with a million-dollar market child like Miley Cyrus, reaping huge profits.[51] It will be very interesting to see if future research will be able to determine a correlation between poor behavior in teenagers or young adults and the television shows they watched and the stars they idolized when they were younger. Additionally, only time will tell whether the new childhood generation that is highly dependent on media will be successful or not.

In sum, the changing of childhood culture cannot be entirely blamed on tween stars like Miley Cyrus and her poor decisions while growing up in the limelight, although her bad behavioral influences do factor in. The origins stem from the extremely powerful, profit motivated Disney Corporation, targeting the tween audience by creating “market children” from their famous tween stars. Be that as it may, without the growing media intake caused by modernization and technological advances, it wouldn’t be possible for Disney to target and influence tweens in so many ways. Therefore the coalescence of the two generates the pejorative reputation that children have gained all over the world. Ergo, the world questions: What will the future hold?

Endnotes

[1] Burbank, CA: Disney Channels Worldwide, 2011. s.v. “Disney Channels Worldwide Fact Sheet.”

[2] J.B. Schor, Born to Buy, (New York, NY: Scribner, 2004).

[3] J. Kincaid, “Hannah Montana’s Bare, Unprotected Back: Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair Outing,” The Velvet Light Trap, Spring 2010, 5-6.

[4] R. Kahn, “Miley Cyrus’ pole-dancing performance sparks criticism,” Newsday, August 10, 2009, http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/celebrities/miley-cyrus-pole-dancing-performance-sparks-criticism-1.1360720

[5] T. Bickford, “The new ‘tween’ music industry: The Disney Channel, Kidz Bop, and an emerging childhood counterpublic,” Popular Music, 31, no. 3 (2012), 10.1017/S0261143012000335

[6] Schor

[7] Bickford 3

[8] A. Vijaindren. “Too much, too soon for kids.” New Straits Times (Malaysia), May 22, 2010, LexisNexis Academic

[9] Bickford 5

[10] Burbank, CA: Disney Channels Worldwide, 2011. s.v. “Disney Junior Fact Sheet.”

[11] “Disney Junior Fact Sheet.”

[12] “Disney Channels Worldwide Fact Sheet.”

[13] W. Leith. “Growth Spurt.” Weekend Australian, sec. Review, June 16, 2012, LexisNexis Academic.

[14] Ibid 18

[15] S. Armstrong, “Scary stuff; Disney created Hannah Montana and this Britney lite has made it billions, “The Sunday Times, May 3, 2009, pgs 4-5 LexisNexis Academic.

[16] D.C. Sekeres,, “The Market Child and Branded Fiction: A Synergism of Children’s Literature, Consumer Culture, and New Literacies’” Reading Research Quarterly, 44, no. 4 (2009), 339-414.

[17] S. Armstrong, “Scary stuff; Disney created Hannah Montana and this Britney lite has made it billions, “The Sunday Times, May 3, 2009, pgs 4-5, LexisNexis Academic.

[18] B. Gorman, “’Hannah Montana” Series Finale Delivers 6.2

Million Viewers[Press release],” TV by the Numbers, January 18, 2011, http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/01/18/ hannah-montana-finaledelivers-6-2-million-viewers-fourth-season-is-its-most-watched-onrecord/79135/

[19] W. Leith. “Growth Spurt.” Weekend Australian, sec. Review, June 16, 2012, LexisNexis Datebase.

[20] M. Z. Newman,  “Tween Comedies and the Evolution of a Genre.” Media Commons, October 18, 2009, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2009/10/18/tween-comedies-and-evolution-genre

[21] D. C. Sekeres, “The Market Child and Branded Fiction: A Synergism of Children’s Literature, Consumer Culture, and New Literacies,” Reading Research Quarterly 44, no. 4 (2009), 339-414.

[22] B. Gorman, “Hannah Montana” Series Finale Delivers 6.2 Million Viewers [Press release],” January 18, 2011, http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2011/01/18/ hannah-montana-finaledelivers-6-2-million-viewers-fourth-season-is-its-most-watched-onrecord/79135/

[23] S. Armstrong, “Scary stuff; Disney created Hannah Montana and this Britney lite has made it billions, “The Sunday Times, May 3, 2009, pgs 4-5 LexisNexis Academic..

[24] J. Kincaid, “Hannah Montana’s Bare, Unprotected Back: Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair Outing,” The Velvet Light Trap, Spring 2010, 5-6.

[25] I. Jalal, “I’m too sexy for my shirt, mum; With easier access to sexually charged material now, children’s fashion tastes have also changed,” The Straits Times, Lifestyle; Others, August 7, 2011, LexisNexis Academic database.

[26] W. Leith. “Growth Spurt.” Weekend Australian, sec. Review, June 16, 2012, LexisNexis Academic.

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] J. Kincaid, “Hannah Montana’s Bare, Unprotected Back: Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair Outing,” The Velvet Light Trap, Spring 2010, 5-6.

[30] I. Jalal, “I’m too sexy for my shirt, mum; With easier access to sexually charged material now, children’s fashion tastes have also changed,” The Straits Times, Lifestyle; Others, August 7, 2011, LexisNexis Academic database.

[31] A. Vijaindren. “Too much, too soon for kids.” New Straits Times (Malaysia), May 22, 2010, LexisNexis Academic

[32] A. Vijaindren. “Too much, too soon for kids.” New Straits Times (Malaysia), May 22, 2010, LexisNexis Academic

[33] R. Kahn, “Miley Cyrus’ pole-dancing performance sparks criticism,” Newsday, August 10, 2009, http://www.newsday.com/entertainment/celebrities/miley-cyrus-pole-dancing-performance-sparks-criticism-1.1360720

[34] J.B. Schor, Born to Buy, (New York, NY: Scribner, 2004).

[35] Ibid

[36] S. Freeman-Freene, “‘Tweens’ and our sexed-up culture; the commentators,” The Age (Melbourne, Australia), Forum, August 18, 2012, 16, LexisNexis Academic database.

[37] J.B. Schor, Born to Buy, (New York, NY: Scribner, 2004).

[38] S. Armstrong, “Scary stuff; Disney created Hannah Montana and this Britney lite has made it billions,”The Sunday Times, May 3, 2009, 4-5.

[39] D.C. Sekeres,, “The Market Child and Branded Fiction: A Synergism of Children’s Literature, Consumer Culture, and New Literacies’” Reading Research Quarterly, 44, no. 4 (2009), 339-414.

[40] Schor

[41] Schor

[42] Sekeres

[43] D.C. Sekeres,, “The Market Child and Branded Fiction: A Synergism of Children’s Literature, Consumer Culture, and New Literacies’” Reading Research Quarterly, 44, no. 4 (2009), 339-414.

[44] S. Freeman-Freene, “‘Tweens’ and our sexed-up culture; the commentators,” The Age (Melbourne, Australia), Forum, August 18, 2012, 16, LexisNexis Academic database.

[45] Sekeres

[46] Sekeres

[47] S. Armstrong, “Scary stuff; Disney created Hannah Montana and this Britney lite has made it billions, “The Sunday Times, May 3, 2009, 4-5, LexisNexis Academic

[48] J. Wasko, “Challenging Disney Myths,” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 25, no. 3 (2001), 246

[49] W. Leith. “Growth Spurt.” Weekend Australian, sec. Review, June 16, 2012, LexisNexis Academic.

[50] J.B. Schor, Born to Buy, (New York, NY: Scribner, 2004).

[51] W. Leith. “Growth Spurt.” Weekend Australian, sec. Review, June 16, 2012, LexisNexis Academic.


 [GH1]Where is this citation?

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