Hey, finally, the promised part two in my Hannah Montana series. (Part one, covering race issues in the show, is here.) This part is about the show’s issues with gender and sexuality. To illustrate my points I’ve picked out two episodes as the worst offenders to discuss. Though they represent the worst I’ve seen on the show, their messages are also pretty indicative of the show overall.
The first, “Me and Rico Down by the School Yard,” is the season two premier. It’s the first day of school, and Miley and her friends are starting high school. Miley starts getting creepy text messages that morning, from someone who claims to know her secret and have photographic proof of it. She eventually finds out that it’s Rico, who has been skipped up into ninth grade, and he threatens to send the picture on his phone to everyone in school, unless she does everything he says.
What does Rico want from Miley? For her to pretend to be his girlfriend. He addresses her only by demeaning nicknames, mostly, “Toots,” and “Dollface.” When Miley demands to know where the phone is, he tells her, “You’re free to pat me down.” At lunch that day, he informs her, “Go get Daddy a moist towelette — and make it hot, like my Latin blood.” And so on, and so forth.
Finally, Miley’s friends Lily and Oliver discover the phone is in Rico’s locker. They agree to steal it, while Miley stalls Rico. He tries to go to his locker, so she tries to convince him she really likes him to stop him. He suggests, “Perhaps you could prove your love with a kiss.” Miley’s friends save her from having to kiss him in the nick of time, only to realize the phone is fake and Rico had the real one all the time. He demands the kiss again — but this time Miley tells him no, because she doesn’t want to have this hanging over her forever. She’s ready to deal with her secret being exposed.
Plan A having failed, Rico goes for Plan B: he gives a very touching speech about how hard it is to be the youngest, smallest person in his class — and how he thought if he had a girlfriend like Miley he’d fit in better. She feels bad and agrees to give him a cheek kiss, but at last second he turns his head to “steal” a kiss on the lips, then cackles and runs off.
So let’s look at some of these elements in detail.
First off, the language Rico uses when talking to Miley. It’s very dismissive. “Toots,” and “dollface,” make it clear that Rico is male and speaking to someone female; they aren’t nicknames that are used in any other situations. “Toots” is something in particular used to put a woman in her place; at least for me, phrases like, “Listen here, toots,” are what springs to mind. It’s downright creepy to see them used by someone pre-pubescent, and they certainly sum up Rico’s disdain of Miley as anything but a sexual object.
So, by extension, it isn’t much of a surprise that what Rico wants Miley for is her implied sexuality. First off, he’s literally using her as an object; he makes it clear that having an attractive girlfriend will increase his social standing. Though he says he likes her “passion and brains,” he does it while making it clear that he only likes them because he finds them sexy — in fact, the full quote is, “Passion and brains. I repeat”¦rowwwr.” What’s important to him isn’t that she possesses either of those qualities independently, but that she possesses them in such a way that he is turned on. It is sexualizing and incredibly degrading.
So Miley finally stands up to him. Not to say, you know, “Sexual harassment is wrong, and I don’t have to take it,” but at least she acknowledges that there is no way for her to win in the situation, and she’s not going to bow to Rico’s incredibly upsetting whims. So Rico’s fall back tactic is one too often used in this culture — he makes her feel bad about standing up for herself, paints himself as the victim, and quite literally uses her pity to get what he wants.
Then — and I am sputtering with rage as I type this — he “steals” what he wants, going further than she is willing to. It’s easy to laugh it off as just a kiss and him being just a kid, but the thing is, in other contexts where a man “steals” something sexual from a woman because she isn’t willing to consent, that’s rape. So you’d think that Rico would get some kind of comeuppance for this scheme, let alone for sexually harassing and, essentially, raping Miley? You’d be wrong — the whole thing is played for laughs. He kisses her, cackles, and runs off. The last we see is Miley chasing him and slipping on a banana peel while he escapes.
Because, clearly, stopping at nothing to get what you want, with overtones of rape, well, that makes for some darned hilarious television! And it’s especially funny when it’s played for laughs to an intended audience of kids — because god knows we want them to grow up thinking that’s normal and not objectionable! Except, wait, no, that’s terrible on all levels and, frankly, I’m not sure I’d let my own kids watch the show, if I had any.
Turning away from that, let’s talk gender essentialism. My second episode goes like this: Miley’s best friend, Lily, is an adorable skater girl who makes some loud, wacky fashion choices. How much of a tomboy she is varies with the episode in question, but she’s always at least mildly sporty when compared to Miley. Then comes the episode “You Are So Sue-Able To Me,” in which there’s a school dance. Everyone has a date except for Lily — even the class nerd, gasp! — and Miley tells her wisely that if she doesn’t stop “being one of the guys” and start dressing, acting, and speaking more femininely, she’ll never get a date. But it isn’t phrased like that: the phrase they throw around casually is that Lily “isn’t a girl.” And because she isn’t a girl, no boys will like her, and Miley makes it pretty clear that if no boys like her, she’s a failure.
But no worries, of course, because Miley is a guru on all things girly, and when Lily sees the boy she likes flirting with another girl, Miley promises to take her “from skate chick to date chick.” It works; after merely letting down her hair and batting her eye lashes at him, the boy in question asks her out! But that’s not good enough, Miley says, because, “You’ve got him nibbling on the cheese, but you’ve got to snap the trap,” to make sure he doesn’t ever flirt with another girl. So they go for a total makeover.
When next we see Lily, she’s traded in her usual wacky outfits for a hot pink dress. Of course, this means that literally none of her male friends recognize her (“Hey, new girl, where did you come from — Hotsylvania?” Ew.) At least until she does something masculine — she punches one in the arm. Meanwhile, Miley counsels her to speak “lower and slower” and when the boy she likes freaks out upon seeing her, she promises, “It’s all for you.” She also pretends to be helpless and weak so the boys will carry her books for her.
Except, as it turns out, that’s not what the boy wanted at all! He stands her up for the dance, and in wacky hijinx fashion, they drag him onto a TV show where a fake judge settles teenage disputes, and dumps buckets of gross food on the guilty party. Miley takes over prosecuting the guy while Lily cries fakely, at least until the kid confesses that, “I asked out this cook skater girl and the next day she was all girly and frilly and weird!” He says Miley changed her into “something from a teen fashion magazine,” when she was already what he wanted; Miley answers, “He doesn’t know what he wants, he needs to be told what he wants — he’s a boy!” Of course, she’s the one who ends up doused in pizza sauce and anchovies, while the couple gazes happily into one another’s eyes.
So let’s break this down. “Sue-Able” lacks the downright disturbing qualities of “Me and Rico” but is not without its own problematic messages. First and loudest among them is that there are very definite roles that girls play, and that boys play, and that it’s nearly traitorous to cross gender lines. Miley even agrees with her arch-nemesis that Lily is an embarrassment because she’s not feminine enough; Lily is, for all intents and purposes, shamed and peer pressured until she agrees to conform to the standards of the girls around her.
It isn’t just that girls need to wear expensive clothes, spend time on their appearance, and act dainty. The episode is also none-too-kind to the boys involved, in that the boys are all, well”¦idiots. Idiots who can’t look past the physical, at that. Lily, wearing her bright pink dress, is still highly recognizable, but we’re to accept the boys are so entranced by a girl who dresses in a way that is traditionally feminine (and thus marks her as being interested in boys in a way Lily’s usual clothes don’t) that they don’t even recognize her without a physical reminder (being punched) to snap them back to reality. And Miley, whose gender-essentialist views inform the whole narrative, certainly doesn’t think they’re worth anything; her comments in the courtroom prove that. So basically: girls are pretty, boys are dumb, and those are your only two choices in life. If you fail to fit your gender role, you’re shunned by all your peers.
But what of the end? Of course, it’s an expected part of the narrative that Lily doesn’t end up being forced into the role Miley tries to shoehorn her into. That’s a good thing, as far as it goes. But the thing is, the moral isn’t that Lily was fine as she was — the moral was that Lily was fine as she was because the boy liked her that way. If he hadn’t stood her up, we’d understand that she was justified in changing herself to better perform femininity. But at the end, we’re reassured that Lily can be herself all she wants”…because the dude approves. That means she still wins at Miley’s gender game, and, of course, that her appearance and attractiveness remain much more important than her actual personality.
So, as I said, these two episodes are particularly bad offenders. They’re also only the extremes of the show’s stanard: Rico is always disturbing and the show consistently presents boys as being willing to resort to anything, even — honestly, especially — trickery to get what they want, be it a date or a kiss or what have you. (Miley’s brother, while never as blatantly horrible about it, is frequently shown lying to or manipulating girls he wants to go out with.) Miley’s self-image is very much tied up in being feminine and having boys like her.
Here’s a show anecdote to go out on, from the B-plot of a recent episode: Miley’s father comes home angry after a date. After much prying, Miley learns that he’s angry because his date, coming off a bad divorce, wanted to pay and was very clear about the fact that she is determined to maintain her independence. Miley is, of course, horrified — not at her father’s reaction, but at the woman for daring to spurn his old-fashioned, well-meaning ideas of how men and women relate. While Lily points out that her father can be a bit of a caveman when it comes to traditions, Miley is the POV character, and thus it’s Miley (and her father) we’re meant to sympathize with. Because in the world of Hannah Montana, breaking out of gender roles is just not acceptable.
Stay tuned for the (eventual) third (and probably final) part where I discuss Miley Cyrus as a real person and role model, and the music she and the character present.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day. I’ve been working with an HIV education group for the past few months, and meant to write up a massive post about the epidemic and its importance. That kind of fell by the roadside, as work itself got out of control last week (and I won Nano, to boot!). So the short version:
One in four HIV-infected people don’t know they’re infected. That’s a huge part of how the disease is transmitted–people who don’t know they’re infected can’t protect their own health if they don’t know they need to; and they may not take important safety precautions if they don’t know they need to. So the biggest thing you (and me, and everyone) can do to stop the spread of the disease?
Get tested. An oraquick test only takes 20 minutes and is almost unerringly accurate (and, as it’s a mouth swab, painfree!). Ask your doctor next time you go, if it isn’t offered. Know your status.
Okay, other than that, I actually have a lot of pent-up blogging energy. I’m hoping to not only eventually write about the pandemic, but I’ve also still got two more posts to do on Hannah Montana, which will hopefully also be coming someday. And with Nano done, I’m even back to updating Active Voice, hopefully regularly. All very exciting, huh?
However, I am thinking of changing the blog’s name. I haven’t decided to what yet, but a) this is a name I’ve used on a number of blogs since early college, and I kind of feel like I’ve outgrown it; and b) I have run across a couple criticisms of the world “lame” as a synonym for nerdy/something negative, and how that’s a problem for the differently-able community. It would never have occurred to me, but since it’s been pointed out–and language is very important to me (I am so in love with this post from Shakes that I’ve left it saved in my Bloglines feeds for a couple weeks now). I’d like to live up to my own ideology, so I’m brainstorming alternate titles. Suggestions are welcome!
Or, Where I Got My Taste In Books
Me: Dad, I’m borrowing some of your books.
Dad: No, you’re not.
Me: I’m sorry, I phrased that badly. Daddy, I picked out some books of yours that I want. Can I have them?
Dad: No. … Which ones?
Me: About half of that shelf?
Dad: No! …Which half?
Me: Well, I’ve been jonesing to reread all the old Mercedes Lackey…
Dad: Maybe. You’re not touching my Tamora Pierce.
Me: Fine, I’ll borrow those from Jess.
Dad: Great, she can fight with you to get them back.
Me: No, we’re not related; I’m obligated to return hers.
Dad: Yeah, how does that feel for her? I wouldn’t know.
Me: Dad, you’re not getting your books back.
Dad: We’ll bargain.
Me: Can I take the Patricia C. Wrede? You have the two I didn’t find on PaperBackSwap.
Dad: The other two are in the garage. Not that I’m giving them to you. She’s great.
Me: I agree!
So when I’m reading or writing or whatever before bed, I tend to have the TV on, and basically it’s just background noise. I’d left it on VH-1 and America’s Most Smartest Model came on.
The show is stupid, but what do you expect? Here’s what managed to piss me off, though. Most reality shows have an elimination element; you get voted off the island, you’re the weakest link, Tyra doesn’t have your photo, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out, America didn’t vote for you, whatever. (On the one hand, I feel like I just cycled through a lot of reality TV show catch phrases. On the other hand, I’m really relieved I didn’t know more off the top of my head.) So what do they call the eliminations on America’s Most Smartest Model?
Because they’re models! And models throw up to stay thin! Ha ha ha ha! What clever play on words! Eating disorders are hilarious!
Siiiigh. Now I’m all annoyed before bedtime.
Edit, 11/07: My sister pointed me towards a much better reason to be pissed off, posted at Jezebel: Apparently, the show’s “love to hate” character (I mean, contestant) has been arrested for sexual harassment, groping, threatening, etc. Repeatedly. Funny how they don’t bring that up on the show, isn’t it?
I missed my one-year blogiversary! That’s pretty consistent of me as a blogger, actually.
It’s also the New York Marathon today. I don’t especially care about the marathon, but last year, the gentleman caller happened to live on the Upper East Side, in an apartment that directly overlooked their route. So last year, we got up early and watched the first several hours. Which lead to the gentleman caller–who has, incidentally, given me permission to call him by name, which is Josh–saying my favorite thing he has ever said:
“Thousands of people are running past my apartment right now…You want to go take a nap?”
And I did.
So many months ago — obviously before Active Voice came into being — I wrote about my reaction to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy (which now includes a fourth book, Extras). I just finished reading the new book (which eventually will get reviewed on AV, but I’ve read a lot of books lately so it actually isn’t next in line), and found out that he (along with Garth Nix, Justine Larbalestier, Margo Lanagan, and Jonathan Strahan) was doing a signing in a NYC bookshop. Of course Jess and I went. It was a lot of fun; all of the speakers had interesting things to say, fun anecdotes, and were quite nice. And it finally gave me a chance to as Mr. Westerfeld about the biggest issue I had with his series — the characters’ use of self-injury.
Specifically, what I asked during the Q&A was, “Why did you decided to include a theme of self-injury in two of the books in your series?”
He answered, as closely as I can remember (all information I’m sure of, it’s the wording I don’t have exactly), “The series is largely about body dysmorphia, the rejection of a person’s own body. That’s what leads to the extreme plastic surgery in the book, and is what drives a lot of Tally’s — and everyone else’s — issues. Cutting is a part of that, a very destructive form of dysmorphia, and I felt it was important to include in the series. The idea is that instead of rejecting your body and having it cut up by a surgeon, you do it by cutting yourself with a knife.”
I do see his point, and why it was included. I’m still not entirely comfortable with the way it’s included, which is to say, in a light that isn’t entirely negative. When I read it, I didn’t get the impression that, though the characters felt like their minds were clearer, they were actually harming themselves — instead it was a disturbing image, but a step forward for the characters. I didn’t follow up my question, as doing so at a signing seemed inappropriate (and I also haven’t reread the books since, so the details are less clear in my mind). So while I’m glad to know what the reasoning behind including those images was, I’m still fairly disturbed by their use in the story.
Unrelated to Westerfeld’s books, another audience member asked Jonathan Strahan, an anthology editor who noted that most of his job consists of reading every single scifi short story written every year, about whether the male to female ratio of writers was equalizing. (An awesome question, by the way.) Cheeringly, Strahan’s answer was yes — his observations are that within the last ten years, what was an overwhelming gap has shrunk considerably, and that it’s continuing to improve. (Two of the four authors on the panel were female; he said that seven of the fifteen authors in his next anthology are female.) So that, at least, was very cool, good news.
I’m late. So sue me.
So Dumbledore has been outed by JK Rowling. This is big news; not for GLBTQ anything, not for literature, but just in general. It’s so big that when I saw the Gentleman Caller last Friday — the man who wore a shirt that proclaimed “Proud Muggle” when he was working at a Borders HP7 release and didn’t know what his shirt meant meant — the first words out of his mouth were, “So, did you hear about Dumbledore?”
Which, I think, says more about the impact these books have had on our culture. But that’s not really what I want to write about, or at least, not directly.
I think there are several stages of Dumbledore Is Gay:
1) Joy. There’s a character everyone loves (or is supposed to — Harry, our POV character, does, and we’re meant to agree with him), and it turns out he’s gay! Score one for queer characters in the media!
2) Confusion. Why wasn’t it made explicit in the books?
3) Irritation. If any writer, any series, has the clout to get away with having a beloved character who is openly gay, it’s JK and HP! How is casually stating it after the fact doing anything special? If you want to have a gay character, make it clear in the books!
4) Contemplative. You mean the only confirmed gay character in the books died? And spent his whole life alone and unhappy? Gosh. Huh.
5) Acceptance. Okay, maybe the whole thing isn’t as awesome as it seemed in stage one, but it’s still more awesome than a lot of things.
6) Bonus stage! More irritation, that as a blogger and a fantasy reader, I don’t have more original things to say.
That said, while I don’t presume to know why JK did things the way she did, I’ve thought a lot about and it is better than I first…um, second-through-fourth thought. I do kind of like that having a gay character isn’t a huge deal, and doesn’t have to be his defining character trait. (Though, in this case, textual acknowledgement would have been nice — in a heteronormative culture, if it isn’t explicit, he’ll probably be read as straight. But still.) And springing it on unsuspecting readers after the fact…well, why not?
Say you have a Hypothetical Reader. Hypo maybe isn’t totally comfortable with gays, or is maybe an on-the-fence, what-you-do-in-the-bedroom-is-none-of-my-business-(please-keep-it-that-way) type of person. They do exist, in spades. Anyway, Hypo reads the books and likes Dumbledore, as he is pretty much the coolest mentor since Obi-Wan. Hypo then feels a little uncomfortable…but deals with it. Because it doesn’t change anything. Albus is still Albus. And so…maybe Hypo still likes the character, because he liked the character first and didn’t avoid reading it to avoid dealing with the hype over the gay character.
Maybe it’s not that different than mentioning it textually in the seventh book would have been; I suspect most people who read the first six would have wanted to finish the series, regardless. But she avoided it being What The Book Was About, while still being public about it. So…I’m justifying here, but who knows what her reasoning was? It wasn’t necessarily bad, is my point.
On a more selfish level, I’m quite pleased, regardless of when and how it was done. I write YA fantasy and scifi; I’m at an awkward phase of doing rewrites and trying to get manuscripts in shape so I can start seeking an agent. Eeeeeeek. But one thing that I’ve been going back and forth on is my inclusion of queer characters — I don’t think I’ve written anything without at least one in years. And I’m never sure if having them there openly is going to hurt my chances of publication. I’d like to think that hey, Dumbledore was gay and people are mostly okay with that, so maybe I can include my queer characters without having to turn them into subtext, and still get their stories out. Anything that nudges gay characters towards being just characters is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
This article (via Chaos Theory) is absolutely excellent. Both in its analysis of the show Beauty and the Geek (which is fascinating and touching, despite being incredibly shallow), and in its analysis of why it’s so uncomfortable to add Nicole and Sam, the female geek and male beauty, to the show.
But I think there’s also more to it than that. I’ve discussed the idea of a reverse-gender cast with GC before (as we accidentally watched all of season two together in a New Years marathon last year. In one sitting,) and have always been against the idea. Which at first struck GC as odd, what with me being, you know, a female geek and all. But there are two points I’d like to make about this.
First: I don’t like having Sam in the competition against the female beauties. First off, because a lot of their challenges are things which are, in this society, gendered as male activities*, such as the week they were building bottle rockets. As GC pointed out, there’s a much bigger chance that at some point in his childhood, Sam had already done that, or at least known kids who did and was familiar with it. But it isn’t just that.
The stereotype of the shallow, sexy woman is also invariably tied to low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. The theory seems to be that the cliche beauty, the sort found on the show, uses her body in place of brains, and thus has never tried to use her brains. She may not be dumb, but she’s uncomfortable and doesn’t like being put in a position where her smarts and not her body are being judged. So that’s what the show does. It repeatedly challenges these walking stereotypes to learn something, and to be confident in their newly-acquired knowledge, and in almost any competition, the most confident wins.
The thing is? Good looking men aren’t socialized that way. That stereotype does exist for guys, but with guys, “lack of confidence” and “attractive” aren’t inextricably linked. Where beauty for women is generally passive and objectified (literally meaning they’re at their prettiest when they’re not contributing anything but good looks), it isn’t for men; a man can be attractive and shallow without getting the message that he should shut up. So to have a contest such as the one where the beauties had to debate against each other, but throwing him in the mix, is unfair. The show is a learning journey, where the beauties gain that confidence. Sam, raised in a society that can appreciate his opinions as well as his attractiveness (not to mention one which urges him to be competitive while it urges women to be supportive and gentle), is not lacking in that confidence.
And then there’s the matter of judges. Society already values male opinions over female one; in a contest where there are, what, eight women stumbling to find an answer and one guy (who, while not especially well-spoken, is also not shy or nervous), who is going to stand out more? I’m not saying that he didn’t genuinely learn his material and present it well, but regardless, the whole competition was already biased in his favor.
Point two: let’s talk about being female and geeky. It isn’t easy. Though male geeks tend to appreciate your existence, society overall is confused, baffled, and just doesn’t know what to do with you. You’re smart, but instead of being judged on competence, you’re judged on looks. But the thing is, inherent attractiveness isn’t even the point. Different things tend to be important to geeks as compared to most of the rest of the population, and one of the major differences is that looks (and with them, fashion, the ability to use make-up, or do your hair) are waaaay further down on the priority list.
Look at Nicole. She’s not ugly, but she doesn’t dress with attractiveness in mind. Especially when she’s surrounded by other women, all of whom are concerned primarily about being attractive, the message is that she’s lacking. Actually ugly or not, she might as well be, because not caring means being ugly, and being ugly means, well…dealing with it.
This is not a society that’s kind to the unattractive. At all. And when all you want is to be judged by your intelligence, and instead you spend your life having all of your hard work barely noticed but your physical attractiveness scrutinized…well, it’s hard. It’s frustrating. Being yourself without apologizing for it is hard, because no matter how awesome you are, you’re fully aware you’d be treated better if you were prettier.
So back to the show. The reason having the female geek on a show where the geeks all get makeovers and learn to better fit in with society is that it’s damn hard to not do that. It strikes me as very much taking someone who has, consciously or not, rejected the patriarchal idea of female beauty, and trying to shoehorn her right back into it. Because the thing is, guys can be appreciated for being geeks. Which isn’t to write off their legitimate struggles with social awkwardness or attractiveness; when I said this society isn’t kind to the unattractive, I meant that, full stop. Both genders. But for men, there are other ways to contribute to society and be appreciated for them. For women, it’s beauty first, kindness and femininity second, and everything else after that. So for male geeks, learning to jump these hurdles and conquer personal demons is a bonus. It’ll make life much easier, sure.
But for a female geek? It’s akin to saying, “You’re really great at what you do. But you’d be better if you were prettier and easier to get along with.” Which is the same damn thing women are told every day. It isn’t subverting the societal message of what a woman should be, it’s reinforcing it.
I get enough of that in my daily life, as someone who’s female and a geek. I identify with Nicole, and it’s rare to find someone on reality TV (or, for that matter, TV generally) I can see myself in. I really don’t want to see her buy into this.
* Mostly unrelatedly, fuck you and your “boys are different” campaign, Playskool toys. Because sure, only little boys like toy trucks and want to run around…but at least they make girl toys! Play houses! With play kitchens and a play washing machine! Seriously, fuck you.
…But pretty close.
The scene is my living room. After text messaging the Gentleman Caller to update him on the Yankees’ score, only to see them blow it in the fourteenth, my phone rings…
GC: Fucking Joe Torre! I defended him the whole fucking season when things went wrong, but now he pulls THIS kind of shit in the fourteenth inning of one of the last games of the season on a night when the Sox won? Fuck that guy!
Me: It’s his bad habit. Torre always feels like when there’s pressure, he has to DO something, he can’t just let things play out, so he over manages and screws himself–
GC: He fucking took out Melky! Melky is clutch! For Wilson fucking Betemit! Who the fuck is that guy?
Me: You know how I feel about Melky. I love Melky. And Brian Bruney? Really?
GC: Damn it! Okay. I’m going back into the bar now.
Me: Allrighty. Drink away the pain.
GC: I will… You know everyone who walked past me on the sidewalk assumes I’m ranting to a guy, right?
Me: …There’s absolutely nothing I can think of to say to that.
I have a love/hate relationship with Disney’s Hannah Montana. For those who haven’t run across it (though it’s becoming ever-more ubiquitous as its popularity grows), it’s a TV show/music franchise about a girl named Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) who has a normal life with her father, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) and her brother, Jackson (Jason Earles). But Miley has a secret: she’s actually the most famous pop star in the country, Hannah Montana. She keeps that a secret by way of a blond wig, and keeps the lives separate so that she can still go to high school like a normal person. So she deals with friends, with bullies, and with boys just like everyone else, even though she’s famous! The show itself is mildly charming, though often completely nonsensical; the music of Miley/Hannah is pure bubblegum pop, which I happen to love. (The music is actually sung by the real Miley, who performs concerts be-wigged as Hannah, but has recently released her first “real” album as herself, the B-side of a Hannah album. It’s kind of confusing, but the upshot is that she does some writing, much of it is written for her, and all of it is her surprisingly excellent singing voice.)
I do have real fondness for the show. It’s a lot of fun, it fulfils a lot of childhood fantasies that I’ve lived out as Mary Sues in my head a hundred times, and I really, really love pop music. It’s a cut above most of Disney’s mediocre programming on a lot of levels. On the other hand, though, while on its surface it’s nothing but wacky hijinks, the show has some seriously deep flaws when it comes to race and gender. I don’t think there’s a mustache-twirling villain trying to indoctrinate tween viewers with stereotypes, but the show is rampant with them, and the fact that it probably isn’t intentional is almost more problematic. It means the show is regurgitating the disturbing stereotypes from the writers’ and producers’ subconsciouses, and transmitting them to a new generation. So while I enjoy this show, I am decidedly not pleased with it at the same time.
Race is probably the biggest problem on the show. As I get started talking about this, though, I want to offer up a general note; I grew up very much as a clueless white girl, and while I’m doing my best to become less clueless about race issues, I still often back away from them out of fear of screwing up. I’m trying not to do that any more, but the fear of saying the wrong thing is still there, so if I do screw up, feel free to wield a cluebat as necessary.
Okay. So. There are only a handful of characters of color in the otherwise totally white cast. This is, sadly, not too surprising, given that a lot of shows have that problem. But things are worse when you actually look at the roles the non-white characters play.
The most minor of them is Cooper, Jackson’s best friend in the first season. Though occasionally a jerk, Cooper was no more or less so than the rest of the cast; he was just a bit player who showed up sometimes when Jackson needed a friend to converse with. The problem? Between seasons, the character abruptly disappeared, and the role of Jackson’s best friend was filled by a new guy — a blond, white character. I don’t think Cooper appeared in more than one or two episodes this season, and never with more than one or two lines, and his friendship with Jackson is all but forgotten about while Jackson has hijinks with Thor instead. (Thor, for the record, is a terrible character in his own right, but that’s a different essay.) So there’s that.
Next we come to Amber and Ashley, African- and Asian-American respectively. These two are Miley’s classmates and nemeses; they’re rich, spoiled, snobby, and stupid. They are the closest thing the show has to villains, and they’re often the only characters of color to appear in an episode. Gosh.
Next there’s Rico. There are actually a lot of problems with his character, which I’ll get to in a later essay, but they certainly tie into his race. Rico is Latino, and despite the fact that he’s the youngest regular character — he’s eleven, everyone else is in the 14-16 age range — he’s also extremely oversexed. (I believe at one point he refers to himself as, “a sexy Latin lover.”) And on top of that, he’s another antagonist. Virtually all he does on the show is sexually harass Miley and find ways to taunt and torment Jackson.
So far, that gives us one character of color who was replaced with a white guy, and three who are nothing but antagonists. But, you may be wondering, is there any recurring, non-antagonist character of color? Why, yes! Her name is Roxy, and she’s Miley/Hannah’s bodyguard. And…oy. Where to start? For one thing, in one of her appearances she mixes up what amounts to a voodoo potion she calls “the funk” for her white employer. Which definitely raised my eyebrows.
But that’s nothing compared to the episode which seems to have been designed to let Roxy chase after a teenager, screaming, “Come back here, you cracker!” But it’s wacky and hilarious! Because she’s chasing off a bully! A bully who happens to be nicknamed the Cracker because she’s constantly cracking her knuckles and can crack nuts open with her bare hands. So when Roxy comes to Miley’s rescue, when Miley fears being beaten up, she aggressively chases after the bully, calling her by the nickname in question.
I…I just…whaaaaa? That isn’t something that happens by accident. It’s not an, “Oops, we didn’t realize there were possibly problematic racial undertones to this!” punchline. It’s something that was carefully set up for. I really just can’t imagine what the writers were thinking or trying to accomplish.
So Cooper, Amber, and Ashley, I can assume were probably not intentionally written in a problematic way. They may even have been backfired attempts to up the diversity in the cast. But oversexing the only Latino character? Having the black woman yell potentially offensive, certainly charged terms? And playing it off as comedy?
And how’s this for another one-off gag the show offers: At the end of a recent episode, to bring the physical comedy, two white characters get tangled in an African-American woman’s braided hair in the middle of a fight.
Disney, what the fuck?
(Next time, or whenever I get around to it, the show’s issues with gender and sexuality.)