|(Photo from disneychannel online)|
Accordingly, I have deleted my nostalgic musing. The super Reader's Digest version is this: I delivered my firstborn a month before her due date, and on Friday she turned eight. As in eight years old. As in I AM THE MOTHER OF AN EIGHT YEAR OLD HUMAN.
Wowsa. How did that happen?
The little kid part of her is more and more a memory. She's starting--or approaching, depending on which authority's age range you follow--the tween years. But the point is, she's in that strange twilight of being a kid but not being a little kid. You know what I mean? She still carts around Soft Blankie, but she can also make herself a proper cup of tea. She still wants us to kiss her boo boos, but she can also read full chapter books & write detailed stories of her own.
Before, she used to say things like, "Leaves of three, let it be, Mom." And I'd look at her and say, "That's right, hon. Where did you learn that?" And she'd answer, "George." (Referring to Curious George. She'd also often quote great information from Arthur and The Magic School Bus.)
About a month ago, though, she hit me with something new. As she was getting ready to go Christmas shopping at the mall, she presented herself wearing a dress layered over stretch pants, a denim jacket, and a pair of brown boots. I said, "Honey, those aren't good shoes for the mall. You're going to be walking around a lot, and you were just complaining to me a couple days ago at AC Moore that they hurt your feet. I think you should pick a sneaker instead. It'll support your feet better." She turned to me and said, "Mom! I'm going to the mall. I can't wear sneakers to the mall! Liv only wears boots shopping!"
I stood in quiet shock for a few seconds, various thoughts running through my mind. Oh geez, here we go! and also Who is this Liv person? and also Don't come off as though you care if she changes them, or there's no way she's going to change into sneakers. (She did change, but only after my husband reinforced the suggestion.)
A couple days later, I heard her arguing with her little sister. "No! I am not Maddie!" my younger daughter screeched as though being Maddie (whoever the hell Maddie is) was some kind of punishment, clearly the lesser of the two characters. "But I'M Liv, so you have to be Maddie!" shouted my older one.
Then she started in on this most annoying "Bam. What?!" exclamation that, even if you can find it cute the first time (and that's a big if), is annoying and obnoxious when repeated over and over and over and over...
(Side note: she received a voice-activated private journal for her birthday and programmed the password as "Bam! What!?" Lest you be troubled that I'm broadcasting this information on a public blog, rest assured that her secrets are quite safe. A.) The journal not only ONLY recognizes her voice as the proper one to open the journal, but also has an added security feature of an Intruder Alert that records the voice of whomever tried unsuccessfully to gain entry and plays it for her when she opens it next. B.) Of the combined two hours she spent focused on her journal, all of that time was spent recording and re-recording passwords and opening and closing the journal; no actual writing took place within the pages as yet.)
It turns out the catalyst for these confusing events is a Disney show called Liv & Maddie. I typically insist on approving the shows my kids watch, but she found this one on Netflix after bypassing the approved Kids section and got hooked before I even knew about it. (Yet further evidence of her swing to not-such-a-little-kid-hood.)
I made it a priority over winter break to check out the show that was morphing my information-oriented daughter into a fashion-obsessed sarcasm machine punctuating her proud sass with "Bam, What!" I let her pick a couple episodes for us to watch together.
The first one she chose, citing it as one of her favorites, was called "Bro-Cave-A-Rooney" (all the titles involve "A-Rooney" since it's the title characters' last name.) In this episode, twins Liv & Maddie lose a bet to their two younger brothers and have to clean the boys' disgusting bedroom. The older brother, Joey, is a gawky teen-aged boy with funny one-liners and lots of effeminate qualities. The younger brother, Parker, is a diabolical inventor-brainiac, smarmy in his methods. He is the mastermind behind the bet because he doesn't want to have to clean his own pigsty bedroom. Luckily for the boys, Liv and Maddie are in their bedroom arguing over closet space. Liv, an actress whose TV show's run just ended, is super "girly" and obsessed with her shoe collection so she's moving "tomboy" twin, Maddie's, basketball uniforms out of there. Parker and Joey offer their own closet as a prize if the sisters can win a friendly Rooney family game of eat-the-mystery-food-in-the-fridge-roulette. (They had some family name for it, but my brain can only retain so much idiocy at one time.) If the boys win, the sisters have to clean their room. Liv is wary of this plan but tough-girl Maddie is undefeated at this game, so they accept the terms. Spoiler alert: The boys cheat so the girls lose.
Once inside the disgusting bedroom, Parker's giant beanbag chair "eats" Maddie. As it turns out, she has fallen into one of Parker's many cave-tunnels. This tunnel leads to the high school. Yes, you read that right: the boy has a tunnel system from his bedroom to the high school, as well as various others that lead to different locations in the home and about town. *Sigh.* Liv and Parker set off in search of Maddie. Meanwhile, back at home, Joey has destroyed Liv's Diva Board (a hanging tapestry of sorts that hangs behind Liv's bed. People stand in front of it to sing and pose, presumably like divas.) This is a catastrophe that sends Joey running to his parents for help. His parents, bumbling nerd-types who both work at the kid's high school--the mom as a Vice Principal, the dad as a basketball coach--, are sleeping on the sofa having fallen asleep yet again whilst trying to watch a movie called President Baby. (I wish I was making this up.) They scramble with Joey to fix the Diva Board before Liv returns. Liv happens upon Maddie at the high school, and they piece together Parker's treachery. To teach him a lesson, they pretend to be a Scottish bogeyman-character they'd invented when they were younger. In the end, Liv & Maddie exact their revenge, Parker builds a new shoe-tunnel as retribution, and the Diva Board is, mercifully, restored to its former glory. The boys have to clean their own mess and afterward, immediately throw their dirty clothes on the floor. The parents continue to be useless boobs. The end.
I watched a few other episodes, too, but "Bro-Cave-A-Rooney" is a fair representative sample.
I can sort of excuse how dumb/cheesy/far-fetched some of the plots are because, well, I watched lots of that kind of stuff growing up (things like Saved by the Bell, Full House). Plus, I can give the show credit for its sense of family--the manner in which Liv's dream to be a movie star was supported, and each kid's personality and interests are allowed/celebrated. Those are good points, certainly.
And even though I can roll my eyes at lots of the ridiculousness in plotting, and even grudgingly chuckle along with some of it, what I can't excuse is how Disney is doing all of that by perpetuating so many stereotypes in characterization.
There's the boob parents-- friendly enough, but largely unnecessary. Just big, lovable, mostly unaware doofuses whose main purpose is to add adult presence for plot-device purposes. (For instance, so the kids can get one over on the parents-- as was the case in "Helgaween-A-Rooney" when the sons wanted to go watch a slasher movie but the parents said no, so they ended up cloning themselves so one version of themselves could go.-- or to torment their kids in ways only parents seem to do--as was the case in "Prom-A-Rooney" where Mom arranges for cousin Craig (budding magician) to escort Liv to prom.) On occasion, they'll say something "funny" that is actually embarrassing to watch, like when the mom complains in "Moms-A-Rooney" how Liv's former TV mom stole her trademark line that she is "about to drop a butt-bomb of Mom" on her kids. That was the same episode where she took Maddie on a mom-daughter pioneer weekend in hopes of winning the Golden Churn.
What's wrong with presenting parents in this light, however, is that they become a kind of joke. It teaches kid viewers that parents are bumbling fools or out-of-touch dorks who may mean well, but they're in their own adult bubble of not "getting it." Thankfully, parents are easily deceived or manipulated; the trick is merely to find out how to pull the wool over their naive eyes. In turn, a certain level of respect for authority is lost.
Next, there's the so-called girly girl twin-- Liv is all about being a girl, in the fashion/heels/lip gloss/ sparkly things sense of the word. Even though the same actress plays both twins, Liv speaks in a higher-pitched voice that makes her sound like an air head (she also sings the name of her former television show any time she mentions it). My daughter said that Liv is smart, but in the few episodes I watched, I saw little evidence to support that. Liv is an actress who is back home in her small town because she missed her family (which is sweet) and her TV show had run its course. She claims that she just wants to be a "regular teenager" in Wisconsin. But her normal runs counter to most people's normal, with bright lights, red carpets, high heels, and short dresses.
On the flip side, there's the so-called tomboy twin-- Maddie is competitive and all about her role as star basketball player. Her voice is more modulated and, I suspect, the actress's actual speaking voice. (HA! I'm right.) She doesn't have time for high heels, and is more at home in sneakers and a jersey. Oh, and she wears glasses. (Which, on the surface, is no big deal. But there's a general (mis)perception that glasses might make a person less attractive; Liv, of course, wears no glasses.) She hangs out a lot with her teammates and is more apt to celebrate her small-town lifestyle than Liv. For instance, Maddie wants a cowboy/ho-down theme for her Sweet-16 birthday party while Liv wants a red-carpet extravaganza theme. Maddie wants a zombie-themed Halloween party, while Liv votes for a truly"fright-tacular" theme: BROWN. Yes, the color.
As a female, a graduate of a women's college, and the mother of girls, it offends me how there is nothing nuanced about these types. Even the interactive video quiz on youtube through which you can find out which sister you are most like makes it seem as though a female is one of two ways: "feminine" (Liv) or "masculine" (Maddie). But what about the subtleties of personality? Why can't Maddie prefer sneakers but enjoy dressing up on occasion, too? What about the realities of a broad range of interests--particularly interests that are typically (unfairly, stupidly, detrimentally...) gendered? It shouldn't be strange for a boy to like the color pink, or for girls to like playing with cars. Why does merchandising insist that Star Wars is for boys, and Frozen (except Olaf) is for girls? (Also, why would Olaf be for boys? Because he IS a boy?) That's all preposterous. These types of either/or stereotypes are what reinforce these flawed ways of thinking. My husband and I spend so much time teaching our girls that they are free to like what they like and be interested in what they are interested in, but these shows (and stores and merchandising and marketing and society...) come in and chip away at those lessons and--BAM! What?!--suddenly my eight-year-old daughter doesn't want to be seen at the mall in practical footwear because Liv would never wear sneakers?!
But the stereotypes don't stop there.
There's also the brainiac brother with a mean streak-- Parker, the youngest Rooney, is brilliant, but seems only to use his smarts for "evil" or self-serving purposes. He's so intelligent he makes it onto the high school robotics team even though he isn't even in high school. In "Hoops-A-Rooney," he falls for his brother's crush--a brilliant, science-loving girl. Score! But before we get too excited at this non-stereotype...she's Asian. Sooo...back to stereotype. Plus, she's kind of robotic in her behavior because she's so into science. Oh, except for when Joey shows up in a suit and she starts twirling her hair, giggling, and acting like a bubble-head. AHHHHH!-- and does whatever he can to embarrass the older boy (including pulling out a thread of his suit so that Joey flashed his cat-printed underthings at the student body). As I noted before, he was the mastermind behind cheating the girls in "Bro-Cave-a-Rooney." In "Helgaween-A-Rooney," it was Parker's idea to use the magic amulet (yes, magic amulet...) to clone themselves so they could go to the movies; his brainstorm to sell tickets to walk through his famous sister's bedroom in "Mom-A-Rooney." It's always something.
Sigh. Why is he like this? (And why are smart people either geeky, diabolical, or squares? Can't they simply be normal but intelligent?) And couldn't he just as easily be working to find a cure for cancer instead of trying to outsmart the masses? Where are his other interests? Why is the male Rooney the smart one?
Finally, there's the gawky, questionably-effeminate brother (I say questionably because he rides the line between "sissy" and "awkward pre-pubescent" just so)-- Joey is the older of the two Rooney brothers, but still younger than the twins. He has the unique duty of playing to two stereotypes: the overlooked middle-child, and the sissy-boy. His voice is squeaky; he loves cat- and tropical- printed clothing; he's sports-averse; he's scared of being injured; he's oft-overlooked. He's fun to watch because he gets a lot of one-liners, but he's also relegated to the side-kick role. Parker's sidekick, mostly. His uselessness is highlighted in "Helgaween-A-Rooney" when his evil doppelganger clone is mentally damaged (presumably from the magical amulet falling into hummus before the clone wish could be fully realized) and can only say, "Eeewy, eeewwy, ew." While one might argue he's the character with the most facets to his personality, one may not be altogether sure what makes him tick. A desire to be noticed, perhaps?
There are questions to be posed for his type, too, but at this juncture, why bother? (See? He's just been overlooked yet again!) The point is: everyone is playing a type. And that's tired.
It's irresponsible of networks--especially ones that produce shows for kids of impressionable ages--to keep churning out the same crap. It's doing a disservice to our society in perpetuating nonsensical and damaging stereotypes. It's undermining the work parents are doing to teach their kids equality, individualism, diversity (of interests). It's subtly teaching youngsters undesirable ways to behave, to use their talents, to look, to dress. It warps proper aspirations and replaces those with stereotypes.
To me, that wastes a perfect opportunity to have a family TV show and turns it into something I don't even want my kid to watch WITH me. Eeewy, eeewwy, ew.